Farewell to Craigslist’s Personals Section, an Artifact of the Older, Weirder Web

Picture of a man and a woman wearing sunglasses on public transportation.
Missed Connections were Craigslist’s contribution to internet culture, and they live on, for now. Hendrik Wieduwilt/Flicker

Craigslist’s personals section was one of the last bastions of the old, weird, Wild West Web 1.0, and as of Thursday it is no more. The online marketplace abruptly shut down the section after Congress passed FOSTA, or the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex and Trafficking Act of 2017, a law that shifts responsibility for potentially criminal interactions from individual users to the platform hosting the content. The ostensible purpose of FOSTA is to combat sex trafficking, but free speech advocacy organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have voiced concerns about the law’s implications.

Visiting the site’s personals section now redirects to a short note:

US Congress just passed HR 1865, “FOSTA”, seeking to subject websites to criminal and civil liability when third parties (users) misuse online personals unlawfully.

Any tool or service can be misused. We can’t take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking craigslist personals offline. Hopefully we can bring them back some day.

To the millions of spouses, partners, and couples who met through craigslist, we wish you every happiness!

Rather than apply the ban to Missed Connections, the personals board for people to reconnect with or find people they met in person but didn’t speak to or get contact information for, Craigslist has for now moved it to the site’s Community section. Early signs indicate that some of the personals activity has transferred over to Missed Connections, at least until Craigslist tries to crack down on it.

Craiglist’s impulse not to throw out the Missed Connections baby with the personals bathwater probably owes to the Missed Connections’ stature as an online institution, one that’s also become a fixture of urban life. Missed Connections have inspired love stories, but also art, poetry, comedy, data analysis, and more.

In contrast to sweet, relatively innocent Missed Connections, the rest of the Craigslist personals section had a reputation too, but it was a more sordid one. If your parents ever worried about you trying online dating, it was probably because they read one too many stories about people getting murdered by people they met on Craigslist. But, this, too, can tell us something about the personals section’s significance in online culture. It was a bridge between the time the internet was a scary place, full of anonymous strangers and on the fringes of society, to now, when the internet is central to so much of what we do, so much so that the thought that a young person today would look for connections without the aid of the internet is preposterous. But just because more sophisticated apps and websites have emerged to take some of the fear out of meeting people online doesn’t mean that Craigslist personals were obsolete or had no place on today’s web. Indeed, they were still being posted and responded to right up until the shutdown. The personal ad has a long history that didn’t begin with Craigslist—and it won’t end with it either.