Framework for reinventing classifieds

This is a framework for inventing a better Craigslist.

It is highly unlikely that newspapers will reclaim the monopoly they had on classified advertising pre-internet. They controlled the platform before the internet, and were able to dictate what information used their print pages to gain readers and audience. Some newspapers have lost control of the platform completely and the ones that haven’t will follow suit. Newspapers won’t be able to reclaim the classified advertising space by using the old mental framework for thinking about classifieds, by pretending they might be able to own the platform and charge access to it. Instead, it’s imperative to take the approach of hacking the platform and adding functionality, value, and convenience.

Remember Friendster? I don’t. I never had an account. It was upstaged by MySpace, where I had an account for a few months before it became uncool to do so. MySpace was then upstaged by Facebook. Yes, I’ll concede that MySpace has a large userbase, but its value in the mindspace of the users is rapidly diminishing and there’s a big need for creativity. Fortunately for everyone involved, there’s a low barrier to disruption on the internet.

The real way local news organizations can upset Craigslist and build a better classifieds is simple: create a micro-currency. In addition to providing a more user-friendly interface and the ability to add better meta data, news organizations with a specific geographic community should establish a currency to “monetize” the local marketplace. As Douglas Rushkoff says, the web, and web 2.0 especially, is breaking existing institutions because it allows people to create value on the periphery again. Local news organizations are in a unique, and therefore advantageous, position to provide the platform with which to capture the value of local transactions.

First, you must remember that what you’re trying to is facilitate a marketplace for your meatspace community in the digital realm. Classifieds aren’t just about selling stuff. They can also provide a platform for loaning material not currently in use. A micro-currency would be crucial for those minor exchanges that don’t necessitate the use of a global currency. For instance, I’ve got a paddle that I haven’t used in the last six months because I sold my kayak just over a year ago to raise travel funds. I don’t necessarily want to sell it because I intend to start kayaking again this summer but, in the interim, it’s sitting in the corner of my room. With a well-designed and executed classifieds system, I could be loaning out the paddle. The classifieds system would facilitate the exchange by allowing me to publish that I have a paddle available to loan, my location, my trustworthiness, and other metrics to increase the likelihood of a successful loan. Adding a micro-currency to the exchange would allow both the loaner and loanee to capture the value, and then allow me to use it for something else (like my friend Ben’s 70-200 f2.8 lens). Having a local currency backed by the local news organization, along with a better way to manage transactions digitally, would increase the likelihood of local economic activity taking place.

In order to make the platform trustworthy, the social graph would be a key factor as well. You’d be able to review the exchanges in an open and honest manner, and only lend to trusted friends and friends-of-friends. The news organization would act as the moderator to make sure both parties were satisfied with the transactions. You’d be able to buy into the local currency or do valuable work within the local marketplace that would earn you credit. For instance, volunteering a certain number of hours for a local non-profit or library, something that provides value almost exclusively for the local community, could give you currency to borrow items, gain access to exclusive events sponsored by the news organization, etc. A micro-currency powering a geographically-bound marketplace could also incentivize better crowdsourcing of local data, news, and information. The news organization could “pay” people to report the current milk prices from all of the local groceries, or ask specific questions of local politicians.

“Hyper-local” is the future of the institutions that currently think of themselves as newspapers. Hyper-local isn’t just content, however, and establishing a trusted currency to power a local marketplace is one critical idea for reinventing classifieds.