In defense of Craigslist

Here’s a job for the Citizen Media’s long tail: find the fist time anybody used the terms “Craigslist killer”, “Craigslist case” or “Craigslist murder”. What the effort will highlight are two issues for journalism. One is the absence of an engine that allows easy first-date or date-range search. (Unless I’m mistaken about that, which I’d be glad to be. [Later... I am.]) The other is the unfairness of turning the name of a business into an adjective that modifies the noun for a crime — essentially re-branding that business as a criminal accessory.

Why “Craigslist killer”? Well, the easy answer is that the killer apparently targeted victims he found on Craigslist, and that’s interesting. Meaning it’s kind of new and different. Murder goes digital. Hey, you don’t hear about “the phone book killer” or “the newspaper killer,” do you? (Well, actually, Craigslist has been called that too.)

My point here isn’t about how natural and easy it is to name a case “Craigslist murder”, but about what that does to Craigslist. I think it’s unfair, as well as a bummer for Craig Newmark and the rest of the Craigslist folks, even if the label is hard to avoid using.

Meanwhile, I’d love to see better chronological search on Google Blogsearch and Technorati, both of which offer it, at least for syndicated sources.

Dr. Weinberger covers this, and adjacent topics.

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16 comments

  1. Nicolas Ward’s avatar

    Is the old saw “no publicity is bad publicity” relevant at all? I assume Craigslist before had at least some national traditional media exposure, but this might cement their brand in the minds of more people who were not already users. The news story is also implicitly an ad for services you couldn’t otherwise advertise; I can easily imagine someone watching this story and thinking “Wow, I can find escorts discreetly on Craigslist, that’s much easier than the old way!”.

    My other complaint with this name is that to me “____ killer” means someone who struck multiple (I’d say intuitively at least 3) times, either in a spree or serially, where the descriptor is some combination of their method, their target class, or the location.

    I think another reason this is such a story is that it makes for good pictures; the women he targeted were attractive escorts, and he himself is a good-looking preppy medical student. It makes it more soapopery (it’s a word now!) than if he fit the more usual profile of creepy serial killer.

  2. Tim Jarrett’s avatar

    “Craigslist killer” has been used to refer to a killer product (first Google News reference in August 2004, a PCWorld article about Craigslist’s countersuit against eBay, referring to Kijiji).

    November 2007 was the first “Craiglist killer” reference that referred to an actual killing. I found a headline from India that refers to a crime in Minneapolis. The same crime was responsible for the first use of the phrase “Craiglist Murder”, in references dating to October 2007.

    (Google News timeline view is your friend. But it’s not as easy as it should be to get to–you need to click into All Dates, then find the timeline view link.)

  3. Charles Andres’s avatar

    Brands will continue to suffer from the transparency of anyone broadcasting anything that is archived for posterity by anyone else. Contrast Craigslist to Domino’s this month. Regardless of the consequences to the original ‘perps’, the brand damage has been done, and may continue for perhaps years.

    Technology increasingly empowers all individuals who some subset do mischief resulting in more legislation that leads to less freedom and flexibility. An article in this week’s New Yorker covered a lawyer’s speech about how legislation gone crazy has condemned bureaucracies to immobility for fear of being sued or worse. (Every time I fly I am reminded that that little plastic bag I have to fit all my liquids into happened because 4 people in the UK who didn’t even have passports contemplated a liquid explosive plot.)

    The tightrope we walk over the police state chasm keeps getting higher and thinner. I believe VRM-aware systems can help us increase the freedom, flexibility and trust we need to sustain our economic system.

