Craigslist as a Metaphor For America

Radio Open Source is doing a bit of an anti-State of the Union address show tomorrow night, to coincide with President Bush's annual meaningless (and utterly skippable) applause-fest. They're calling it Blogs of the Union, or BOTU for short.

As more and more of the country moves online, the most popular websites seem a little like mirrors for society as a whole. Ebay, Craigslist, and, in a sense, Google itself, provide an image of the interests, passions, and problems of millions of people, as we coexist in a seemingly endless array of confined socio-cultural bubbles. Most people just look to their relevant catgories, but it's never been easier to see how the other 300 million live than it is right now.

Of the websites I mentioned, I believe it's Craigslist, with its bewildering main page array of activities, jobs, real estate, stuff for sale, and personals, that makes the best metaphor for America's current state of disunion. On Craigslist, you see it all right in front of you, in its amazing, almost unthinkable diversity. 10 million people a month are using it, for 3 billion page loads. And while it's still a relatively modest minority of Americans who are involved (there are still of course large chunks of society who are not online), it gets a little closer to representativeness every year.

You have dog-clubs and tennis-clubs; sperm donors wanted, and sperm donors offering. You see want ads for potential spouses and some for fiddlers (and some that are both at once). People are looking for Scrabble partners, and people are looking for anonymous sex. There are two million dollar summer homes for sale, along with college kids looking for cheap-as-dirt summer sublets.

And here's my favorite find of the evening, an Indian guy who wants someone to teach him to speak with an American accent, for which he will barter (yes, barter) his skills:

I would like to speak English like an American does. I have had my education in British English and brought up in India. As I am working in Philly, I guess my conversation/communication skills is 80% okay with others. But sometimes people find it hard to understand my accent. Would you be interested to teach me the common words, phrases, sentences, lingos, etc ?

I stay near Art museum and any weekday (after 6 PM) is okay with me. Let me know what do you want in return. I don't have any specific thing to offer but here is a list if you are interested:
1. I can fix your computer, software, hardware problem (including Laptop)
2. Give you a Massage (I am a certified therapist for head massage)
3. Prepare food, specially nice indian curries etc
4. May be help you to clean the house or some other work
5. May be a good friend, hangout buddy

I hope someone takes him up on his offer -- and I think the teacher should be bold enough to request that he offer all five services in the course of a single evening: computer repair, massage, cooked dinner, housecleaning, and good friend/hangout buddy. If there is any cure to all the world's my important problems (i.e., loneliness, unhealthy food, general aches and pains, and computer woes), it is represented by this remarkable list of offerings.

It's not beside the point that the guy is offering to barter all of these skills to an anonymous stranger. Indeed, nothing could be more 'Craigslisty' than that. While much of what is on tap at the site involves the exchange of money, what's amazing is that so much of Craigslist is driven by people who trust complete strangers with intimate aspects of their lives, on matters that have nothing to do with money whatsoever. If I didn't know better, I would say that it suggests we still have some kind of civil society in place...

But let's not get carried away by our romantic ideals. They don't really apply to Craigslist, where it's all in the particularities -- there's no end to them, and virtually any generalization about them is going to fail.