Having observed people helping one another in friendly, social, and trusting communal ways on the Internet via the WELL, MindVox and Usenet, and feeling isolated as a relative newcomer to San Francisco, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark decided to create something similar for local events. In early 1995, he began an email distribution list to friends. Most of the early postings were submitted by Newmark and were notices of social events of interest to software and Internet developers living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Soon, word of mouth led to rapid growth. The number of subscribers and postings grew rapidly. There was no moderation and Newmark was surprised when people started using the mailing list for non-event postings. People trying to get technical positions filled found that the list was a good way to reach people with the skills they were looking for. This led to the addition of a jobs category. User demand for more categories caused the list of categories to grow. The initial technology encountered some limits, so by June 1995 Majordomo had been installed and the mailing list "Craigslist" resumed operations. Community members started asking for a web interface. Newmark registered "craigslist.org", and the website went live in 1996.
In the fall of 1998, the name "List Foundation" was introduced and Craigslist started transitioning to the use of this name. In April 1999, when Newmark learned of other organizations called "List Foundation", the use of this name was dropped. Craigslist incorporated as a private for-profit company in 1999. Around the time of these events, Newmark realized the site was growing so fast that he could stop working as a software engineer and work full-time running Craigslist. By April 2000, there were nine employees working out of Newmark's San Francisco apartment.
In January 2000, current CEO Jim Buckmaster joined the company as lead programmer and CTO. Buckmaster contributed the site's multi-city architecture, search engine, discussion forums, flagging system, self-posting process, homepage design, personals categories, and best-of-Craigslist feature. He was promoted to CEO in November 2000.
The website expanded into nine more U.S. cities in 2000, four in 2001 and 2002 each, and 14 in 2003. On August 1, 2004, Craigslist began charging $25 to post job openings on the New York and Los Angeles pages. On the same day, a new section called "Gigs" was added, where low-cost and unpaid jobs and internships can be posted free.
The site serves more than 20 billion page views per month, putting it in 72nd place overall among websites worldwide and 11th place overall among websites in the United States (per Alexa.com on June 28, 2016), with more than 49.4 million unique monthly visitors in the United States alone (per Compete.com on January 8, 2010). With more than 80 million new classified advertisements each month, Craigslist is the leading classifieds service in any medium. The site receives more than 2 million new job listings each month, making it one of the top job boards in the world. The 23 largest U.S. cities listed on the Craigslist home page collectively receive more than 300,000 postings per day just in the "for sale" and "housing" sections as of October 2011. The classified advertisements range from traditional buy/sell ads and community announcements to personal ads.
In 2009, Craigslist operated with a staff of 28 people.
In December 2006, at the UBS Global Media Conference in New York, Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster told Wall Street analysts that Craigslist had little interest in maximizing profit, and instead preferred to help users find cars, apartments, jobs and dates.
Craigslist's main source of revenue is paid job ads in select American cities. The company does not formally disclose financial or ownership information. Analysts and commentators have reported varying figures for its annual revenue, ranging from $10 million in 2004, $20 million in 2005, and $25 million in 2006 to possibly $150 million in 2007.
On August 13, 2004, Newmark announced on his blog that auction giant eBay had purchased a 25% stake in the company from a former employee. Some fans of Craigslist expressed concern that this development would affect the site's longtime non-commercial nature. As of April 2012, there have been no substantive changes to the usefulness or non-advertising nature of the site—no banner ads, charges for a few services provided to businesses.
The company was believed to be owned principally by Newmark, Buckmaster and eBay (the three board members). eBay owned approximately 25%, and Newmark is believed to own the largest stake.
In April 2008, eBay announced it was suing Craigslist to "safeguard its four-year financial investment". eBay claimed that in January 2008, Craigslist executives took actions that "unfairly diluted eBay's economic interest by more than 10%". Craigslist filed a counter-suit in May 2008 to "remedy the substantial and ongoing harm to fair competition" that Craigslist claimed was constituted by eBay's actions as Craigslist shareholders; the company claimed that it had used its minority stake to gain access to confidential information, which it then used as part of its competing service Kijiji.
On June 19, 2015, eBay Inc. announced that it would divest its stake back to Craigslist for an undisclosed amount, and settle its litigation with the company. The move came shortly before eBay's planned spin-off of PayPal, and an effort to divest other units to focus on its core business.
As of 2012, mashup sites such as padmapper.com and housingmaps.com were overlaying Craigslist data with Google Maps and adding their own search filters to improve usability. In June 2012, Craigslist changed its terms of service to disallow the practice. In July 2012, Craigslist filed a lawsuit against padmapper.com.
