When Craigslist Users Run Amok the Police Come out to Play

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Everyone has heard of craigslist, the place where people from all over the world post their classified ads. You want it, they’ve got it! Be it jobs, items, housing, practical advice or a potential partner, you can find it here, no matter how geographically specific you get. Basically, if you haven’t gotten online for the first time only a few minutes ago, you know of craigslist. And you’ve probably used them or some similar service once or twice.

Branding-wise, being immediately recognized wherever on the globe might be considered an immense marketing success. But when only a few remember your service because it’s useful, while the majority thinks of it as their daily source of fun (we all love to laugh at crazy ads, don’t we?) or as a popular criminal charges generator, you might want to reconsider. It’s not a success, it’s a disaster.

It is indeed a great accomplishment to have billions of users worldwide, with 50 million in the US alone. You truly are hot if you can say your traffic monitoring software reports 20 billion page views each month. But is it still all fancy and remarkable when you have little to no control over what your users do, other than posting and of course politely responding to classifieds?

Let’s analyze a few incidents that have brought craigslist in the spotlight in March 2010 alone! A man charged for posting a terrorist threat to a Somali cultural event; another one, bored with his son and overwhelmed by the demanding disciplinary and parental actions required of him (such as locking the poor kid in a closet when he started screaming), tried to sell him through such an ad; and finally, a woman desperate for two tickets to the World Series offered sex to get them. All three cases led to police investigations, criminal charges and trials. And the month of March is not over yet nor did I cover all news related to craigslist around the world!

Such things do happen. And the obvious downturn of being so big is that you have no real control over who does what on your website. What started with being helpful in mind becomes the playground of sociopaths and other dangerous criminals. Can a company behind such a service control the damage done by such individuals? Possibly, but it certainly takes more than a code of conduct and some tips to avoid scams.

Rules are pointless if you cannot enforce them. They are only posted to cover a company’s behind and make sure they don’t take any legal falls together with their users. But if you want the benefits of having billions of people using your services, you have to be ready to prevent any criminal activity from happening. Or you should at least try harder.

Terrorism, neglect and abuse of minors, prostitution for sport events tickets, these are no laughing matter. Consequently, being associated with similar issues never helps build reputation, trust or a powerful brand. While I am the first to admit you cannot effectively control the online world, having no control whatsoever surely isn’t a valid option either.