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Craig’s List’s Dirty Little Secret: Who’s Policing the Flagging Police?

by | Feb 16, 2011 | News | 19 comments

Most of our new business now comes from referrals from current clients. It works out great for everyone. Our clients feel that they are helping their friends and colleagues (and supporting a small business they believe in) by recommending a reliable and trustworthy service company, and we benefit from getting a new client that already feels good about working with us before we even meet.

When we first started out about six years ago, we didn’t have enough clients to generate a substantial number of referrals, and we didn’t have an advertising budget. So we relied on free Craig’s List ads to get started. At that time, we generated a lot of business through Craig’s List. Many of those initial clients who came to us through CL are still with us today, and they in turn have referred us to many other clients. So the roots of our business are really in those early Craig’s List ads.

Not everyone has had as much success on Craig’s List. I think we did a few thing right with those early ads. First, we didn’t try to compete on price. On CL you can always find someone offering to do the job cheaper. Rather, we presented ourselves as a professional, reliable company with honest, knowledgeable techs. Craig’s List at that time provided an amazing opportunity for an individual with skills and integrity to bootstrap herself into a business with literally no start-up capital.

Unfortunately something awful has been happening on CL. I only discovered this because our office assistant asked me if she should start posting our ads to Craig’s List again. I had stopped about a year ago, because I didn’t have time to post the ad every three days. I also felt that we had outgrown Craig’s List. While we got some great customers there, there were also a lot of time-consuming calls from price-shoppers.

(There’s nothing wrong with being a price shopper. I’m always looking for a good deal. But if price is all you are looking for when it comes to computer repair and services, you end up paying more in the long run.)

Anyway, I decided, what the heck, let’s run the ad again. That’s when I discovered that Craig’s List has been taken over by a handful of self-appointed police who flag ads arbitrarily. Anyone can get an ad deleted on Craig’s List by flagging it a couple of times from different ip addresses (say, work and home). There is no recourse, no higher authority to appeal to. Your ad is gone and, aside from a curt email notification, that’s the end of it. Try re-posting, and you’re likely to get deleted again, except now that you’ve been flagged once, you’re penalized: one flag is enough to immediately delete your ad.

Okay, I hear you saying. Maybe a few ads get deleted that shouldn’t. But don’t we need these good souls who volunteer their time to protect us from the psychos and perverts who would otherwise overrun Craig’s List? Isn’t Craig’s List all about the members of the community watching out for each other?

Well, that would be fine if there were a large number of CL readers who, while perusing ads, noticed a bad one on occasion and flagged it. (Here’s an example of one that should have been caught, but wasn’t:

Instead, the original community-based ideal of CL has been turned upside down by a tiny minority of self-appointed “volunteers” who routinely flag large numbers of perfectly acceptable ads either because they find them personally offensive, or because that’s how they get their kicks.

Since this was the same ad I had been running for several years without a problem, I decided to follow the advice in the “flag notification” email, and visit the “flagging forum”, where you can supposedly receive guidance about what characteristics might have caused your ad to be deleted.

Here, the anonymous CL police, who hide behind aliases such as “Dudley_Do_Right”, recently offered the following explanations as to why various ads were deleted:

An ad from a small farm selling show animals:

I detest ads that start with questions …You are only mocking me by putting them there. I flag what is mocking me.

A car ad:

Ugly color probably. People hate that!

An ad selling a motor home:

Perhaps a site geard [sic] towards this type of luxury is more appropriate.

Lest you think I’m cherry-picking, these posts were all placed within a day or so of each other. As one distraught flagging victim posted so eloquently:

I’ve learned quite a bit about the “flagging culture” here on CL and got a good sense of the types of people who troll the cl – flag help board… I came in thinking there were a set of rules and guidelines that needed to be adhered to…. I was hoping there could be a civilized discussion regarding the guidelines for posting…but I realize now that’s not going to happen.

A frequent comment from the chronic flaggers is that you, the victim of flagging, have no right to complain because your ad is free. Of course, if it weren’t for free ads, there would be no Craig’s List. Besides, you’re not getting a “free ad” if it’s deleted. You’re just wasting your time.

Nor does the concept that free ad posters have no rights serve the interests of those reading the ads. In service categories (such as computer services), it is easy for an unscrupulous company to delete their competition’s ads through flagging. (In fact I suspect that’s what happened to our ad.) It’s also the unscrupulous posters who use illegitimate techniques to get around the rules. Those methods are available for those who are motivated to make a career out of scamming people on Craig’s List. This means that there are fewer “good guys” left on CL, and more scammers. That’s not good for anyone. But the flagging police don’t care about Craig’s List. They’re getting high on the power trip, and like most drug addicts, they can’t be bothered to think about the consequences.

Even the self-appointed flaggers, when pressed, will frequently admit that the ad in question does not violate the Craig’s List Terms of Service or any other written rules of Craig’s List (including over-posting and miscategorization). This response is typical, but incorrect: “The Terms of Use say that users can flag for any reason”.

Without Craig’s List, I’m not sure I would have gotten New York Geek Girls to the point where we no longer need Craig’s List. It’s regrettable for those who do need CL. Especially in this economy, with rampant unemployment, people who are trying to find a way to earn a living, sell a household item or just meet people need a place to advertise without getting shut down arbitrarily by power-drunk zealots.

I understand the community-based philosophy behind Craig’s List. I also understand that Craig’s List’s owners (who include Ebay), make a lot of money from the paid real estate and jobs ads and don’t want to devote resources to the part of their site that doesn’t directly generate income. But if they don’t do something to reign in these crazies, the good posters will disappear from Craig’s List, and when all those free ads disappear, so do the eyeballs that the income-producing parts of the site need. When that happens, it’s goodbye Craig’s List.

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