Jun 26, 2009

Why are we all buzzing about Craigslist like it’s the devil’s den?

Posted by: Marian Salzman In: American life| Craigslist| family life| modern life| sightings from the zeitgeist| trendspotting

Since the news first broke of Philip Markoff’s arrest, I’ve become increasingly obsessed that we’ve reached the tipping point in the trend of real life blurring with online. That particular crime hit me hard when it came across the news scroll. The murders took place in cities I’ve frequented: Warwick, R.I. and Boston. It felt eery. I moved into research mode, got online and crowdsourced opinions on online personal safety, people’s personal experiences using Craigslist, Facebook and Twitter for goods and services, whether cyber ads for face2face sexual hookups should be banned. I spent time debating with criminal lawyers and psychologists, exploring the (often creepy) convergence between parallel universes of real life and virtual existence and how the criminality of the real world is playing out in cyberspace. I wondered, is online giving criminals a means to locate new victims, or is it cultivating an entirely new breed of bad behavior? You might say I am a trendspotter in pursuit of ground zero. But what exactly am I looking for—and why do I have this extraordinary urge to find Craigslist the innocent party?

I keep thinking back to a particular day in the early 1990s, when I helped organize a “Welcome to Cyberspace” event at Chiat\Day on Maiden Lane. A speaker that afternoon referred to a Time Magazine writer’s theory that cyberspace was just the real world in a new format. (Our fears of the unknown were unrealistic. Our suspicions that deviants populated the online world were unfounded.) My key takeaway? What parent would let their kid walk unsupervised from the Time/Life Building (at Rockefeller Center) to Times Square? Cyberspace is everyplace, the criminals are just concentrated in particular areas (as they once were in Times Square).

When a lawyer acquaintance and I began to debate the Markoff case through our respective professional lenses, his argument reinforced what I have called “That Time Truth of Modern Life” all these years. He hammered facts and figures at me: Prostitutes have always been victims of heinous crimes. The online world just facilitates access, to anything and anyone. A basic truth once upon a time, in the 1990s, and still so a decade and a half later.

June 20-something 2009: I check the news one morning and encounter another alleged Craigslist crime—another person charged with luring victims into his web via the online community bulletin board. Rape this time, rather than murder, and just as frightening: Known film composer Joseph Brooks apparently lured victims with false promises of stardom. It’s sad that we live in a world so vicious. Am I just remembering my suburban childhood through rose-colored glasses, or was life really safer back then? But my next thought on reading the Brooks story was of Craig Newmark, a seemingly decent person and businessperson (he recently offered support for wounded U.S. service men and women via ReMIND.org, a charity I work with). What can Craigslist do about the fact that people are using its listings to seek out victims? Why is this service which has provided me everything from housecleaners to dog walkers to landscapers—some great, some terrible, but none criminal, that I know of—under so much scrutiny when all it has done is offer a digital forum for people to live real life? The truth is, not all online personal connections come to a lecherous end. In fact, one in eight couples that marry this year will have met online. So can we create a system that ensures only upright, legal pursuits are advertised online?

In the early 1990s, a very young version of me did some market research for America Online as the company prepared to face the arrival of competitors Windows 95 and its online service, MSN. I helped conduct focus groups and ethnographies and sat in a war room for days eating all the requisite junk food. I remember looking at pictures of the people we were surveying and having one of those eureka moments: It really is America, online—or it will be. Even then, all kinds of people were communicating in this newfangled way. We couldn’t fight it, but we could work to make it vivid and inclusive and wonderful. And so it was.

Backward to go forward: Craigslist isn’t motivating or permitting or accelerating criminality or even misbehavior. Craigslist simply facilitates modern life. And its postings, with their rich local texture, are an online representation of human behavior at its best and worst. As one New Yorker posted on my Facebook page, Craigslist is like the Port Authority. Lots of deviance, but also lots of good, decent people, rushing about doing what they need to do. Since the 1990s, our online activity has blurred the old accepted boundaries between our lives, our work, our relationships. It’s only fitting that I was working quietly at home this week (a big week for cyber-related news) when I got an e-alert that peaked my interested, and I flicked on the TV. South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford had finally spilled the beans on his disappearance, which had been news fodder off- and online. Via press conference he admitted he’d had a yearlong affair with a woman in Argentina—and it all started with an innocent e-mail relationship.

Life is complex, and the unpleasant and unsavory aspects of it have made their way into cyberspace right along with the rest—what else did we expect?

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