Friday, April 28, 2006 | Municipal Itinerant

On one wall reads an intriguingly personal, casual message: “It sure seems to me like there are two sides to you…like maybe you want to talk, but then the looks you give could kill. I’m not sure if I’m exciting enough for your needs. I’m more laid back.”

Another bears an urgent plea: “Please help we are two single women in which one has a young child and the phone company hooked up the wrong line and won’t help without charging an arm and a leg and we can’t afford that if you know anything about telephones and you might be willing to help please let us know please.”

Welcome to the most unpredictable neighborhood in San Diego. It’s not really all that different from other parts of the city, except that here you can find pretty much anything you want: $300 bottles of sake for $1, “a woman for the back of [your] Harley,” unbridled political discussion to be continued for three days, or help with some dire predicament.

It’s a bewildering, interesting place to find a job, a hobby, or a friend of any persuasion but you can’t get there with a car. To get to this district, fire up a new browser window, direct it to sandiego.craiglist.org, and prepare to be hooked on the ‘hood of the future.

Despite the fact that this digital age seems to supply a major revolution in one way or another about every week, (How the internet changed the ________ industry is the evergreen story for the new millennium), too much attention goes to the technical innovators and their gadgetry. Endlessly more fascinating – and much harder to capture – is what average people do with their new technology.

And while that’s difficult to understand absolutely, the diverse uses for Craigslist – a family of 190 free classified sites for cities in all 50 states and 35 countries – gives at least a hint of the possibilities presented.

Never before has it been possible to reach so many people both around the world and around the bend so easily – and so anonymously. Like no other sphere of social interaction before, the Internet gives users almost total freedom to represent themselves: name, picture, description and location. Using the site’s anonymous reply method, one can publicize very private business without giving up any privacy at all. The compelling consequences of that freedom are ever-present on Craigslist.

“Our lies… have torn us apart. You don’t know the half of it, you never even knew me at all. I am going to disappear now, vanish into thin air. Perhaps you will look for me here, really though, don’t waste your time. Maybe someday you will feel sorry for wrecking everything. Believe me, I do,” laments one user.

The posts (as messages are called) take on their own aesthetic in bare, blue type, squeezing out every bit of presence in a sphere where everyone’s shouts more or less look the same. The Craigslist post has become such a poetic phenomenon that the site even enables users to flag particularly effective messages, which its managers review and then include in a section called “best-of-craigslist.”

Example: “Me – wielder of folded up section of the Post Gazette “Mag & Movie” section, expertly crafted into a deadly, well-folded insectoid death-dealing machine. You – housefly the size of a ’53 Buick, buzzing around erratically, never landing or remaining still long enough for me to crush the living bejeebus out of you.” (Originally filed under “missed connections.”)

A hundred years ago, doomsday-ers were predicting a complete alienation of humanity from itself as a consequence of living in cities, which they feared would make everyone a stranger. Two or 50 technological revolutions down the line, and it seems the Internet -through “places” like Craiglist – is bringing people back together in a way no one could’ve imagined.

Sure, people sit alone at home or at their work and scroll blithely through the hundreds of messages posted daily, removed from the “real world” and face-to-face interaction. People now fear future alienation through the removal of physical proximity as a requisite for social interaction. And some of these conversations are less than civilized.

But at some point, those hesitations will be wholly eclipsed by the lure of convenience. In the future, people will see being “civilized” as a quaint restriction on the old way of getting things: going somewhere and talking to someone. (“You mean I have to put clothes on?”)

The “real world” will be passed up in favor of the much more useful digital world, where free communication frees people to do more of exactly what they want, without bothering with many of the rituals or inhibitions that once dominated social life.

If that sounds like Armageddon to you, relax: As I said before, useful communication as it happens through Craiglist is still tied to physical proximity – the most popular ads are the ones we’re all familiar with: receptionists needed, Hondas for sale, studios for rent. Craiglist says it’s trying to be a “trustworthy, efficient, relatively non-commercial place for folks to find all the basics in their local area.”

Which is why I introduced it as a neighborhood of San Diego. Although Craiglist carries important implications for the Internet and human communication in general, it’s most instrumental use is as a fourth dimension in which people who live nearby can interact with each other, overcoming the barrier of space. Like a bulletin board or a clubhouse, but without the prejudices of sight or traffic.

“Golfers wanted – let’s do 18, beers and sunshine,” offers one post – pretty straightforward. But then below it – next door in this neighborhood – lurks the weird allure of the web, where a few cryptic words could mean anything: “Are you ready to be worshipped?”

Send your own tips about San Diego’s curious public spaces to Ian Port at

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