This study examines censorship by anonymous readers on the “Missed Connections” section of the online website craigslist. craigslist is a community-oriented site that resembles the form and function of newspaper-based classified advertisements. The site was launched by Craig Newmark in 1995 and features advertisements (or “posts”) that can be submitted free of charge.  The craigslist system is geographically divided into sub-sites (sometimes called “channels”), typically representing metropolitan areas such as “Washington D.C.” and “SF bay area”. Each channel features advertising categories including jobs, housing, for sale, and starting in 2000, a personals section that includes an area for “Missed Connections.”

Posts to Missed Connections are frequently formulaic (see Figure 1). The prototypical Missed Connection consists of a sighting or exchange which did not result in the inter-personal connection the author desired. An author will submit a post to craigslist that details the events of the encounter with a title and message, and hope that his intended target will read the post and recognize the description. Authors often include physical descriptions (“very attractive”), logistical details (“you were running on the treadmill”) and any interaction that might have occurred between himself and his target (“we made eye contact a few times”). Many, like the post in Figure 1, involve simple sightings and perceived romantic or sexual interest. Others might include contact on the dance floor, kind words shared in the lunch line, or repeated sightings at a common location like the gym. Virtually any interaction that does not result in the exchange of phone numbers, email addresses, or a name with which one can be found (for example, on Facebook) might result in a Missed Connection.

Figure 1. Typical Missed Connection

attractive women at 24 hour gym late tue nite early wed – m4w (fremont / union city / newark) 23yr

you were at fremont 24 hour gym tue nite around midnight till around 1:30 am wed. we made eye contact a few times, you were running on the treadmill infront of the scale i weaighed myself infront of you an then left. i found you to be very attractive hope to see you again or hear from you on here.

craigslist as a system. craigslist’s success has frequently been credited to its ease of use. Authors can quickly add content without a user account, and readers can easily search the site making the large quantity of posts manageable.  craigslist has increased in popularity over the years and is now the 45th most visited website on the Internet, and the 12th most visited site inside the United States.

This account-less format is unique.  Sites such as, Facebook, and eHarmony allow users to create profiles that include pictures, physical descriptions, personal interests and preferences. Missed Connections on the other hand, embedded in a site and format famous for selling bikes and futons, avoids profiles and persistent descriptions. Even the use of pictures is discouraged in the Missed Connection section. Where most social sites attempt to represent their users via personal attributes tethered to a user account, a Missed Connections author must construct a single-use identity with a title and single text box labeled “Description”. Each post, and the details it tries to convey, is self-contained, allowing the author to customize their level of disclosure and anonymity.

At the least, each Missed Connection post includes a title and message, and is submitted into a geographical region. Readers of Missed Connections are asked to select the appropriate geographical subsection (typically their closest metropolitan city) and then are asked to select from one of four gender/sexual orientation categories: w4m (Woman for Man), m4m (Man for Man), m4w (Man for Woman), and w4w (Woman for Woman). Posts to the reader are pre-filtered based on the category chosen. Craigslist does provide a way to view all posts, regardless of gender/sexual orientation, but the interface does not make this option explicit.

When submitting a post, the craigslist system first asks what type of missed connection you are posting, providing the following five options that correspond to the gender/sexual orientation categories described above:

  • i am a man seeking a woman (m4w)
  • i am a woman seeking a man (w4m)
  • i am a man seeking a man (m4m)
  • i am a woman seeking a woman (w4w)
  • skip this step

Posts authored by users that choose “skip this step” are placed into the general Missed Connection pool. These posts would only be seen if the reader does not choose a gender/sexual orientation category when entering the system.

Posts authored by users that choose “skip this step” are placed into the general Missed Connection pool. These posts would only be seen if the reader does not choose a gender/sexual orientation category when entering the system.

censoring on craigslist. Content moderation on the craigslist is placed squarely into the hands of its users. craigslist has provided a “flagging” system that allows reader to mark content they feel is inappropriate. Anyone is allowed to flag posts, and no identifying account or information is required. Users are instructed to “flag with care” and select from one of four categories. Other than posts flagged as “best of craigslist”, posts flagged an undisclosed number of times are removed from the system.

Flagging InterfaceFigure 2. Readers on craigslist can flag posts for four different categories. Three of these categories mark the post for censorship, “best of craigslist” however, nominates the post for a “featured”-like section of the system.

reading an identity. As I have discussed, Internet users provide identifying information explicitly through the content they generate, and implicitly based on their presence in a system and the identifying information that system provides. Post authors include information with which their identity can be read, but the craigslist system provides a number of geographical and cultural contexts relative which these identities are read. The inclusion of a geographical channel (e.g., Washington D.C., New York City, etc.), custom locations (e.g., “Connecticut Ave.”, “Castro”, “In my dreams!”), and gender/sexual orientation categories are all available to the reader when deciding if the post should be censored.