If the failure of Communism -- and high school career placement exams -- is that no one dreams of digging ditches, we may be inching towards a world in which only the most unsavory jobs won't attract volunteers to do them. Consider craigslist, a nearly free site with classified listings that are slowly strangling the newspaper industry.
Craig Newmark, its founder, was, and remains, protective of the noncommercial character of the site. In the early years, he ran it in his spare time with the help of other volunteers. Eventually, the traffic overwhelmed them; he quit his day job and imposed fees to pay for full-time stewardship. But he minimized the impact on the community by restricting the new charges to employers in San Francisco who placed job ads. Modest fees for employers in two other cities were added only last year, and only after Mr. Newmark invited Craigslist visitors to comment on the wisdom of the change; there were 3,000 remarks, all posted publicly. Today, 99.2 percent of Craigslist advertisements remain free.
If you're the publisher of a local newspaper, you're spending a lot of time thinking about Craigslist. Traditionally, local newspapers have derived 30 to 50 percent of their advertising revenue from the classifieds.
Surprisingly, the momentum of this online alternative with virtually free offerings had not drawn much attention as recently as last fall, when Creative Intelligence, a consulting firm based in Altamonte Springs, Fla., surveyed the newspaper industry. It discovered that many executives were unaware of the arrival of Craigslist in their own cities. Nor were all aware that aside from a sliver, ads on Craigslist were available free.
In addition to the few ads that cost money, Craig Newmark and his company make money from selling ads on the site itself, but there was no guarantee he'd make money when he started providing a free service. Perhaps ditch diggers will always be salaried, but I think technology is reducing the benefits of scale enough so that soon just about every service job will be done by those who begin as hobbyists -- computers can already do most mental gruntwork.