Philip Markoff, Julissa Brisman and Craig Newmark’s Annus Horribilis

Craig Newmark is a nice guy who likes doing nice things for people he likes to call  “the community”. The only problem is that in 2009,  that community is no longer as small and as homogenous as the one Craig engendered in 1995;  the year he launched Craigslist as an e-mail list for friends and acquaintances in San Francisco.  On top of all the growing pains, the horrific killing of  Julissa Brisman has taught Craig that it is harder to play the nice guy role when people are  screaming  “bloody murder” (figuratively of course) over intimations of freedom of expression, and Craigslist’s once touted virtues of  “community policing.

(Community policing is Craigslist’s system of screening out objectionable content after the fact through what is called flagging. A post that receives a certain number of flags from users is automatically removed from the website. In the case of the once-embattled Erotic Services section, Craigslist used to rely on so-called  community policing until several state lawmen threatened to sue the pants off of Craig in the wake several crimes that could be linked to his website.)

Julissa Brisman: The end of accomodation. Before her killing, anti-Erotic Services lobbies were chomping at the bit.

Julissa Brisman & the end of accomodation: Before her killing in a Boston Marriott on April 14, 2009,  anti-Erotic Services lobbies were chomping at the bit to get at Craigslist’s collective behind.

In the wake of all Craigslist’s troubles one could argue, and argue convincingly, that the legal saber-rattling by state attorneys general, comes a distant second to the prospect of losing the nice guy/philanthropic mantle Craigslist has earned over its 14 years of existence. There is a method to figuring this out, and it doesn’t fall far from the values of community,  service and doing things in innovative new ways that have been described as bohemian, if not downright “communist.” Consider this if you are an inveterate skeptic: The money Craigslist stands to lose defending nonsensical lawsuits  pales in comparison to the money it has left on the table by not charging for its classifieds in hot metro markets like San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles. Now about that “communist” moniker: If it is not a back-handed compliment to the man the world knows as Craig, then we don’t know what is.  But someone needs to tell those fire-breathing Attorneys General.

Under the fumes-fomenting spotlight of the media their  diatribes were nothing but blistering.  The Connecticut Attorney General, George Blumenthal,  accused Craigslist of promoting “pimping and prostitution in plain sight” and lambasted it as a “blatant internet brothel.”  South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster had threatened Craigslist with criminal investigation if the company’s executives had not removed the Erotic Services section by May 15 of 2009. And  Cook County Sheriff, Tom Dart, had described Craigslist as the “largest source of prostitution in America” and filed a lawsuit.

Throughout all of this, the political posturing and hypocrisy by South Carolina Attorney General, Henry McMaster, did not go un-noticed.  The selective prosecution of Craigslist when there are other publications that are  publishing way more graphic sexual content, has raised more than the ire of Craigslist. McMaster is treading on thin ice atop a sewer lake without a harness.

Philip Markoff  the de facto end of Craigslist's presumed innocence. The death of Julissa Brisman was unlike the others. Craigslist could not weather the perfect storm it created.

Philip Markoff  and the de facto end of Craigslist’s presumed innocence. The death of Julissa Brisman was unlike the others. Craigslist could not weather the Andrea Gail-like  storm it created. The issues run deeper and wider than rhetoric, but that is not the stuff of tabloidry …. or Public relations.

The Julissa Brisman Killing: The Julissa Brisman killing was the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of creating a public relations atmosphere in which Craigslist felt extremely vulnerable, inspite  of being protected by Federal Law CDA Section 230 which holds it not liable for content posted by users.  But the Julissa Brisman killing was different. The seven Attorneys General couldn’t have asked for a better test case, not to mention public relations milieu that would synergize with with their campaign while putting Craig and company on the defensive.  In the wake of the killing, the lawmen did what any good politician would do: They ratcheted up the attack on Craigslist’s  Erotic Services and threatened all kinds of lawsuits in addition to the few that they had filed already.

Craig’s first instincts were to stand his ground, but when arguments about the effectiveness of community policing of the Erotic Services became untenable, he blinked …  Well,  in a manner of speaking. Craigslist C.E.O. Jim Buckmaster experienced a similar change of mind, if not heart.  The Craigslist Erotic Services was (as a result) deactivated starting on May 13, 2009 (05/13/09) with ads that were already posted being allowed to stay up for 7 days before being deleted.  The section has been replaced by the newly constituted “Adult Services” – a less gauche spread along the lines of the adult classifieds in the Yellow Pages or city metro weeklies you see in any major city. The genius of this compromise can turn out to be in its potential for allowing opposing parties to simultaneously claim victory. However CNN quotes Connecticut Attorney General, George Blumenthal as saying that they will be watching Craigslist like a hawk “to make sure prostitution and pornography do not migrate and move elsewhere.”

“We will be monitoring closely to make sure that this measure is more than a name change from ‘erotic’ to ‘adult’ and that the manual blocking is tough and effective to scrub prostitution and pornography,” he said.

“Our continuing investigation will assure that these steps are substance, not just spin, and that Craigslist really shuts down its open online red-light district.”

What this whole drama has proved is that inspite of  legal or legalistic justifications, Craigslist is still vulnerable to being found guilty in the court of public opinion. Playing Mr. Nice Guy comes at a big price.

In The Beginning Craig Newmark Created ….. Things were much simpler when Craig started his little website  in 1995. The community then was a rag-tag collectivity of San Francisco friends, acquaintances and fellow geeks  that he cobbled into a social network through a humble e-mail list.  The list  advertised local events,  shindigs and various forms of entertainment for overworked and under-entertained techies who needed a social lifeline. That was long before the e-mail  list morphed into a burgeoning website plugging anything from computers to companionship.  And that  was about a decade and half before a med student named Philip Markoff would instantly be dubbed the Craigslist Killer,  for allegedly killing an escort he found through the  Boston metro Craigslist. The name stuck like crazy glue while a coterie of lawmen from Massachusetts to South Carolina started circling the San Francisco upstart like famished sharks.

