Craig Newmark on the Web’s Next Big Problem

I had the chance to sit down with Craigslist Founder Craig Newmark recently at his favorite breakfast spot in San Francisco, just a block or two from the house where Craigslist was launched 15 years ago this month. We talked about a number of his favorite topics, including the bird feeders he keeps having to replace (because the squirrels he likes to post about on Twitter destroy some 10-15 of them every year), his love of dogs (he doesn’t own one himself, but keeps dog treats with him to feed the various neighborhood pets he runs into during the day, most of whom he knows by name) and — last but not least — what he thinks is the next big problem the web has to solve.

And what is that? The question of who to trust online, according to Newmark. To solve it, he believes that what the web needs is a “distributed trust network” that allows us to manage our online relationships and reputations. I just happened to have a Flip video camera with me, so I convinced him to let me capture a few minutes of him discussing this concept; I’ve embedded the clip below.

Newmark called some form of distributed trust system “the killingest of killer apps” for the web over the next decade (he said he wasn’t sure that was the best way to describe it, but was trying out to see how it sounded). He talked about “reputation and trust ruling the web, just the way it does in real life,” and how he was looking to big players such as Google, Facebook and Amazon as the kinds of entities that would have the scale to handle such a distributed trust or reputation management network. And he said that despite some occasional missteps by both Google and Facebook when it came to privacy (Google Buzz and Facebook Beacon, respectively), he believed that both were acting in good faith and had a policy of “not being evil.”

The Craigslist founder also said that he saw a place for government to be involved in this process — something he hoped he would be able to help with — but that there would need to be a private-public partnership to provide checks and balances. And he hoped that the major players such as Google and Facebook would co-operate to create some kind of universal standard or platform to support such a trust or reputation network, rather than fighting with each other. Newmark said that as a society we needed to “get our act together and make this happen,” adding with a wink that the idea for the distributed trust network was all part of his “hidden agenda to move ahead on the web to try and save the world.”

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