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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Craigslist is wrecked.

The article I saw in Wired Magazine reminded me how disappointed and wearied I am by Craigslist these days. It still looks like it always has, but it's become a very bad neighborhood.

Take the experience I had trying to negotiate a three-week apartment rental in Paris this year. In 2006, I put an ad on Paris Craigslist, received believable emails from quite a few apartment-owners, and chose one. She showed up as promised, even with croissants and orange juice, was perfectly nice, her apartment was great, we were both satisfied.

This year, the responses to my ad were mostly, perhaps all, from scammers. There are numerous sites online, now, warning about various apartment rental scams, people who sound "real" and trustworthy and send references, addresses, photos, and then take your money and disappear. It was a complete failure.

Or take the personals ads: a few years ago, real people, some of them even intelligent and friendly, wrote, read, and responded to Craigslist advertisements. Now, there are so many listings from robots, morons, and con-men (and con-women no doubt) that real people have simply drifted away. It's a wasteland.

Extracts from
Why Craigslist Is Such a Mess
by Gary Wolf for Wired Magazine

How come when you arrive at the most popular dating site in the US you find a stream of anonymous come-ons intermixed with insults, ads for prostitutes, naked pictures, and obvious scams?

Craigslist, [the most] popular job-search site: another wasteland of hypertext links, one line after another, without recommendations or networking features or even protection against duplicate postings. Subject to a highly unpredictable filtering system that produces daily outrage among people whose help-wanted ads have been removed without explanation.

Craigslist gets more traffic than either eBay or Amazon .com. eBay has more than 16,000 employees. Amazon has more than 20,000. Craigslist has 30.

The truth is that a lot of people complain about craigslist. Buckmaster is correct that few of them complain about the design. They complain about spam, they complain about fraud, they complain about the posting rules, they complain about the search, they complain about uploading images. They complain about every way a classified transaction can go wrong.

Sometimes entire categories of craigslist are rendered nearly unusable by spam. Con artists prowl the listings, paying sellers with fake cashier's checks and luring buyers to share their credit card numbers. Other evils are more subtle. Business owners whose judgment is distorted by self-interest fail to understand the rules and put the same item in multiple categories or repost it many times a day to insure it stays prominent, crowding out other sellers. A woman listing a car forgets to tell buyers about problems with the title until they've made a long trip out to see it.

Captchas—distorted words that can be interpreted by humans more easily than by machines—tamed spam on craigslist for a while. Then it came back full force, not because the spammers had solved the difficult problem in artificial intelligence but because they had hacked an easier problem in global economics. I recently established a friendly email dialog with a young man in Dhaka, Bangladesh, who works on a 13-person team that creates craigslist spam. He fills in Captchas, creates new accounts with masked IP addresses, and posts ads all day long using text from a database provided by his employer, an anonymous spam king. The going price for a spam post on craigslist is about 50 cents, with large discounts for volume. When I told Buckmaster about my new friend, he took the news calmly. "These are technically sophisticated people who take pride in their work, and when we knock them down they don't just decide to go find something else to do. You could say we are breeding the perfect spammer."


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