Maybe you call it Craig's List. Or the List Foundation. Or maybe you're one of the few cybercitizens who've yet to stumble upon this local online phenomenon. In any case, I'm here to tell you that, yes, Virginia, there is a Craig. And, doggone it, he's running for mayor.
It's one of those enduring American tales about a boy and his Web site. One day the Internet was born, and Craig Newmark, an old-school software engineer, started a list. But what began as a simple way to keep friends up to date on random happenings quickly grew into the premier local destination for the exchange of goods, services, and that most coveted of Bay Area commodities, the room for rent. Today Craig's List remains one of the few grass-roots examples of what everyone briefly thought the Internet was going to be, before Bill Gates and friends turned it into the bastard son of the suburban shopping mall.
And though somewhere along the way the List's snowballing size prompted Craig to hire a CEO and change the name to the antiseptic "List Foundation," you can still access the same site from either www.listfoundation.org or www.craigslist.org.
That's right: org -- not com. God bless him.
So follow me now, if you will, as we ride the N Judah to San Francisco's neo-hip Cole Valley, where the flesh-and-blood Craig makes his home and his list. Craig had invited me to join him at a fairly impromptu rally for his mayoral run: 10 or so of his inner circle of friends were gathering at his place to uild a campaign strategy, and a salmon dinner.
Craig himself is not what you'd expect from the creator of this insanely popular site, which gets an average of 3 million hits per month. He is a shy, even nervous, techno-geek who's suddenly found himself catapulted into accidental cult-celebrity status.
"I was a nerd in high school," Craig told me in the living room of his classic one-bedroom Edwardian, where two laptops and a desk make up the List's modest command center. "I really did wear a plastic pocket protector. I really did have thick black glasses taped together. I really did have no social skills."
As he began to detail the 25-year trip that had transformed him from back-room computer programmer into "The Craig," the doorbell rang, producing one of Craig's other guests for the evening, and The Man Who Came to Dinner's first-ever repeat contestant, Molly Steenson, who as one of the founders of MaxiMag.com runs in a lot of the same cybercircles as Craig.
Down the hall in the kitchen we joined the rest of Craig's political supporters in their meal preparations. Casual introductions and chitchat were made as the champagne was poured, and I asked Craig how serious he is about his mayoral run.
"Well ... not very," he admitted. "It started out as a joke. But I'm starting to realize that it might be an opportunity to inject some good ideas into the discussion. Because no one, for example, talks about selling Muni to the Muni workers. In Silicon Valley, in our industry, the norm is to give a piece of the company to the workers. And I know that definitely motivates people. You know, people work hard and they deserve to be rewarded."
Silence fell as Fen Labalme, a software engineering friend of Craig's, called out for "a toast to our next mayor."
"Please, no," I said raising my hands in protest. "Oh. You mean Craig."
We all sipped before someone called out for a speech.
"Well, let's see," began Craig. "The thing is ... I do need help figuring out ... what's going on here."
Craig explained that his potential candidacy had begun with an innocent April Fools' e-mail. "The deal is, now people are taking this seriously.
"My theory, though, is that there are a lot of smart people in this town that have good ideas. And a lot of smart city workers too," he added. "And no one listens to them. And this [campaign] could be a voice for them. Because we've all been in businesses where the people on the front line know how to do things, but the hierarchy above is a tremendous weight on top of them, and they can't get things done.
"For example, there's probably a meter maid out there who knows how to do things better than someone three levels up in DPT. And trying to give those people a voice is what I'm thinking about."
Someone from the campaign team called out, "We ought to get a Web site up around all this."
A brief but furious URL debate ensued. The tentative victor was www.craigsucksless.org.
"And scandals," someone urged. "We'll need some scandals."
Craig broke the enthusiastic din of the crowd, announcing, "I have three words for you: Photoshop. Monica. Craig."
Pulling myself away from the high-powered political debate for a moment, I made my way to the stove to meet Craig's friend Patricia Kovara, who had taken on most of the cooking burden for the evening. As she broiled a huge number of salmon fillets, a delicious creme fraiche and wasabi sauce simmered in a pan.
A circle of chairs were arranged in the den as the guests loaded up their plates with salmon, asparagus in a ginger butter sauce, coconut rice, and spinach salad with blood oranges and almond slivers.
As we ate, the conversation centered mostly on solving the city's public transportation and related parking problems. Rebecca Eisenberg, a high-tech columnist, showed up late to announce that she'd just been in a traffic accident. Although a bit shaken, she grabbed a plate and dove headfirst into the debate.
Meanwhile, candidate Craig suggested some inventive ways to convert bus stops and white zones back into public parking spots, although he did mention his desire to establish a private mayoral spot right in front of his house. But perhaps the most interesting talk of the evening arose as we returned to the hunt for some electoral scandals.
"I don't think I really have much to offer," lamented Craig. "For this city, I'm afraid I'm probably pretty tame."
"No necrophilia?" someone asked hopefully.
"Actually, it's funny that you mention that," Fen piped up. "About five years ago I created a will, and one of the reasons I created the will was because of necrophilia."
Fen had succeeded in silencing the boisterous crowd.
"It's illegal in most states," he continued. "You can go to jail for doing that. You can go to jail for years for doing that. So one of the things I said in my will was, 'I don't care ...' if someone does that."
"You're an awfully generous person," I suggested.
"Not that I want someone to do that," Fen insisted. "But I don't want someone to go to jail if they do it to me when I'm dead."
Finishing up his first full day on the campaign trail, a deadpan Craig Newmark turned to Fen to conclude, "If I would be Woody Allen, I'd say, 'Gosh, you're certainly being selfish. I can't get, you know ... even alive.' "
You know, maybe it is time we traded in a mayor with a serious sense of fashion for one with a serious sense of humor.
Vote Craig in '99. Or at least visit him online.
By Barry Levine
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