I went on Craigslist last night. I did not search anything to buy or sell. Instead, after having a drink, I was feeling cynical and ironic, looking for a strange section of the internet to experience beyond the algorithmic fields of Instagram and Twitter. And so, I checked out Orange County Craigslist’s “Missed Connections” section, along with their forums on death, religion, cosmology, and movies; I do not know what I was expecting, but here we go.
First, the missed connections section. This, if you do not know, is a place for those random people you see on the street, or those random people you meet in line for the DMV. Some hopeful souls really enjoy their conversations, and post as anonymous figures as an effort to maintain contact with those they have missed. So, the page is full of things like “Avocado Lady with Small Dog,” “Downtown Disney,” or “John.” The titles are cryptic, decoded by the esoteric key that only the intended recipient seems to hold. Further, there are descriptions in the posts, like “you said you had a place to meet…let’s be buds,” or, more sentimentally, “I should have told you that I love you. You are a good and beautiful person.” Sentimentality strikes often here: “miss you miss what we had” to the anonymous “you,” or someone else declares “I’m wondering if you’re out there…” Another even posts his address!!! The page is filled with honest desiring, expressed in a form of well-intended internet romance.
Oh Craigslist! I do not see this discourse anywhere else on the internet, especially not in 2021. There is too much hope here (Hope? Hope! Does that word even mean anything these days??): hope that the recipient will go on Craigslist, open the correct thread on the correct date, and uncover the fact that they are, unequivocally, Avocado Lady with Small Dog, or that they are the person at Downtown Disney (the one in the hoards and swarms Disney fanatics), hope that their sentimentality will be received unironically, in all intimate sincerity, hope that the bots and trolls aren’t lurking to take advantage of their unrequited longing, that your address-made-public is safe because people can’t be that bad. The internet, here, is a neutral and honest mediator. It seems to remain benevolent, oblivious to the current state of the cynical detachment of the “real” content world. Huzzah to them! They’ve kept it pure!
Now, the forums, which have, similar to the rest of the website, the utilitarian design of a potato. It is quite bad, but it works. The forums, which continue to be used, display titles of posts, and titles of responses scaffolded with indents under them. The content of the posts takes up the right-half of the screen. The forums function.
On the forums, the users exist in a certain type of familiarity with each other. That is, unlike much of the other internet world, people come to know certain users. They know that the person who posts constant references to Brokeback Mountain on the movie forum (surprisingly to some new posters) "actually belongs on the M4M section" (now non-existent, like the M4F and the F4F sections); they personally recognize the poster who makes the same atheistic arguments. When one confesses to his conversion to JW (Jedi’s Witnesses: May the Force Be With You), others know the poster well enough to say “lol you would.” Many seem to be regulars on the forums, so that, rather than being an anonymous space for dumping detached, impersonal content (the tide against which, I believe, most contemporaneous social medias try to push), Craigslist’s community participates with a certain acknowledgement of personality—that is, the people posting are more humanized, more conversational, than elsewhere.
With the personality of Craigslist comes with a less-developed (primitive!) mode of interacting with memes, or content. Either the memes are actually not funny, produced by older people (who are “out of touch”), or, (this is what I’d like to believe) the communities are insular or focused enough that the memes and jokes do not need to accumulate irony upon irony. Of course, many are just political and anti-vax jokes, and many are just insults to others. But there is an assumption, I think, that you can just make a joke with no complicated subtext; that you do not need to be current in pop culture, that subtle irony will not land here. You just need to say what you say, and call anyone who disagrees a “shitface” or some other blunt insult. This may be because the forum is not friendly to images, as it is mostly laconically text-based, and so the perpetual remixing of memes cannot take place. Maybe there are moderators to help out, I don’t know. It seems like the text-based medium of the forum, with the particular subjects of each thread, and the insular nature of the communities (who, really, will go on a Craigslist forum when Reddit is available?) creates a flattened internet space with little room for irony or subtle cynicism that fills out the rest of internet social media culture (Instagram: your life looks cool; Twitter: you are the wokest woke; Reddit: you are the smartest expert with an unqualified opinion; all of these paint a portrait of a personality that is idealistic enough for cynicism to creep in. Craigslist, seemingly, is honest and direct with its cynicism, expressed in direct insults). So, you can be as honest as those in missed connections, you can call someone out too, you can be quite rude. It is a strange place, but it also, maybe, corresponds closer to real humans beyond the simulacra-generating algorithms.
But I may be wrong. Please look at Craigslist for yourself. There is a particular quality, one that I cannot quite place (and I have tried to trace it, not in detail because detail kills the vibe), that alludes to the “early internet,” which, because it is “early” OBVIOUSLY means it is more “authentic” and more “real.” At the very least, it provides an alternative space more curious than your algorithm-curated Instagram feed, one that suggests a life liberated beyond the algorithm, one that strips technology bare and (maybe) sees human-technology-interaction more transparently. So, against the honest naïve longing that characterizes the “missed connections” section, and the simple direct quality that characterizes the forums, the whole intelligent technological infrastructure existing beyond Craigslist looks malicious, complicated, cynical.
Further research is required, though, if anyone would like to do a close reading of Craigslist.