Over the years Craigslist has become a very popular online destination for arranging for dates and sex. The personals section allows for postings that are for "strictly platonic", "dating/romance", and "casual encounters".
The site is considered particularly useful by lesbians and gay men seeking to make connections, because of the service's free and open nature and because of the difficulty of otherwise finding each other in more conservative areas.
In 2005, San Francisco Craigslist's men seeking men section was attributed to facilitating sexual encounters and was the second most common correlation to syphilis infections. The company has been pressured by San Francisco Department of Public Health officials, prompting Jim Buckmaster to state that the site has a very small staff and that the public "must police themselves". The site has, however, added links to San Francisco City Clinic and STD forums.
Advertisements for "adult" (previously "erotic") services were initially given special treatment, then closed entirely on September 4, 2010, following a controversy over claims by state attorneys general that the advertisements promoted prostitution.
In 2002, a disclaimer was put on the "men seeking men", "casual encounters", "erotic services", and "rants and raves" boards to ensure that those who clicked on these sections were over the age of 18, but no disclaimer was put on the "men seeking women", "women seeking men" or "women seeking women" boards. As a response to charges of discrimination and negative stereotyping, Buckmaster explained that the company's policy is a response to user feedback requesting the warning on the more sexually explicit sections, including "men seeking men". Today, all of the above listed boards (as well as some others) have a disclaimer.
On May 13, 2009, Craigslist announced that it would close the erotic services section, replacing it with an adult services section to be reviewed by Craigslist employees. This decision came after allegations by several U.S. states that the erotic services ads were being used for prostitution.
On September 4, 2010, Craigslist closed the adult services section of its website in the United States. The site initially replaced the adult services page link with the word "censored" in white-on-black text. The site received criticism and complaints from attorneys general that the section's ads were facilitating prostitution and child sex trafficking.
The adult services section link was still active in countries outside of the U.S. Matt Zimmerman, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said, "Craigslist isn't legally culpable for these posts, but the public pressure has increased and Craigslist is a small company." Brian Carver, attorney and assistant professor at UC Berkeley, said that legal threats could have a chilling effect on online expression. "If you impose liability on Craigslist, YouTube and Facebook for anything their users do, then they're not going to take chances. It would likely result in the takedown of what might otherwise be perfectly legitimate free expression."
On September 8, 2010, the "censored" label and its dead link to adult services were completely removed.
Craigslist announced on September 15, 2010, that it had closed its adult services in the United States for good. However, it defended its right to carry such ads and its efforts to fight prostitution and sex trafficking. Free speech and some sex crime victim advocates criticized the removal of the section, saying that it threatened free speech and that it diminished law enforcement's ability to track criminals. However, the removal was applauded by many state attorneys general and some other groups fighting sex crimes. Craigslist said that there is some indication that those who posted ads in the adult services section are posting elsewhere. Sex ads had cost $10 initially and it was estimated they would have brought in $44 million in 2010 had they continued. In the four months following the closure, monthly revenue from sex ads on six other sites (primarily Backpage) increased from $2.1 to $3.1 million, partly due to price increases.
On December 19, 2010, after pressure from Ottawa and several provinces, Craigslist closed 'Erotic Services' and 'Adult Gigs' from its Canadian website, even though prostitution was not itself illegal in Canada at the time.
Craigslist has a user flagging system to quickly identify illegal and inappropriate postings. Users may flag postings they believe to be in violation of Craigslist guidelines. Flagging does not require account login or registration, and can be done anonymously by anyone. Postings are subject to automated removal when a certain number of users flag them. The number of flags required for a posting's removal is dynamically variable and remains unknown to all but Craigslist staff. Some users allege that flagging may also occur as acts of vandalism by groups of individuals at different ISPs, but no evidence of this has ever been produced. Flagging can also alert Craigslist staff to blocks of ads requiring manual oversight or removal.
Craigslist includes a barter option in its "for sale" section. This growing trade economy has been documented on the television program Barter Kings and the blog One red paperclip.
In July 2005, the San Francisco Chronicle criticized Craigslist for allowing ads from dog breeders, and thereby allegedly encouraging the over-breeding and irresponsible selling of pit bulls in the Bay Area. Craigslist no longer allows the sale of pets (re-homing with small adoption fees are acceptable).
