Playing the Walmart card

Tim Redmond of the SF Guardian takes jealous whining about the success of Craigslist up a notch, labeling Craig a digital Walmart. Them’s fightin’ words. [Full disclosure: Craig Newmark is a personal investor in the news startup I’m working on and he has become a friend.]

Redmond is careful to say that it’s OK for Craigslist to make money, but then he complains about the service going into other, smaller markets, where it is not local (as it is in San Francisco):

But Craig still annoys me, and here’s why:

Over and over in his brief speech, he talked about “building community.” He acted as if Craigslist was some sort of nonprofit with lofty goals and he a humble servant of the people who wants only to help improve human communications.

The problem with that is simple: When Craig comes to town (and he’s coming to just about every town in the nation soon), the existing community institutions – say, the locally owned weekly newspaper – have a very hard time competing. In many ways, he’s like a Wal-Mart – yeah, landlords get cheaper real estate ads, and consumers find some bargains, but the money all goes out of town. And he puts nothing back into the community: He doesn’t, for example, hire reporters or serve as a community watchdog.

Here’s the question I asked him:

How, exactly, does a San Francisco outfit moving into, say, Burlington, Vt. and threatening to eviscerate the local alternative newspaper, help build community? If he’s such an altruist, why does he have to keep expanding like a typical predatory chain? We all get the need for online ads and community sites now; why not let the folks in Burlington (or wherever) build their own? Why not (gasp) help them, instead of using his clout to hurt them?

What a pathetic fit of whining. Let’s get past the cant that big and national and chain are all bad things to be — predatory, even; it’s the SF Guardian, after all.

I don’t understand Redmond’s attempts to mock Craigslist — and all the people using it — as community. Creating a means and a place where people can meet for social or business purposes does, indeed, build community; that’s what the internet is about: not just content, but connections.

I’m also scratching my head over Redmond’s notion that “local” has to be better, as if all the people using Craiglist — or Flickr or Blogger or or Myspace or Meetup — aren’t themselves local. It’s the people that make it local, not the server.

Redmond himself confesses the real problem here when he says of Craig: “The guy figured out how to do something that the newspapers weren’t doing, and they were way too late in responding, and he got their money, and that’s how capitalism works.”

Right. Why wasn’t that local paper — alternative or not — that Redmond wants to protect doing what Craiglist was doing … long ago? Let’s go look at Vermont’s alternative paper, Seven Days, which today is asking its readers to “send us your sex secrets.” Well, I suppose that could build community, one birth at a time. I see them charging people to listen to personals on voicemail — a model that was outmoded 10 years ago. I see them charging not insignificant rates for most classified categories. I don’t see any open exchange on their site, allowing the community to meet and share, not even any forums or community-run blogs. Nothing stopped them from building that simple functionality years ago. Nothing stops any newspaper from doing that. But even alternative papers — allegedly, papers of the people — can’t stand to hand over control to the public, the way Craigslist does. And they all wish this internet thing would stop ruining their businesses. But Craigslist is not the enemy. Neither is Monster, which also took away classified revenue from papers. And, in fact, I’ve long argued that Craigslist and Monster, et al, will, in turn, be overtaken by distributed models that no longer require us to use centralized marketplaces.

No, the problem is that the internet kills middlemen and newspapers are middlemen, in terms of commerce, news, and community. The internet enables direct connections. At every presentation I give to media companies today, I include this simple quote from Craig himself: “Get out of the way.” That’s what he does: He creates functionality and lets people use it as they wish. Media was in the business of getting in the way. But no more.

So I’ll throw the challenge back to Redmond: Having learned your lessons in San Francisco, where Craigslist built the functionality and community you should have built yourself, what do you advise Vermont’s Seven Days? If you care about them so much, why don’t you help them?