Update (March 23, 6:45 p.m.): Craigslist relocated its “mission connections” section to its “community” tab, assuaging the sadness of many mourners.
On a week when Mark Zuckerberg would really like a second chance, a corner of the Internet that offered exactly that has gone away: Craigslist deleted its “missed connections” section on Friday, along with all its other personal ads, citing Congress’s passage of an anti-sex trafficking bill that would hold sites liable for some unlawful user behavior.
“To the millions of spouses, partners, and couples who met through craigslist,” a parting note from administrators reads, “we wish you every happiness!”
Craigslist’s decision to strip away a sizable portion of its offerings lends credence to the view that the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, nicknamed FOSTA, will lead sites afraid of lawsuits to self-censor. Some think it is a small price to pay to stop trafficking — especially of children. Others say the law would actually make the Internet less safe by driving voluntary sex workers deep into the darker web.
It’s a crucial and complicated debate. But the fact we’re even having it helps explain why some have spent their time not diving into the ins and outs of selling sex online, but instead just mourning the demise of missed connections.
In our purest early-aughts dreams, connection was what the Internet was all about. The web would help us learn things we would never have learned, read things we would never have read, buy things (of course) we would never have bought and meet people we would never have met.
This all came true, but so did a lot else. Isolated and angry young men were learning and reading things that only made them angrier. For everything we bought, some corporation bought a little bit of us, too, gathering information on where we lived, what we “liked” and whom we loved. And those people we met weren’t always in it for cross-cultural heart-to-hearts. On the Internet, as the old cartoon says, nobody knows you’re a dog — or a scammer, a troll, a trafficker, an abuser of another sort, or even an ax murderer.
Missed connections, though, focused on that initial Internet idealism. The belief that, with the web, we never had to miss something again if we didn’t want to. Sending a memory out over the webwaves — I smiled at you on the street, or on a train or in a cafe, where you were reading the New Yorker, or Cosmo, or “In Search of Lost Time,” wearing a T-shirt, or a suit or a summer dress, and you smiled back — felt a bit like tossing a bottled-up message to the sea. Yet still, the hundreds of thousands who posted held out hope that someone would answer. And sometimes, someone did. Because the Internet was magic.
Craigslist launched in 1995. In 2006, the site’s founder told ABC, “The really big lesson that I have learned from doing Craigslist customer service full time . . . is that people are overwhelmingly good and trustworthy.” Tell that to anyone who has seen what Russia wrought on our elections 10 years later.
The Internet doesn’t inspire much idealism anymore. Instead, either we’re so used to it that it doesn’t feel like anything at all, or it’s scary. And to make it less so, legislators seem prepared to sacrifice some of the freedom that thrilled us in the first place. Missed connections is the consummate casualty.
Over the years, we’ve seen more and more of how the World Wide Web can go wrong, but we still remember how we imagined it would go right, and we’re still waiting for someone to tell us how to get there — our hopes hanging on like unanswered ads. But as any dedicated Craigslist user knows, those ads always eventually disappear.