SAN FRANCISCO – Mark Sargent thinks he’s the strangest thing on Craigslist.org. He says as much after slipping a Led Zeppelin track into a music deck and belting out a hearty show-tune rendition of “Rock and Roll” while channeling the voice of Ethel Merman.
But the female impersonator may have plenty of competition for the “strange” title in a new documentary currently shooting in San Francisco about a day in the life of the eclectic Craigslist.org website.
Craigslist: The Movie follows the stories of various people who posted ads for jobs, poodles, husbands, a ’70s-style backup band and more, all on the same day: Aug. 4, 2003.
These folks include a transsexual offering erotic services to earn money to complete his sex-change operation in Thailand; an employment agency seeking a toy poodle for a TV commercial; a woman selling her Burning Man ticket due to a bicycling injury; and a dominatrix-cum-personal trainer who makes house calls to wrestle men into shape.
On that same day, Craigslist visitors could even find an ad by the organizers of a flash mob, a group that stages community performance art by gathering strangers in public places to act out random instructions, much to the bafflement of passersby. A recent San Francisco flash mob sighting included dozens of people who raised their arms to the sky at a cable car stop and twirled in unison several times before mysteriously dispersing.
Directed by San Francisco-based actor and filmmaker Michael Ferris Gibson, the 90-minute movie aims to capture the zeitgeist of the popular site, which has been serving the Internet community as a digital commons since 1995.
Gibson and producer Simon Johnson, his partner at Zealot Pictures, are shooting the movie with nine crews using digital cameras and plan to submit the production for competition at the Sundance Film Festival next year.
After randomly picking the August date out of a hat, quite literally, and including a checkbox option on the online posting form for people interested in participating in the movie, Gibson’s staff sorted through 1,881 postings from every section of the site including Missed Connections and Casual Encounters.
“It’s a forum where people can express themselves to any degree, so we want to see what it is that they’re going to express,” Gibson says.
Launched in San Francisco by former programmer Craig Newmark, Craigslist now serves 23 cities, including New York, London and Toronto. The site receives 1.2 million postings a month, a figure that has doubled since last December. Craigslist’s popularity lies in its open-ended nature, which allows anyone to post anything for free, except for job listings.
The film crew interviewed one woman who said she interacts with other posters so much that she feels a greater sense of community on the site than on the neighborhood block where she lives.
Sargent, the female impersonator who posted an ad searching for a rhythm section for his Ethel Does Hard Rock performance later this year at San Francisco’s Castro Street Fair, found a lead guitarist on Craigslist in a week. He’s used the site to find work, sublet apartments and locate garage sales. A friend of his who scans the Casual Encounters section has had 62 “interesting encounters” spawned by Craigslist in five months.
“It’s become such a popular way of people connecting on so many different levels,” Sargent says, he’s surprised no one has succeeded in copying the model.
Newmark says he’s been approached by people who wanted to create a reality TV show based on the site, particularly on the personals listings. But he turned them down because they didn’t take the right approach or have the proper respect. Gibson and Johnson, he says, understand the nature of the community.
Despite the free-flow nature of the site, people still can find some postings on the site objectionable – though not always the ones you’d expect. Holly Dalton’s posting was “flagged,” which in Craigslist-speak means that her message provoked complaints.
The 23-year-old, a recent college grad who studied anthropology and is participating in the film, offered her services as a fake girlfriend or wife to gay men who were willing to pay. Though she didn’t list prices in her ad, she says she was hoping to get $2,000 a month to pose as someone’s girlfriend for appearances with family and co-workers who might not know a man was gay or $10,000 for a green-card marriage to gay foreigners. But that was before her ad was taken down.
Outside of deleting blatantly racist posts and scams, Newmark says he refrains from censorship. “We genuinely give people the power to remove crap via flagging,” he says. “Posts are only removed if enough people flag it for the same reasons. We have a distinct cutoff point for city, category and reason.”
Dalton believes she was flagged by a reader who got into a “shouting” match with her by e-mail. Another reader wrote her to complain that the ad specified no “stuffy, white Republicans.”
Gibson says the project has “already been an interesting sociological study” as it has revealed all sorts of subcultures within the San Francisco Bay Area, joined by common interests. One thing the film will allow Craigslist posters to do is see the outcome of postings they’ve read.
“The whole site is person-to-person communication, and there’s no one to really follow up on what goes on. On eBay you see what sold for what price and who bought it. But on Craigslist you never know what happened,” he says.
Newmark has given Gibson latitude to film pretty much anything he wants, as long as the finished piece fairly represents the site’s many aspects.
In keeping with the communal nature of the site being documented, Johnson says the film crew will share equally from sales of the film.
He calls the documentary “a film about community done by community.” In fact, most of the staff found their jobs on the film through an ad on Craigslist.