Craigslist: Quite the Crummy Community

In light of a recent move, I’ve been trying to offload elements of my post-college bachelor pad to the throngs of Internet buyers awaiting my posts on to one of the Web’s biggest communities, Craigslist. The task, I thought, was simple: sell some of my old, but well treated furniture on Craigslist to ease the burden of my new furniture bill. Over three months, I discovered that this was a bad idea. Let’s backtrack as I share with you the four types of experiences (and my typical responses) I participated in countless times over the period:

  1. The Silent Majority – “Come check out/buy my couch! Only $150…$100?…$50?…I’ll pay you?” I was most surprised at how no matter how many people watch and lurk on Craigslist that I couldn’t find one interested buyer in my couch until it was almost too late.
  2. The Strange Offerer – “I’m sorry sir, but I’m not sure I’d like to accept 10 sleeves of tennis balls for my desk.” I’m not sure what it is about the anonymity of the Internet, but people offered up some strange barters.
  3. The No Show – “Hello? Are you still coming? No? Well I’m glad I gave you my address, phone number and favorite flavor of ice cream.” There’s something a little unnerving of giving out your private information to a stranger on the Internet who’s ready to wheel and deal, only to have them not show up.
  4. The Legit Buyer – “Thank you for your purchase, do you need help getting it to your car?” Despite all my trials and tribulations, I did find a grand total of five people on Craigslist who completed their transactions with me and made the process easy.

As a Community Manager of private online communities, I was surprised to learn how hard this audience was to engage. After all, Craigslist has all the markings of a community, there are members (well not everyone belongs, but there are at least frequent visitors), there’s social glue (it’s a giant marketplace but people are typically there with a purpose, even if it’s to giggle at the missed encounters section) and there’s certainly the need for participation (what kind of free market would stand without at least some interaction).

So what was going on? Why wasn’t my Community Manager bag of tricks working? This week, I took a step back to think about my experience. I had recently read some of the latest research from Communispace (Like Me and The 64% Rule) and it hit me – many of the elements that make facilitating a Communispace community so interesting, such as thoughtful members, high participation / low lurker rates and engaging commentary were completely missing from the uber-public Craigslist. The anonymous marketplace embodies all the differences one might care about between a public and private community. Am I saying that Craigslist should become a private “walled garden”? Not quite, for you see, there’s room in this world (wide web) for communities big and small to serve their purposes, while private, intimate communities such as Communispace’s are great for fostering insight, they may not be suitable for selling your old episodes of Lost. However, Craigslist as a community has a long ways to go and seeking ways to reduce the lurker rates and increase the incidence of legit buyers would be a great step in the right direction.