Craigslist needs a new publicist. Or a sex therapist.
Last week the online classified service made the news for its role in a Bucks County prostitution ring. News articles reported that Bensalem police busted a dozen suspected prostitutes who advertised their services in barely-clad code. One claimed she was in Langhorne for the day and wanted donations of "300 a visit." Another described herself as a "quick afternoon snack" for "100 roses."
Now a couple web experiments involving craigslist are causing problems for everyone involved.
A blogger named Simon Owens went to the site's "Casual Encounters" section to test just how easy a hook-up might be. He posted ads in New York, Chicago and Houston versions of the service, advertising that he was looking for a sexual partner. In different ads, he posed as a male and as female, and announced is interest in members of the same and opposite sexes.
He got responses immediately - mostly from men looking for women. In Chicago he attracted 200 replies when he posed as woman looking to have sex with a man. And zero when he posed as a man looking to have sex with a woman. In New York, it was 165 to zero. In Houston it was 54 to 1. In each city his ad as a bi-curious male looking for another male earned 10 or less responses. His ad as a bi-curious female earned 2 or less.
Predictable? Maybe. But what amazed him was the quick responses and the stupidity of those emailing him back.
His "straight female" postings pulled more than 20 emails after only three or four minutes of being posted. He was "overwhelmed" how many straight males sent pictures of their equipment - and nothing else. "Were they really expecting that a girl would see a picture of their penis and exclaim "That's the guy for me?" One romantic sent a 2,000-word erotic short story.
The most troubling part is that many included their full name and pictures, and the blogger easily tracked down "most of them" through Google. Most said they were between 20 and 40. Two said they were Congressional aides. Maybe that's not so surprising.
His conclusions included this: "If a really malicious person wanted to get on craigslist and ruin a lot of people's lives, he easily could."
Which leads to the second experiment.
Last week, a Seattle web developer named Jason Fortuny started his own craigslist research project. He wondered how many responses he'd get in 24 hours if he posed as '27 yo sexy str8 woman' -- a submissive woman looking for to be dominated by a man.'
He tallied 178 responses, including 145 with photos of men in "various states of undress." Responses included email addresses, names, IM screen names and phone numbers.
Then he published the information - unedited - on Encyclopedia Dramatica, which is to web fads what Wikipedia is to the popular knowledge.
Instantly, commenters started identifying the men. Not everyone appreciated his spirit of transparency. Some were emailed by those who found the whole business unfair.
Waxy.org's Andy Baio does a first-rate job of recapping the ensuing storm and exploring legal and privacy issues. Fortuny used to post his own contact information on his site. After being threatened for his actions, he has since taken down any details that would make it easy to reach him. Monday, as he attracted coverage in Slashdot and Metafilter, his entire server was down.
But the guy whose MySpace page says he likes pushing people's buttons, was charting reaction here.
(Illustration by the San Jose Mercury News)