In January 2006, the San Francisco Bay Guardian published an editorial criticizing Craigslist for moving into local communities and "threatening to eviscerate" local alternative newspapers. Craigslist has been compared to Walmart, a multinational corporation that some feel crushes small local businesses when they move into towns and offer a huge assortment of goods at lower prices.
L. Gordon Crovitz, writing for The Wall Street Journal, criticized the company for using lawsuits "to prevent anyone from doing to it what it did to newspapers", contrary to the spirit of the website, which bills itself in a "noncommercial nature, public service mission, and noncorporate culture". This article was a reaction to lawsuits from Craigslist to prevent competition. The Swedish luxury marketplace website Jameslist.com received a hefty lawsuit filed on July 11th 2012 which among unspecified damages also asked for a complete shutdown of Jameslist.com As a consequence, the young company was forced to rename to JamesEdition.
In 2012, Craigslist sued PadMapper, a site that hoped to improve the user interface for browsing housing ads, and 3Taps, a company that helped PadMapper obtain data from Craigslist, in Craigslist v. 3Taps. This led users to criticize Craigslist for trying to shut down a service that was useful to them.
The word "Craigslist Killer" has been used by many media outlets to describe how murderers use the site to commit Internet homicide. Craigslist was also criticized for Internet fraud and E-fencing and how the site easily lures victims and facilitates murders, scams, and the sale of stolen goods.
In 2001, the company started the Craigslist Foundation, a § 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that offers free and low-cost events and online resources to promote community building at all levels. It accepts charitable donations, and rather than directly funding organizations, it produces "face-to-face events and offers online resources to help grassroots organizations get off the ground and contribute real value to the community".
Since 2004, the Craigslist Foundation has hosted eight annual conferences called Boot Camp, an in-person event that focuses on skills for connecting, motivating and inspiring greater community involvement and impact.
The Craigslist Foundation is also the fiscal sponsor for Our Good Works, the organization that manages AllforGood.org, an application that distributes volunteer opportunities across the web and helps people get involved in their communities.
As of summer 2013, the Craigslist Foundation's functions are mostly moved to LikeMinded.org and the CraigsListFoundation.org is no longer updated.24 Hours on Craigslist (2005), an American feature-length documentary that captures the people and stories behind a single day's posts on Craigslist
"Due Date" shows the lead actor Ethan (Zach Galifianakis) buying marijuana from a dealer through the site.
The Craigslist Killer (January 3, 2011), a Lifetime made-for-TV movie featuring the story of Philip Markoff, who was accused of robbing and/or murdering several sex workers he met through Craigslist's adult services section
Craigslist Joe ( August 2012), a documentary featuring a 29-year-old man living for 31 days solely from donations of food, shelter, and transportation throughout the U.S., found via Craigslist
Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016), a comedy based on a real Craiglist ad placed by two brothers who wanted dates for their cousin's wedding that went viral in February 2013, which they then turned into a book, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates: and A Thousand Cocktails.
Nerdcore hip-hop musician Schäffer the Darklord recorded a song called "Craig's List" for his album, Mark of the Beast (2007)
"Weird Al" Yankovic released a song titled "Craigslist" (June 16, 2009), which is a parody of the website, done in the style of The Doors
The American comedy series Bored to Death revolves around a fictional Jonathan Ames (played by Jason Schwartzman) who posts an ad on Craigslist advertising himself as an unlicensed private detective.
In Dexter, season 1, episode 8 ("Shrink Wrap"), the title character, Dexter Morgan, places an ad in Craigslist's "Lost Connections" section in hopes of connecting with "The Ice Truck Killer", who drained and dismembered female victims, and who had similarly treated a Barbie doll he'd left in Dexter's kitchen. In keeping with that theme, Dexter's ad read: "Dear Ken, I'm in pieces. Why the cold shoulder? Love, Barbie." The ad's first reply was lewd. When Dexter's colleague, Masuka, said he'd hoped the husband of a victim they were trying to classify as either murder or suicide could help him score his own sugar mama, Dexter suggested, "Try Craigslist". Masuka responded, "I already did. Nothing but cat ladies and saggy tits."
The premise of the sitcom New Girl centers around a girl (Zooey Deschanel) who looks on Craigslist to find new roommates. She misunderstands one of the listings and ends up moving in with three men, when she had intended to find female roommates.
In November 2007, Ryan J. Davis directed Jeffery Self's solo show My Life on the Craigslist at Off-Broadway's New World Stages. The show focuses on a young man's sexual experiences on Craigslist and was so successful that it returned to New York by popular demand in February 2008.