Friday, May 15, 2009


It is hard to disagree with Jim Buckmaster's characterization of the hysteria over the attacks allegedly committed by BU Med School student Philip Markoff as, well, hysteria. Of course these are heinous charges but isn't Buckmaster clearly right that the danger of attacks on people offering sexual services arises out of those offers rather than the medium--Craigslist versus print ads--used to communicate the offers? Sadly, the risk to sex workers from johns is endemic to the job. And the risk of detection of a person intent on killing a sex worker depends on what measures he takes appropriate to the medium. A perp who calls from his home phone or answers a Craigslist ad via his own computer and/or account is much more likely to be detected than someone who calls from a payphone or uses an internet cafe and pays with cash.

Indeed, this all seems so obvious that it is tempting to see the anti-Craig's List reaction to the Markoff case as really about something else. And that something else, we might think, is the long-simmering fear that anonymous contact over the internet can lead people to misplace their trust in strangers who then do them harm in the real world. By cutting or repackaging the "erotic services" section of its site, Craigslist does almost nothing to prevent someone intent on evil from making contact with a poster offering to sell a piece of furniture or clean an apartment. Craigslist and the internet more generally--especially dating sites--offer miscreants numerous possibilities to lure victims into secluded places, including the victims' own homes.

Yet that danger is also and more or less equally posed by print classified ads, so we need to look even deeper to what the internet represents, rather than to what it is, to find an explanation for what I take to be a widely shared unease about online interactions. The internet has become a cause of and symbol for the isolation of much of contemporary life, typically facilitated by machines that allow people to interact with one another virtually rather than in real time and space. Yes, crazed killers could have found their victims through the print classifieds in the old days, and for all I know, some did. But the print classified ads never fostered a sense of isolation and so never became the target for the sort of concern we are now seeing (ultimately mis)directed at Craigslist.

Posted by Mike Dorf


Jonathan Bernstein said...

Nice AP story with the latest on Craigslist vs the South Carolina AG at

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