Craigslist is Squashing Innovation, and We're Letting It Happen

By Michael Carney , written on May 30, 2012

From The News Desk

Craigslist is famous for its apathy toward design and product innovation. Founder Craig Newmark recently explained the glacial pace of innovation in response to a Quora question, saying, “We're a community driven site, and innovate in response to that.”

What he won’t say is that the classifieds site operator isn’t stopping at avoiding innovation itself but is actively squashing innovation attempts by third-parties. Recent reports suggest that craigslist has been increasingly active in sending cease and desist letters to developers building products on top of its data.

I was contacted a few weeks ago by Hung Truong who is the creator of Mapskreig. Truong’s site had been live since 2007 providing an interface to view all craigslist property listings on a map, prior to receiving the C&D notification on March 4th.

The Google Maps and craigslist mashup product was extremely simple, partially because its creator had purposefully avoided updating the product for fear of hearing from Newmark’s infamous legal team. Truong told me that he didn’t believe it was worth his time to to fight the Web giant, but he responded to its attorneys seeking clarification.

Mapskreig has a short and succinct message on its page. The company says, “Mapskrieg is currently down due to a Cease and Desist request from craigslist. Feel free to complain to” craigslist founder Craig Newmark and the company’s president and CEO Jim Buckmaster (emails conveniently listed).

So the question is, more than five years after its launch and while only breaking even financially, why was HousingMaps finally enough of a threat to squash?

A similar run in was described by the founders of alternative craigslist reader CraigsPal in a letter to users posted on their now dormant site. In the letter, the company claims that it too has “never really profited” and points out that craigslist makes “an estimated $25 million per employee.” Vitriol aside, the founders implore their users not to “fight CL in forums, argue with CL in forums, brag about CraigsPal, spam CL, or offend CL.”

Other similar mashup applications continue to operate, including PadMapper, HousingMaps, and CraigsFish, among countless others. One possible difference between MapsKrieg, CraigsPal, and some of the others is that they chose to monetize. The former served ads on the site while the  latter offered an ad-supported free version as well as a paid version for $30.

There is additional evidence of increased cease and desist activity on Twitter. Based on his own experience, Truong says, “I think in the past craigslist only issued C&Ds if an app was killing their bandwidth, but this wave seems to be targeting anyone and everyone.”

At the end of the day, the companies served C&D notices were most likely violating of craigslist’s terms of service (I’m not an attorney and I have no desire to read them). The simple reality, however, is that the terms of service are fundamentally incompatible with the site’s pace of innovation in the modern era.

Reports surfaced a few weeks ago that the company was “Hiring a UI Designer To Become ‘Faster, Friendlier And Easier,’” but Newmark seemingly squashed those rumors with typical non-chalance. In response to a Quora question about the redesign, Newmark responded simply, “What redesign?”

Personally, I’m past expecting more out of Newmark and Co.

In a modern world where “platform” is the business model du jure, it’s unacceptable for craigslist to both continue operating this way and maintain its dominance in the online classifieds market.

So that leaves it to the rest of the startup and entrepreneurial community to provide viable alternatives -- and us as users to support them.

Once promising eBay had its chance and doesn’t seem to be innovating much in the way of modernizing online classifieds. Airbnb is obviously making its own dent in the short term property listing market.

Many of the newest market entrants are tackling single verticals within the broader craigslist business. ShopSavvy recently added a local product listing service called SavvyLisgtings which incorporate barcode scanning technology.

Platforms like TaskRabbit, Exec, and Zaarly are taking on the services space. Peddl is a hybrid services and items listing platform. A few more recent startups are targeting the mobile classifieds space, including Antego, EggDrop, and Tradyo, among others.

Like I said previously, it’s our fault as users for letting it get to this point. Every second we spend on craigslist and every dollar we pay for its services is a tantamount endorsement of its methods. Rather than relying on the anti-innovator to power our online classifieds, it’s time that Web users around the world unite in directing our business elsewhere.