Facebook began rolling out Marketplace this week, a prominently placed new section that’s designed to help users buy and sell their stuff. It’s a photo-heavy, mobile-friendly product that seems to be aimed squarely at supplanting Craigslist. Given Facebook’s global audience of 1.7 billion, Marketplace represents a cleaned-up, Type A threat to the aging but delightfully scrappy online market.
But so far, Marketplace’s rollout has had all the weirdness of a medieval bazaar—and some of the illicitness of Silk Road. Just hours after the ribbon-cutting, a company product manager apologized for the number of posts that had violated Facebook’s commerce policies. Those included offers of drugs, guns, sex, animals, and babies. (Human babies. As a joke, I think.)
It was an unsavory debut, another misstep following a handful involving Facebook’s regulation of speech. Last month, the company removed a famous war photograph, which features a naked 9-year-old girl, that had been posted by the Norwegian prime minister. The photo was restored after a public outcry, the latest skirmish over Facebook’s nudity policies. The company has also struggled with its “trending” news feature, which has been lambasted after promoting fake stories and hiding real ones. There are thousands of stories about Facebook algorithms wrongly deleting pages, posts, or photos.
So far, Marketplace has gotten weird in the opposite way. But expect that to change; Facebook has promised it will. And in that sense, Marketplace’s risqué beginning is more than a slip at the starting dock. It’s a test. The more Facebook polices Marketplace, the more it risks cutting out products at the margins of what’s allowed, frustrating sellers and reducing the site’s viability as a Craigslist competitor. The problem is analogous to the network’s speech issues—except that Facebook already has a successful rival for selling stuff.
You can see why buyers might prefer a marketplace with identity verification, as Facebook’s effectively has. But for sellers, what are the advantages in a tightly regulated Facebook marketplace that might censor at the margins, mistaking a Beanie Baby for a baby, a motorcycle for a hog, or a Supersoaker for a gun?
The alternative, of course, is Craigslist, the great souk of the web. It’s hard to overstate the site’s size or impact in the U.S. It was among the country’s 15 most-visited websites last year, according to Alexa. One fifth of the country visits every month. In the rental apartment market, where Craigslist is dominant, researchers have shown that the site so improved on the old, printed classified listings that it caused the average metropolitan rental vacancy rate to plummet by 10 percent.
At 21 years old, though, it is an internet dinosaur—older than Google, older even than Slate! It acts like it, too. When Padmapper tried to overlay Craigslist rental listings on Google Maps—a simple innovation that would make looking for an apartment much easier—Craigslist sued. After three years, Padmapper and 3Taps, which also aggregated Craigslist real estate data, agreed to stop using data from the site. Craigslist operates in 70 countries, but not in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Russian, Swahili, or Japanese. It’s the rare successful tech company that has shown little interest in constant optimization.
All this is to say that the giant and slow-moving site, which looks virtually the same now as it did in 2005, could use a kick in the pants. No wonder that VCs have lustily eyed OfferUp and VarageSale, a pair of wannabe competitors. It’s not the first time, either, that Facebook has tried to convert its social network into a commercial exchange. In 2007, when it had 22 million users, Facebook unveiled its first Craigslist competitor. But the company let it go in 2009, and it was fully shut down in 2014.
Now Facebook is a behemoth. Each month, more than a quarter of its users visit buy-and-sell groups, where Facebook enabled a “For Sale” post option last year. Facebook may find particular success in this area in the developing world, where no dominant internet marketplace exists and its high user numbers offer an enticing network effect.
Here, though, building the premier peer-to-peer marketplace will require some nice incentives to sellers. If Facebook approaches postings like it approaches breastfeeding photos—i.e. censor first and answer questions later—an easier, looser, and more libertine forum of exchange will challenge it for their loyalty. In the U.S., Craigslist already exists. Hopefully, the competition will force it to become more responsive to the needs of its users.
Craigslist of course has its own code of conduct that bans weapons, drugs, counterfeits, food stamps, pets, prostitution, and recalled items. But the site takes an evidently more laid-back approach to policing its submissions. To take an innocuous example, it took me all of five seconds to find a Samsung Galaxy Note 7, the recalled exploding phone, for sale.
Facebook, in short, makes a strong case for buyers. But for sellers? Craigslist could work better, but it has been working well enough.