I’ve used Wikipedia as my standard example of successful online communities before, but after hearing Craig Newmark’s “This I Believe” essay on NPR this afternoon, I wonder if I’m being too elitist. After all, Wikipedia has very specific epistemological goals that don’t really reflect the needs, wants, and interests of the general public. The marketplace, on the other hand, is something that everyone can relate to.
I used to share the cynicism common to many nerds: that people were frequently malicious and opportunistic. But, of course, you don’t get treated well wearing a plastic pocket protector and thick, black glasses taped together, and now, I get that. Years of customer service have changed the way I think about people.
Now I believe that people are overwhelmingly trustworthy and deeply OK. I don’t want to sound sanctimonious or syrupy, but for the past seven years, I’ve been doing full-time customer service for Craigslist, interacting with thousands of people. I see that most people share a similar moral compass: They play fair, they give each other a break and they generally get along. I see that pretty much everyone operates by that Golden Rule thing.
When Katrina hit, for instance, people figured out what other people needed. They didn’t ask for permission to repurpose our New Orleans site. They just turned it into a bulletin board for people to find friends and loved ones. Others offered housing for survivors, and soon, jobs were being offered to survivors.
Many of us have lost a sense of neighborhood and community, and we really crave that. In today’s culture, sometimes we can find that on the Web. Like, it’s easy to connect with someone who’s just trying to sell a used sofa, and it’s really hard to hate a person who’s trying to do that.
I have a hard time even putting my mind in a position to contemplate craigslist as a paradigm of virtuous human communities; certainly its not something to set our moral compass by. And yet maybe, just maybe, Craig is right: our compasses are already calibrated fairly well, and far from bringing out the worst in us, the Internet really has given us a way to reclaim the sense of community we had once lost.