Sunday, May 07, 2006

For Rant

Craigslist, the ubiquitous Internet want ad service that covers sellers and buyers from coast to coast (and a number of exotic foreign destinations as well) was discussed at some length in today's New York Times ("The Nitpicking Nation"). The article focuses mostly on bemused commentary on a choice-obsessed culture in which every feature of a potential roommate, lover, or employee can be specified. In a darker vein, it also explains how digital genres blend in current Internet want ads, so that hybrid housing/personal ads give posters the potentially abusive opportunity to request particular sexual favors or fetish accompaniments from their lodgers.

Most concerning, perhaps, for the citizens of what Jane Fountain calls the Virtual State, is the fact that the identity-based strategies of association expressed in these want ads can become mechanisms for exclusion as well. A suit by the Chicago Lawyers' Committee alleges that craigslist allows illegal discriminatory advertising for housing, because it does not adequately screen the ads it posts. Those who are knowledgeable about the profusion of code words and euphemisms for racial and religious bias, including terms like "all-American," are well-aware that such screening must be done by a live person, since -- like pornography -- discriminatory language can get by automated filters. The CLC argues that the added expense of monitoring content can be easily accomodated, because craigslist is a for-profit entity.

Yet the current "terms of use" statement that all posters click already specifies that discriminatory language is prohibited. Furthermore, supporters might counter that additional policing violates free speech and the prime directive of the Internet that "information wants to be free."

Others might say that this slippery category of "community" has always been primary for founder Craig Newmark, who still organizes his flagship San Francisco website with the "community" heading in first position. In fact, web development in the Bay Area has a history of community-building practices around home and hearth, such as the Thursday Night Dinners in the mid-nineties. The ideologies of these communities may actually be ones of inclusion not exclusion.

As a practicing landlady, I also take issue when the Times lumps completely legal requests for "no pets" tenants (for reasons of maintaining the physical condition of the property and limiting liability caused by the actions of non-human actors) in with racist, sexist, theocratic, and otherwise totally unacceptable forms of discrimination.

This doesn't mean that I don't think the article has a point. These are troubling violations. Unfortunately, in my own experience as a user of craigslist, I think that the housing ads are actually not the worst offenders. I've seen far worse entries in the job listings category and more of them, in which age, gender, attractiveness, and lifestyle are frequently offensively spelled out.



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