  4. Jason Scott’s avatar

    Oh, come now, Doc! So defensive for Craigslist being used in attention-gripping headlines. You’re acting like this is some sudden thing. Everything gets a nickname for easy reference:

    The “Curry Killer”: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8009808.stm (April 21, 2009)

    And Harvey Carignan, “The Want-Ad Killer”: http://www.francesfarmersrevenge.com/stuff/serialkillers/carignan.htm

    Here are some journalistic nicknames we’ve seen over the past 100+ years:

    The Angel of Death. The Torture Mother. The .44 Caliber Killer. The Thrill Killer. The Vampire Rapist. The Freeway Killer. The Shoe-Fetish Slayer. The Campus Killer. The Vampire of Sacramento. The Monster of Rillington Place. The Sunset Strip Slayer. The Buttermilk Bluebeard. The Coed Murderer. The Candy Man. The Milwaukee Monster. The Mass Murderer of Munstberg. The Measuring Man. The Giggling Granny. The Demon of the Belfry…

    Once you go down that road, of checking how sensational stories are generated and how they’re kept alive, you’ll find it’s not a new-technology thing, not a anti-craigslist thing… it’s just the way papers have always worked, and always will, no matter what form they take.

  5. Nicolas Ward’s avatar

    Ardash, thanks for the link, I hadn’t heard of that tool. It shows stories for the previous “Craigslist killer” on April 1st; I wonder why he didn’t get national notoriety?

  6. vanderleun’s avatar

    It is unfortunate that the C and the K in this case are sounded the same.

    When that happens it becomes raw meme power and cannot be undone.

    I think Newmark will do the right thing here. He’s that kind of man.

  7. Kombinat!’s avatar

    Perhaps one should not write “in defense of Craigslist” but instead “In Condemnation of Sensationalist Journalism” that produces ‘murder reports’ to bring greater readership for advertising.

    Tact and simple human decency dictates that we not sensationalize ‘murder’ of another. It is a horrible act yet that act is not being reported, as citizens we are not being educated and informed ‘to form a more perfect union’. Instead the ‘media’ has forsaken citizenship and journalism and turned itself into ‘accessory department’. Accessories sell, ‘Craigslist’ as accessory is catchy and that’s about it. Very litte is being talked about the heart of the matter, that ‘murder’ was committed and the suspect is Philip Markoff. That fact is boring.

    Ultimately it is not what it does to Craigslist but what this ‘media’ is doing to us, the citizens.

  8. alan herell - the head lemur’s avatar

    Gee Doc,

    They had to call it something.
    ‘Golf’ and ‘Asshole’ were already taken.

  9. Chris Daly’s avatar

    Another reason for the derivation of the phrase “Craigslist killer” is an institutional one, from deep inside the news business.

    When a reporter writes a story, it must be given a “slug” — a snappy, short identifier, much like a “file name” for items in your computer. The slug is needed to identify each story and to differentiate it from all others. Ideally, these are one or two words, rarely three.

    So, at a huge news organization like the Associated Press, a slug like “killer” is not a good choice because it is so generic. On any given day, the AP might have dozens of stories moving about its computers involving killers. Far better is a slug that includes an unusual term or combination, like “Machete Killer” or “Craigslist Killer.” And, once the AP starts using a particular slug, the rest of the news business tends to follow suit.

    I don’t care to speculate about what would happen if an inventor of some killer app turns murderous. Would it be slugged “Killer App Killer”?
    And what if somebody else bumps that guy off?
    “Killer App Killer Killer”?

    What if somebody beat up David Ortiz? Would the story be slugged “Slugger Slugger”

    Stop me.

  10. Beep’s avatar

    Interesting…hopefully Craigslist is popular enough to ride it out.

  11. Deborah Stefani’s avatar

    I still advocate that “Bad Advertising is still Advertising”
    Meaning if Craigslist wasn’t popular enough to ride it out, they sure are now!

  12. PXLated’s avatar

    I thought Craigslist did a terrible job defending/explaining their list or thoughts on the problem on ABC. Was really quite surprised by that.

  13. PJ’s avatar

    it took me a while to realize that the ‘Craigslist killer’ was an actual person who killed others via Craigslist. My first thought was that just as Craigslist killed classified ads, someone had come up with an app they thought was a … ‘Craigslist killer’. Can we retcon my explanation into the multiverse, please? I like it better.

  14. Sydney escorts’s avatar

    Frankly, I don’t know how any escort could advertise on Craigslist. While its always appeared seedy to me, escorts need to be very cautious using such an advertising method. The most web savvy, and high class escorts have nicely designed websites and screening forms.

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