Craigslist vs. the Aggregators

Wired’s cover story this month is a terrific look at craigslist and why it’s awesome and not very good, all at the same time.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been using craigslist for seven years now and am a big fan. It’s far superior to anything the newspapers have offered up—and the papers don’t “deserve” any of their lost billions. Craigslist is a huge boon for regular folks, who get a free, easy way to buy, sell, or rent stuff. And I love the craigslist ethos.

But Wired, in a well-written piece, raises some critical points about the site’s flaws, ones that could jeopardize its future if it doesn’t adapt.

Gary Wolf, the piece’s author, zeroes in on usability problems like spam, which is all over the site, and how Craigslist doesn’t really invest much in new, obvious features that would enhance its usability.

What really interests me, though, in Wired’s reporting—and what’s problematic for those who lionize it but demonize the press’s Web efforts—is this: Craigslist doesn’t allow you to reuse its information in any systematic way to try to build on it or improve it—especially if you want to sell ads against it.

In other words, craigslist doesn’t let you aggregate it (wholesale anyway, which is what the AP was trying to snuff out).

I was thinking a couple of months ago as I was looking through the craigslist real estate ads how nice it would be to be able to browse by map.

So by the logic of the Web, or at least its vanguard, I should be able to design a site that automatically scans craigslist for housing ads and plots them out on a map, quoting part of the text, with links (preferably small and toward the bottom a la Newser) pointing back to the originator of the content, no?

Well, no.

If you try to build a third-party application designed to make craigslist work better, the management will almost certainly throw up technical roadblocks to shut you down.

So certain precincts of blogville reach for the torches and pitchforks when the Associated Press announces it will go after wholesale scraping and repurposing of its work by aggregators. And they fly into a rage if someone suggests it might be a wise business move to block aggregators. Free speech! Fair use!

But, hey, if craigslist does it, it’s cool. Apparently, anyway. I don’t see much sturm und drang in said precincts about its anti-aggregation moves.

Here’s Jeff Jarvis on the AP:

The Associated Press is becoming the enemy of the internet because it is fighting the link and the link is the basis of the internet.

Well then, is craigslist “becoming the enemy of the internet because it is fighting the link and the link is the basis of the internet”?

For instance, when craigslist shuts down an innocuous little site like Craig’s Little Buddy, which allowed people to search (user-generated) content in multiple craigslist cities and click on links that took them to craigslist, is that bad?

Craigslist will still let you quote it and link to it on your blog here and there, but not systematically—just like the AP.

Is it just as retrograde?

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.