Craigslist’s response to the crisis was as slow and shoddy as George Bush’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina. Someone at H.Q. should have sounded the ship alarm concerning the potential seriousness of socio-legal-cum-P.R. backlash in the wake of the Boston killing.  Fairly or unfairly, the fall-out from the Julissa Brisman death is gonna follow the San Francisco company’s  for a long, long time.

This is a strange dock for the reticent San Franciscan who would rather be battling spammers, seeding community enterprises or traversing the internets as  Craigslist’s ambassador at large.  Jim Buckmaster, may be C.E.O. and  indispensable spokesperson in the current crisis, but Craig Newmark remains the heart and pulse of the organization. He may not be as savvy and smooth at dealing with the media at this juncture, but he is adapting and hewing to his best instincts, which is part of what made Craigslist what it is today.

Vignettes in progress:

A tale of two killings: The Julissa Brisman was not the first time someone had been killed through a connection made on Craigslist. (Google Katherine Ann Olson for a comparative case that raises interesting questions about how the current case is being treated. ) The reading of what went into those transactions and placing of ultimate culpability is what has created the perfect firestorm engulfing Craigslist right now. Be that as it may, tales of Craigslist’s demise are just way too exaggerated. The insidious threat to Craigslist’s heart, mind and soul may lie more with spam and the possible up-ending its free ads platform than in the morality-inflected debate pulsing the realm right now.

Is this the posture & mask of a killer? Philip Markoff in Boston Municipal Court, on April 21, 2009. Shades of Jeffrey Dahmer? Time will tell ....

Is this the posture & mask of a killer? Philip Markoff in Boston Municipal Court, on April 21, 2009. Shades of Jeffrey Dahmer? Time will tell ….

The Philip Markoff Story (A possibly chilling vignette straight out of a Coen brothers flick): The break in the Julissa Brisman case came hours after police released new security camera photos showing a clean-cut, 6-foot-tall man casually fingering his Blackberry as he nonchalantly walked to and from around the scene of three crime scenes.  Was this sheer coincidence or evidence of murderer in action? Was the casual mien the tell-tale sign of a cold-blooded killer?

The exterior presentation reminded people of another cold-blooded killer from a different generation; Ted Bundy, the serial killer who charmed his way into the confidence of many a young woman. The possibility that Philip Markoff could have been another Ted Bundy in the making is extremely unsettling. Killers who look clean-cut and normal are more unsettling than three-headed monsters.

Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? Markoff as preppy med student suits up. The possibility that he was Mr, Hyde in the making is scarier than the stuff of Friday the 13th.

Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? Markoff as preppy med student suits up. The possibility that he was Mr, Hyde in the making is scarier than the stuff of Friday the 13th.

The portrait of Philip Markoff  coming into slow focus is a Rorschach of sorts. What you get depends on who you talk to:

His then fiance, Megan McAllister, first described him as  “beautiful in and out.” The rosy portrayal may have been willful …. as in willful act of a woman in probable denial. She has since backed off her support in tortured press releases through her attorney. The bottom line is that she ended up shelving plans of marrying the young med student.

Some of the few friends Markoff had have described him as smart but geeky and awkward at times. They say he had  a goofy smile and was often the butt of collegial jokes. A female pre-med associate, who fought off  his aggressive sexual advances one drunken evening, describes him as ” very intelligent but definitely lacking in some social skills.” (Was Philip Markoff Leading a Double Life?  48 Hours Mystery)

The 48 Hours special, “Seven Days of Rage: The Craigslist Killer” fleshes out this story further.

Craigslist: A Victim of its own success spiked with  schadenfreude?

The sense that Craigslist is perhaps being singled out for “sober behandlung” is not imaginary ( adult entertainment for years mined the same raunchy terrain that CL did.) But that choice may have been  influenced more by Craigslist’s popularity and efficacy than anything else.  In other words Craigslist has probably become a victim of its own success in terms of its high profile and penetration of major metro markets and upending of  the older and more costly media models. Read that newspapers, magazines and weeklies.  The ill-will that Craigslist has created is no doubt creating waves of  schadenfreude, not only within the old media, but sleazy Craigslist wannabes that are chomping at the bit to monetize the figurative crumps that fall from the table of this highly lucrative market.

Be that as it may, the practical indictment of the Craigslist flagging regime in Erotic Services hints at some of the shortcomings users have been carping about in other sections of Craigslist. Will this lead to the throwing out of baby with the bathwater as  more moderated/paid postings take out the freedom and instantaneity of posting that made Craigslist such a hit with users?

Stay tuned. 

copyright© 2009


“Craigslist Killer Philip Markoff Commits Suicide” (ABC News)

Craigslist Killer Gets Arrested – 2 CBS News Interviews    (CBS, Youtube)

Craigslist strikes adult services under pressure (Christopher Leonard, Associated Press)

Craigslist computer and electronic classifies in new york and san francisco under bot spam attacks (Cyberaxis)

Scapegoating Craigslist is not going to solve the problem of underage prostitution (Don Hazen, AlterNet.Org)

Philip Markoff, The Craigslist Killer, Crime Documentary (Crimes World Wide Channel)

One response to “Philip Markoff, Julissa Brisman and Craig Newmark’s Annus Horribilis

  1. It’s a stupid problem. Craigslist is just one internet site. If it wasn’t for Craigslist, these hookers, pimps and johns would work another site somewhere on the Internet. Maybe Facebook or Myspace. But apparently Craigslist is too easy, too big and too fat of a target to ignore.

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