Craigslist, Wikipedia founders chat at SXSW

Craig Newmark and Jimmy Wales discuss the importance of content on user-created community sites during a keynote conversation.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read
AUSTIN, Texas--If there are two more beloved Web sites in the interactive Internet community than Craigslist and Wikipedia, it would be hard to think of them.

And that's why at least 1,000 people packed the room for the Monday South by Southwest Interactive keynote conversation between Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

For the most part, the talk was Newmark's opportunity to speak directly to some of his biggest fans--many of whom owe their jobs, homes and even partners to Craigslist. Wales didn't end up talking too much about Wikipedia, though it was clear some in the audience would have liked him to do so.

Craig Newmark and Jimmy Wales
Credit: Daniel Terdiman/CNET
Craig Newmark and Jimmy Wales
discuss the importance of content
on user-created community sites
during a keynote conversation Monday.

Instead, Newmark spent much of the time answering questions, first from Wales and then from the audience.

If there was a theme to the conversation, it was that communities like Craigslist and Wikipedia depend entirely on the general trustworthiness of their users, despite occasional problems. And despite constant growth, those communities are becoming more trustworthy, not less, though they require constant vigilance, Newmark said.

"This wisdom of crowds thing--it may be a cliche, but it's mostly true," Newmark said. "What we're talking about here is a democracy, and it works, but you have to be careful before it gets out of control."

One interesting moment came when Wales asked Newmark about his theory that TiVo can become a tool for saving democracy.

Newmark replied that one of the biggest problems in recent American history is elected officials' never-ending fundraising in order to pay for expensive television campaign ads. And therein lies TiVo's opportunity to save democracy, he explained.

"The miracle of DVRs, not just TiVo, is that you can skip through commercials, and in my fantasy life...if everyone started skipping political commercials, that would defeat their purpose, and that would be a good thing," Newmark said. "Then politicians would have to say more. That's what I feel in my own little fantasy world. I do feel it's everyone's patriotic duty to skip commercials, at least political commercials, and I feel it's the DVR manufacturers' patriotic duty to make a 30-second skip easier for everyone."

Newmark also mused a fair amount about the future of citizen journalism. But where some in the blogosphere are increasingly calling for the death of the so-called mainstream media, he said, it is important to have professional writers and editors, since such work is difficult. Further, he said, it is important to have professionals willing to spend long days devoted to covering crucial stories.

Still, he noted that the mainstream press has increasingly dropped the ball and that society suffers because of it. Thus, he said, the ideal situation would be for the mainstream press and citizen journalists to join forces.

One audience member asked what changes Craigslist anticipates, and Newmark responded by saying that he expects to do more of what the site has done all along: Keep a simple user interface, with free, user-created content the dominant feature.

Still, he said, he expects to change the current model--in which Craistlist charges only for job listings, and said that he expects to begin charging for apartment listings in New York, after apartment brokers there actually asked the site to do so in the hopes of cutting down on fraud and redundant listings.

In the end, however, the biggest applause of the day went to Wales, who said, in response to a question about Google's recent expansion into China and its decision to censor its Chinese site, that Wikipedia would not follow the search engine giant's example.

"Like most people, I love Google and use it all the time, and like most people, I'm a little uncomfortable with what they're doing in China," Wales said. But, "We will never compromise with censorship."