August 26, 2009

Is Craigslist a mess?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at August 26, 2009 10:42 PM

There's a recent piece in Wired entitled, "Why Craigslist Is Such a Mess". The answer according to the article is that Craig Newmark is a pretty weird dude. But while it's an interesting profile, the real question about Craigslist isn't "why is it such a mess" but "why, given that it's a mess, is it so widely used?" And as the article mentions, people use it because (a) it's free, and (b) everyone else is using it, so it's the best place to find what you're looking for. But "Craigslist is widely used because it's widely used" isn't terribly satisfying as an answer.

What I really want to know is: how do people find anything at all on Craigslist? Because I just can't do it, but it certainly wouldn't be popular if everyone else was in the same position. And indeed, the comments on the Wired article are overwhelmingly people objecting to the title alone, protesting that Craigslist isn't a mess. So lots of people find it a useful tool.

Nevertheless, every time I've tried to use it (and I've looked at it at various times for apartments, job hunting, and dating) I've given up after encountering a spectacularly low signal-to-noise ratio. Because there's no cost to posting, and it lacks sophisticated filters, I end up with a huge and unmanageable stream of nearly-undifferentiated posts. And while there's something to be said for its free-form character, this seems to lead to listings that are either unhelpfully vague or hyper-specific.

So I feel like I'm doing it wrong. There must be some techniques out there to using Craigslist successfully (hopefully some Craigslist power users in the readership can tell me what they are). I have some guesses as to what might work:

  1. Liberal use of the search box. I always feel like my search terms narrow the field either too little or too much. But maybe a clever selection of search terms, applied in lots of variations, would improve things.
  2. Less reading, more skimming. Just because it doesn't filter for me doesn't mean I have to read every post. If I learn to recognize useless items and move on quickly, I could move much more quickly through the stream.
  3. Persistence. I know that some people read Craigslist painstakingly every day, looking for the perfect bargain. (From the Wired article, this seems well suited to Craig Newmark's style.) I don't have the patience for it, though, and I generally don't believe the perfect bargain exists. (Or rather, when they do appear they get snapped up immediately.)

Any other advice? Anyone else find Craigslist unusable?

Tags: Internet, Technology
Comments

I have comments on a couple of different fronts:

1. I think that "Craigslist is widely used because it's widely used" actually is part of the explanation but not all of it. Such phenomena, sometimes called "preferential attachment" in certain contexts, apply widely---many papers are cited a lot in part because they have been cited a lot, many movies are watched a lot in part because a many other users have watched them. This is rarely the full story, but once something does get established, such effects can be present at highly nontrivial levels. (Determining the extent of such effects is, naturally, a nontrivial problem.)

2. The one time I used craigslist was to find my Pasadena apartment. I noticed the signal/noise issue and my solution was to do the skimming routine to see what things were sufficiently viable to investigate further. I used it that time because that is what the Caltech people had recommended I use to help find an apartment, as the waiting list for the Caltech apartments was way too long.

Posted by: Mason Porter | August 27, 2009 5:35 AM

For me, a combination of those options 1-3 worked well to buy my current drum kit. I used a pretty narrow search term to only get Roland drum kits in my local area, and then looked for specific types within that set (the initial search only got maybe 20 hits, and the type I was actually looking for was maybe 30% of those). Then it took persistence, because some of the ads were for stuff that was already sold, and so on. It took about a week of checking when I found one that was recently posted, what I wanted, and hadn't been sold yet.

So yeah, sorta intensive to use, but it worked, and I got a great deal.

Posted by: Zifnab | August 27, 2009 12:30 PM

I think you are expecting too much. Craigslist is full of one shots, so you don't get user reviews, recommendations or reputations. It's a lot like the old Buylines. You remember the fat little books printed on cheap paper sold at the supermarket checkout. Buylines ads were cheaper than newspaper ads, and covered a broader region, so they had more ads. My dad swore by Buylines and bought and sold all his cars through it.

As for your three problems:

1) Search terms are tricky and that's all there is to it. Google, Amazon, Yahoo, Bookfinder, and eBay all have the same problem.

2) Yes, you have to look at the search results. That's why skimming is a useful skill. The best way to learn how to skim better is to skim more often.

3) If you want a bargain, you have to be willing to walk away. That means you have to be persistent and keep watching. Yes, bargains disappear quickly, but that means someone has gotten a good deal, not that it is impossible to get good deals. (Persistence is the secret sauce for Bookfinder).

Posted by: Kaleberg | August 31, 2009 12:20 AM
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