Craigslist as Anti-Village.
June 5, 2009
Many social critics tend to set sail from a critique of money, believing that if only we could get rid of that, all would be well. Craigslist, by contrast, has no issue with money. The point of most classified ads, whether they involve selling your old hard drive or offering to strut around in a dominatrix outfit, is an exchange of money. But what clearly matters to Newmark is that this exchange should not be mediated by corporations or institutions. “A lesson that it was hard for [me] to learn,” Newmark told Charlie Rose, “was that people are good and trustworthy and moderate.” Craigslist is Newmark’s vote of confidence in that lesson.
When you look at it in this way, the reason to keep all those sleazy ads on Craigslist becomes clearer. The free choice of sexual partners and practices and positions and everything else sex-related is just as much a part of the “let individuals connect in their own way” mission of Craigslist as the other ads. In the galaxy of sex ads, the ones for “erotic services” that have had state attorneys general up in arms, and to which Phillip Markoff responded, occupy a special place. They are not a sideshow but the ultimate example of what Newmark seems to want to accomplish. The point of the ads is that anyone at all can post one, and they allow the sex-for-money transaction to happen without the “escort service” demanding a cut.
You can think of that as the perfect metaphor for the Newmark worldview. Bad things don’t come from what two individuals decide to do together. They come from the institutions that stand between them. The problem, in Newmark’s world, is not prostitution. The problem is only the pimp.
I’ve been pondering rights a great deal recently and this article eerily sums up the core of my admittedly half-baked thinking on the subject. In particular, it highlights how the centrality of rights to our moral discourse intersects with a society-wide acceptance of conflict as the substance or potentiality of non-contract commitments. As rights-holders, we refuse to be bound by commitments to unchosen institutions, since they carry the potential for exploitation, tyranny or the limiting of personal horizons. As an alternative model, we take personal choice and the institution of contract as the dominant mode of organizing life. However, in order for this to be a workable system (or for enough of us to believe it workable) we are bound to a second condition, namely a belief in the innate goodness of our fellow rights holders; the threat of fraud must be minimal in order for schemes of non-coercive contract to operate successfully, or at least, we must assume it even if, as we’ve seen so powerfully in the last year, our neighbors are crooks.
Craigslist embodies both the humanistic optimism and the institutional antipathy of this culture to a rare degree, and as Newmark has said on several occasions, does it in for reasons that are plainly not profit driven. Craigslist is the ultimate Lockean mission: introducing rootless individuals to each other for whatever purposes they might possibly agree upon, far away from intermediary (and ultimately bad) institutions to which they previously were bound. And the problems it causes reflect that fact: the rash of killings in the last few months should be enough to remind everyone that, yes, not everyone who says they have a free couch really has a free couch.
And of course, everyone knows this. We understand (via the first condition) that conflict is lurking behind every corner, which is why as much as Craigslist is about friendly trust, it is also about anonymity, omission, and sometimes deceit. In the absence of the daily encounter, we are driven to a create a reserve of self, a series of barriers intended to keep friendly strangers as strangers, involvements to a minimum, and exploitation (or violence) at bay. Craigslist thus creates selves which are as wrapped in mystery and intentional ambiguity as they are benevolently self-interested, more or less the reverse of the village’s close acquaintance between knowledgeable and flawed neighbors.
That the era of Craigslist should also be the era of shameful lending practices should thus come as no surprise. Both are founded on a vision of humanity whose optimisms and pessimisms are oriented in precisely the wrong direction, and as a result build systems of traders, brokers, partners, and prostitutes in which fraud (personal and financial) is both feared and practically unavoidable.
EDIT: I want to pause, acknowledge and appreciate that I’m writing this under a pen name. Yeesh.