One of the great nerds of the modern Internet comes to town Friday with a message to Tampa Bay's technology innovators to leverage the power of social media to support the common good.
Craig Newmark, 58, who called himself a "nerd" at least three times in the course of a phone interview Wednesday from New York, spoke broadly about his recent efforts to promote legitimate philanthropy online and to help veterans and their families.
He delivers remarks Friday to a sold-out luncheon crowd at the Tampa Bay Technology Forum's annual "coolTECH" expo at Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry.
"I want to cover a broad audience, especially those in technology," Newmark said of his reason for speaking here. "This is a time in history when we can provide tools for people to work together for the common good."
Newmark happens to be the "Craig" who founded Craigslist ( craigslist.org) 16 years ago as a free, online community notice board to sell used furniture and, later, to find apartments in San Francisco. Now it's morphed into the Internet's classified advertising juggernaut with more than 700 local sites in 70 countries that get more than 20 billion (with a B) page views every month.
It may be an online giant, but the for-profit, simple-styled Craigslist seeks little advertising. It still charges a modest sum for only a few services, like placing apartment ads via brokers in bigger cities. (In September, the site was pressured to shut down its money-making sex ads section.)
Analysts say if Craigslist ever starts charging for more classifieds, it could still make Newmark a billionaire. But he has apparently settled for a net worth that Forbes magazine last fall estimated at about $400 million.
Many in the newspaper industry still argue Craigslist, perhaps more than any other single Internet development, helped gut a key source of newspapers' revenue by diverting a large portion of classified ads to Craigslist. That makes Newmark a classic example of a "disrupter" by his creating a new service that overtakes an older one.
In a bizarre twist, Newmark is now working to promote quality journalism — with plenty of fact checking, some by citizen journalists — as one way to help support democracy in a changing world. He recently joined the board of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit news organization specializing in investigative journalism and public accountability.
Newmark is soft spoken, mild mannered and balding. He has a self-deprecating sense of humor, saying he is "comfortable" calling himself the "Forrest Gump" of the Internet. But his desire to speak often and promote social media as a tool to help society and democracy is forcing him, he says, "out of his comfort zone."
Instead of Gump, he now describes his role as more like the Internet's "Lady Gaga" — only without the elaborate costumes (though he did volunteer he'd look good dressed as a giant pocket protector).
Newmark's latest online project, unveiled earlier this year, is called craigconnects.org. Its mission is to identify and bring together those nonprofits and public-service organizations that Newmark considers both worthy and able to get things done.
Not bad for a nerd.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at email@example.com.