Quick Roundup 461

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"Why Craigslist is Such a Mess"

I read a very interesting article with the above title about Craigslist this morning. Several related strands struck me as noteworthy, but I found the following explanation of why it eschews many technical innovations quite compelling:

[CEO Jim Buckmaster] had specific objections to both [attempts to make Craigslist easier to use]. Listpic ran ads, it put a high burden on craigslist servers, and when he looked at traffic records he noticed that Listpic was being used mainly to enhance enjoyment of the sexy images people posted in their erotic-services ads. Universal search subverts craigslist's mission to enable local, face-to-face transactions; it increases the risk of scams and can be exploited to snatch up bargains, giving technically sophisticated users an advantage over casual browsers. But the very surfeit of these practical objections -- many of which probably have technical solutions -- hints that the real explanation lies elsewhere, and with a minimum of pressure Buckmaster will state it plainly. It is the same reason that craigslist has never done any of the things that would win approval among Web entrepreneurs, the same reason he has never updated its 1999-era Web design. The reason is that craigslist's users are not asking for such changes. [bold added]
This reminds me by contrast of the time Sitemeter did a 180 after annoying fans (including me) of its simple, elegant interface by introducing a needlessly complicated (if feature-rich) redesign.

Also interesting is founder Craig Newmark's personality and the fact that his success as a businessman may well be a textbook case of compartmentalization, assuming that the description of his political views as "liberal" correctly identifies him a leftist. At first blush, he sounds to me like a sort of cottage communist, but I am unfamiliar with his views apart from the article. [Update: I now have it on good authority that Craig Newmark calls himself a "libertarian pragmatist." See the comments.]

A Cult of Hyperefficiency?

And speaking of people with incorrect philosophical premises nevertheless coming up with good ideas, I found thought-provoking certain aspects of another Wired article, this one about David Allen of Getting Things Done fame.
That the inventor of their favorite system of personal organization has a decades-long devotion to New Age thinking causes fits of squeamishness among GTD fans. "If indeed GTD was conceived, implemented, and marketed with the intentions of drawing people into the MSIA cult," wrote one member of the popular productivity forum, 43folders.com, "how do we, as conscientious individuals, avoid becoming prey within the trap?" Allen explains that while he won't hide his beliefs, he doesn't want his personal faith confused with the message he has for people today. "The Marriott family supports the Mormon Church," he points out, but nobody refuses to sleep in their hotels. [original formatting dropped, bold added]
Both the emphasized passage here and the take of the article on David Allen's explicit belief system are symptomatic of the pervasive cultural influence of skepticism. (Here, I am speaking of the influence of a specific philosophical approach, and not the colloquial use of the term "skepticism" to describe a healthy demand for evidence and proof.)

Since man, according to the skeptic, can't know the truth, anyone professing a particular point of view must be up to something. Thus the cynical angle of the article. Conversely, if you accept something as true (or at least worthwhile), you must be ceding your mental independence in some way. (You judged Allen's system superior based on your own evidence? Do you even know that or that "evidence?") Thus you have a fan Allen's GTD system second-guessing himself. (This is not to say that Allen's system is necessarily unaffected by his worldview. Read on.)

Even more interesting to me is how the skeptical outlook destroys potentially fruitful paths of legitimate criticism of Allen's approach. For example, if, as the article seems to imply, Allen's organizational approach is ultimately supposed to be a way of achieving some trance-like state of "serenity," how might that compromise the better elements of his system? What might Allen be leaving out that he should include, or adding that he shouldn't? Do other aspects of his "New Age" worldview (or his method of thinking) compromise his system in any way? I've wondered about such things before because I independently judged GTD superior to other suggestions for improved organization and productivity, and yet because I evaluated it for myself, I also saw that it is far from perfect.

The only "trap" anyone can fall into is to fail to exercise, at all times, one's own independent judgment. The skeptic and the blind follower are thus two sides of the same coin: The first accepts nothing as true, the second accepts whatever happens to seem appealing at a given moment, and both fail to really learn or create anything because neither has an active mind.

Some Good Tips

On a more positive note, I found these free downloads from David Allen's site quite helpful. I was able to go over most of these articles one weekend afternoon and found numerous helpful elaborations on points he made in Getting Things Done.


"The only problem I see with this plan is it lasts only 12 days." -- Doug Reich on Rhode Island's temporary shutdown of its welfare state


Via email, I have learned about the formation of a "Virtual Objectivist Club:"
I'm writing to let you know about the Virtual Objectivist Club, an online Objectivist study group that has just been started for students who don't have a local group in their area. We'll meet once a week online or over the phone to discuss an essay or topic from the Ayn Rand Reader or [other online Objectivist material].

All of the information about the group can be found here at: http://www.oclubs.org/voc [minor format edits]
Darren Cauthon, who sent me the email, is an organizer. There's also more information at Principles in Practice.

-- CAV


: (1) Removed second to last section. (2) Other minor edits. (3) Added a clarification to the first section.


Vigilis said...

Gus, my take on the Craigslist article came from the first sentence of the first paragraph: "...universally accessible"; and the last sentence of the second paragraph, "Are our standards really so low?"

Universal accessibility and high standards are mutually exclusive in human nature. Even the air we breathe is fouled in places with low standards. Users of Craigslist with above average expectations should expect to be disappointed by the mess, in my opinion, while others will no doubt be enthralled.

Craig said...

thanks! and actually, I'm calling myself a "libertarian pragmatist" ala http://www.huffingtonpost.com/craig-newmark/shopping-for-a-political_b_258581.html

Gus Van Horn said...


I think with Craigslist, as with life, we must all employ an active mind with all things.

I have personally used Craigslist for apartment hunting a couple of times now and, while I did once have to weed out an ad by a scammer claiming to be from Europe, I found it very useful.


Holy Kibo, Batman!

While I advocate laissez-faire capitalism and admire practicality (and with it, a rational morality that makes the practical possible), I wouldn't call myself a "pragmatist libertarian."

That said, I am both appreciative of your personally clarifying that point, and pleasantly surprised that you stopped by here to do so. Thanks for your visit!


Jim May said...

That's funny... it's the second time I've seen a Huffington Post writer pull a "Kibo".

At least your encounter with such was far more pleasant than mine.

Gus Van Horn said...

True, and I'll also claim bragging rights for it being weirder: I have absolutely ZERO previous connection with Newmark prior to this post!