Thursday, September 10, 2009

Poetry & Popular Culture Heroes: An Interview with Jim Buckmaster of Craigslist

Poetry & Popular Culture was pleasantly surprised when it opened up the September 2009 issue of Wired magazine and discovered that a significant portion of a feature article on Craigslist (Gary Wolf's "Why Craigslist is Such a Mess") was given over to the poetry that has become part of the warp and woof of what is now the world's largest classified section. Wolf reports that Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster (pictured here) has turned to poetry as a weapon in the fight against spammers, con artists, message-happy business owners posting in too many categories at once, and other people interfering with the site's effective performance. "Without a computer science research department to work on evil-fighting algorithms, or a call center to take complaints," Fox explains:

"Buckmaster has settled on a different approach, one that involves haiku. The little poems he has written appear on the screen at times when users might expect a helpful message from the staff. They function as a gnomic clue that what you are seeing is intentional, while discouraging further conversation or inquiry. For instance, start too many conversations in the forums and your new threads may fail to show up. Instead, you will see this:

frogs croak and gulls cry
silently a river floods
a red leaf floats by

Attempt to post a message that is similar to one you've already entered, and this may appear:

a wafer thin mint
that's been sent before it seems
one is enough, thanks

The slight delays in cognitive processing that these haiku cause are valuable. They open a space for reflection, during which you can rethink your need for service. But haiku can't solve everything....."

Wanting to know more about the power of these gnomic clues, and taken by the prospect of the huge audiences that Buckmaster's poems might command (even if a fraction of each month's 20 billion page views results in a user reading a poem, that's a huge audience that even Billy Collins and Mary Oliver combined can't touch), Poetry & Popular Culture decided to track Buckmaster down and ask him a few questions. Here's what he had to say for himself.

P&PC: When and why did you start using poems on Craigslist?

Jim: In 2000, strictly for the fun of it.

P&PC: Do you write them all? Like, do you have a secret MFA degree that we don't know about?

Jim: No MFA, but I did write the haiku.

P&PC: What's your favorite?

Jim: Probably:

frogs croak and gulls cry
silently a river floods
a red leaf floats by

P&PC: Why limit yourself to haiku?

Jim: We don't. We've also used bits from Shakespeare's Sonnet 33, Keats' "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," and I believe something from A.E. Housman.

P&PC: Your poems appear when people are potentially abusing the site. What sort of discipline does haiku offer in contrast to other poetic forms?

Jim: Brevity.

P&PC: Gary Wolf's Wired article suggested you match certain haiku with certain offenses. How does that pairing happen?

Jim: Each haiku was composed to address a particular aspect of our user interface, often to take the place of an error message.

P&PC: What sort of feedback do you get?

Jim: Users seem mostly to like them, at least compared to error messages.

P&PC: Can we expect a Craigslist Collected Poems anytime soon?

Jim: Not sure the corpus merits it, but one can dream.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

We Can Do Better Than That

Appeared in the Statesman-Journal on September 5, 2009

For “luxury living in the heart of Salem,”
The Rivers has asked for a loan.
“We desperately need a product to show,”
or so says one partner, Matt Sloan.

We’ve bailed out airlines, Big Oil, Detroit,
Freddie Mac and AIG,
so why not the Front Street condos as well?
It sounds okay to me.

In fact, we can do better than that.
Why loan when we can give?
Times are tough for all of us,
and even the well-off need places to live.

But why only give? It’s important, you see,
that we help the properties sell.
I’m sure we could get a helluva price
if we promise to buy them as well.