The power of Craigslist: bringing people together

By Steve Outing

Last night I was reminded of the power that digital media have of bringing people together. My wife and I attended a birthday party for our friend, Bud, who chose the occasion to hold the debut public concert for his basement band, tentatively called “Doc Hollywood.” He rented the Altona Grange Hall north of Boulder and he and the band invited their friends (who brought food and tossed money into a big jar to cover the hall rental).

The band that Craigslist formed.

Now Bud and the band are not exactly spring chickens. (Surely it’s OK to use that cliche when I’m writing about an event in a grange hall. :) ) The average age of the musicians is in the 50s; Bud is 57, and recently rediscovered his love of playing the drums, which he’d put aside since he was in his teens and early 20s and played with a rock band.

Other than his wife, Cheri, who sings backup vocals, the rest of the 6-person band was introduced via an ad in Craigslist looking for musicians interested in joining a band for fun. There’s no intention of the group to get paid gigs or otherwise make it big; they’re mostly ordinary folk who used to play and perform when they were younger, and just want to have some fun again.

Now, last week was an awful one for traditional media. The Rocky Mountain News shut down; there’s talk of the San Francisco Chronicle going down; the newspaper industry overall has proven itself mostly unable to handle a bad recession and the challenges of adapting to the digital revolution. Last night’s concert gives a hint as to why, if you look hard enough.

Craigslist, of course, has hit newspaper classifieds hard. The decline of newspaper classifieds revenue is a huge part of the reason for newspapers’ current troubles. It’s not all Craig’s fault, of course, but he has a lot to do with it. But Craigslist’s ability to bring people together is something that newspapers don’t do well at in the digital age. Perhaps in the old days, Bud’s band might have come together via a newspaper classified ad, but more than likely he would have asked friends, or posted a notice at the local music store. Now there’s a better way. Thanks, once again, Craig.

If newspapers are to pull out of their crisis — indeed, if they are to survive long term — they need to learn to take better advantage of the ability of the Internet and mobile devices to introduce people with common interests and bring them together. Alas, most traditional publishers continue to think more about how to make money from the old model of one-to-many, and pay lip service to serving the qualities of the Internet that make it so important to the individuals who live in 2009: its ability to connect people and form communities.

Bud’s band members might have found themselves thanks to a local newspaper’s online service, had that publisher grasped the potential of the Internet as builder of local sub-communities and relationships — and put more effort into developing as part of its digital strategy ways to help people connect and find each other.

Listening to my friend’s band last night, and realizing that they’re all in the age group that still reads newspapers, it occurred to me that were it not for Craigslist, none of us would be in that grange hall. Newspapers still think big; “how can we reach a larger audience with our great content?” They also need to think small; “what can we do to once again be the institution that not only is at the center of our community, but that also facilitates and helps people in our community to create their own connections and communities?”

It’s probably too late for newspapers. But as they struggle to survive, I urge them to spend a lot more time thinking about the small ways they can become big again.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!