When he was in university, 22-year-old Jason Paul only ever used Craigslist to get rid of furniture and find apartments. But post-graduation, he was jobless and decided to give the online classifieds site another chance. In an unusual social experiment, the Washington, D.C. native vowed to devote nine months of his life to a three-city journey in the United States - completely executed through Craigslist.
He started out with his car, just one bag of clothes and food staples, a phone, a computer and $2,500. Everything else - jobs, housing, friends, leisure activities - he had to find through the popular classifieds community. And there was one more rub: He restricted himself from interacting with anyone new unless contact was initiated online.
Mr. Paul is now more than halfway through his expedition, which began in Oakland, Calif. (where he made cash by street canvassing) and has taken him to Denver (where he's working at a Denny's restaurant).
He's been documenting it all at livingcraigslist.com. He's scored a free Thanksgiving dinner with strangers, found a friend he meets weekly for crochet lessons, and experienced the highs and lows of searching for roommates online. But with each passing week, he's had more difficulty defining his role - is he an interloper running an experiment, or a legitimate member of the Craigslist community? And, as Mr. Paul told The Globe and Mail in a phone interview, this has led to some tough questions about how honest he should be with the people on the other end of the Craigslist ads.
Tell me what your goal is in all of this. Is this the equivalent to a post-grad backpacking trip through Europe?
I often say some people do Greenpeace, I do Craigslist. … I'm sort of in search of the story of what is possible with Craigslist. If I failed at doing this experiment, I hadn't really failed because the worst that could happen is I go back to my parents' basement and I start applying for jobs again. … I did this because I have a bunch of blog-book ideas, and eventually I see myself going into publishing of some sort.
You'd had the experience of using Craigslist to find apartments, get rid of furniture, but in this project you were using it for everything from finding food to finding friends. So what have you had the most trouble tracking down through this?
It's ironic, actually, because Craigslist is one of those things that is very instantaneous. If you want to buy a couch, you can buy a couch within two hours. But if you want to find someone to go to the movies with that you feel comfortable with, it's a different story. Whereas in my normal life I could just pick up the phone and call a friend, looking on Craigslist and scanning those ads or posting myself to find that person became a whole different ball game.
Where have you gone on the site to find friends?
The Community section has a few listings of events, activities. They have groups and I like to go to as many events as I can. … For example, I went to underwater hockey; I went to trampoline dodgeball. It's part juggling act between finding the story and experiencing the existence of living off of Craigslist. … The people I live with now, I went to a movie with one of them, and after my housing situation fell through they invited me to live at their house. That was someone I met through the Strictly Platonic section.
When you get in touch with people through Craigslist, you don't mention the project to them. Why not?
Initially, no, I don't want to tell people that I'm doing this, for two reasons. One - if they've heard of the project … they'll alter the way they act around me, I fear. Two - if they've heard of the project, they may not be interested in interacting with me. I can't tell where I'm working what I'm doing, because I fear that they'd fire me. … With friends, I try not to tell people because I'm afraid that it would be a fake relationship, that it would be inaccurate. But with the people that I'm living with and other people that I've spent long enough time with, I tell them, and I have to because I have to be honest.
Do you ever think you're scamming people when you keep it from them? They're part of this experiment. You're blogging about your work, about the people you spend time with, and a lot of them are completely in the dark about it.
I'd challenge you to give me an example of me scamming people. You could definitely say that about my work situation [at Denny's] and I'd give you that. I would agree that's partially true when I was living in San Francisco, in the Bay area, because I was more in search of the story of finding people that would be interesting, or what have you. The people that I had Thanksgiving dinner with [Mr. Paul had posted an ad asking for a family to adopt him for Thanksgiving - he got 20 responses] I told them what I was doing. … I'd say maybe I pass judgment on people who are part of the Craigslist community, but I've basically become part of that community. Maybe it's because of the story and maybe it's because of what I consider my job, but it's also my reality too.
What's been the lowest point so far in the journey?
I think that anyone who moves to a new city faces the same problems that I face when moving to a new city: the feelings of loneliness. I didn't have a job for almost a month here, in Denver. I was almost completely bored out of my mind looking for work. I don't think I expressed that as much on the site as I felt it, but those are things I don't think are limited to my project.
What's the most surprising thing that you've discovered about Craigslist?
The people that use the sections that you don't use are not as weird as you think they are, and there are a lot more of them than you think there are. … Most people do not use rideshares, and it's an amazing feature - if I want to get anywhere in the continental United States, I could get there by rideshare. … I drove from Cleveland to Denver with a 66-year-old retired guy. … [A]girl who uses Casual Encounters [a part of Craigslist used mostly for sex requests]... she is what I would describe as the girl next door.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.