The Craigwatch Story

Like most people, I learn best from failure, so when I received a Cease and Desist from Craigslist the other day and decided to end my long-running service Craigwatch, I looked back to see what could be learned.

I won't give you a whole graphing calculator story, but I will try to give you a bit of context. Much like Linux, Craigwatch started as a service I wrote for myself. I knew that Craigslist users had a general honor system whereby the first person to accept the terms of an ad would be given the item, and I knew that I didn't have the time or energy to sit around refreshing Craigslist all day until something I was looking for was posted. So in late 2008 Craigwatch, a service to check Craigslist for you, was born.

Since Craigwatch was just for me, and I wasn't a very good programmer, it had no public interface. One day a friend said to me: "Beau, how are you so good at getting stuff off Craigslist?" So I told him and he said: "Can I use that too?" And I wrote a little login form and put it on my website. A while later my friend came to me and said "Hey, Craigwatch is working great! Can my friend use it as well?" So I added a registration form to the website. Then I left it there.

I went on with my life, slowly getting better at programming and constantly finding good deals. In 2012 I quit my job, got rid of all my stuff, and bought a one-way ticket to Indonesia. No more using Craigwatch for me! I knew the script was still running on my server but I figured I'd leave it there as a public service. I went on with my travels. In mid-2013 my server started crashing. For a long time I had watched my server memory dwindle and dwindle and always known it was Craigwatch; random people had been finding it and signing up.

I had three options: fix the script, buy a better server, or shut down Craigwatch altogether. Since I hadn't made any money in over a year, and less than a handful of people donated to Craigwatch in amounts not even close to covering my existing server cost or two hours worth of my time, and my time (not to mention internet) was especially scarce when traveling the way I was, I felt conflicted.

When I found myself with a free day in the capital of Mongolia, I decided I'd take a crack at fixing the script. I made some optimizations, but alas, it was no use. The service was sending well over 100,000 emails per month and the script was taking longer to run than the interval between runs. Improved DNS settings, more efficient scraping calls—there was nothing to be done but parallelize the watch function and sending of emails. That would require a whole new engine and a lot of work.

The service had been down for about a week and people were starting to email me. Perhaps it was the thrill of a challenge, or the desire to see how much had passed me by in the programming world, but I determined to fix the script. I hunkered down and got it done, and regarded the new engine as the best code I'd ever written. Then the service went nuts, emailing people as fast as it could. I had to shut it down and fix it fast, because I couldn't risk loosing all the "internet cred" I'd worked so hard to build up with spam filters (perhaps the hardest task I ever faced with Craigwatch — Further reading & more reading). I fixed the issues and emailed the users.

Emails, everywhere... but you probably already knew that. Due to several different errors, Craigwatch had gone out of control and I was in an internet desert and couldn't do anything about it. All the bugs should be fixed now AND I've made the engine hyper-intelligent and self-aware (how could that possibly go wrong) so in the future if it starts sending out too many emails it should self-destruct (really just shut down, but self-destruct sounds cooler). There are necessarily situations in which it could go crazy without turning itself off, but hopefully those won't happen.

I continued traveling and more random people kept signing up for Craigwatch. I watched as my server resources were exhausted. "I'll have to upgrade my server or shut down Craigwatch" I thought. Having now made no money in the last two years, and having received no donations for Craigwatch in the last year, paying to upgrade my server on Craigwatch's behalf didn't strike me as particularly enticing. So I thought I'd toe the line: upgrade my server but start charging for Craigwatch.

I suppose running Craigwatch had always brought me some sense of moral good, so I decided a "freemium" model whereby you could have five watches which were checked every ten minutes for free, or unlimited watches which were checked every five minutes for a small price, would be best. I also decided that I'd grandfather in everyone that was already using the service. One important thing remained before I could start charging: that I open-sourced the code.

I've always been a huge proponent of the open source movement and I would have open-sourced Craigwatch long ago except I was embarrassed about the code, and then I was too busy traveling to maintain an open source project. In April 2014 I decided to do it. I planned to share the code with everyone when I told them about the new structure, but that day never came.

In mid-2014 I decided it was time to return to the United States, at least for a while. Immediately after the initial madness of being back subsided, I figured I'd add the payment processing to Craigwatch. Before I could even get the code in place I received a strongly worded Cease and Desist from the lawyers of Craigslist. They didn't know about my plans, it was just good (or bad, depending on how you look at it) timing.

My heart wasn't heavy, there was no sinking feeling. Actually, it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. For years I had wasted energy keeping the service going—a service I didn't even use—and then I didn't have to anymore. Toward the end people would even write in complaining and wasting my time because they were too lazy to figure things out themselves. The day I got the C&D I shut down the service and put a cool message over the home page, but one thing still remained: to notify the users.

Again I was conflicted. I wanted to write something funny and whimsical as I had always done, but I couldn't find the words. At the same time I wanted to scorn the ungrateful users who had done nothing to keep it going. Part of me wanted to damn the trend in Western civilization, much the way the Onion—which shared the same birthplace as Craigwatch—did when they stopped printing papers. Instead, I did none of those things:

Dear Craigwatch User,
Due to a cease and desist letter issued to me by Craigslist, I've shut down this service.

Then something unexpected (at least to me) happened: emails started flooding in. My users began emailing me to say how much they appreciated the service and how sad they were to see it go. Someone posted my story on Chilling Effects. Someone else offered to help fight it.

Doh! Sorry to hear. Thanks for all your work over the years. Always been a great help, and haven’t been bale to find another thing that worked as well.

Thanks for providing such a valuable service for all this time! We'll miss Craigwatch!

Oh no! Well it was incredibly useful while it lasted, Thanks!

Thanks for providing the service while you could. A couple of years ago I got a great deal on a milling machine that I never would have found without Craigwatch.

Sorry; I know it was a labor of love. I hope your experience doing craigwatch opens doors for you...

i sent craigslist a message saying their stupid.

Then I got to thinking: "Did I give up on Craigwatch too easy? Should I have made more of an effort for my users?" Part of me wanted to respond to all the kind words with "Thanks, but a bit late. That would have been nice to hear three years ago." But of course I was touched. After all, how often do people stop to comment on something that isn't broken? How often do we thank the leaders when things are going smoothly? In this modern day of simple, confidential communication, we all probably assume everyone else is thanking people for their good work, so we don't have to.

Expressing gratitude has been shown to increase happiness [1], and we could all probably stand to do it a bit more. This experience will serve as a valuable reminder to thank the unseen people that help me every day. Donating to open source services is one good way to say thanks, but even an email to an unknown developer will probably go further than you'd expect. In retrospect, if a very few kind people hadn't bothered to write or donate, I probably would have shut Craigwatch down years ago.

So thanks. Thanks to everyone who commented and contributed, and thanks for everyone's kind words at the end. I truly appreciate your support, the opportunity you've given me, and the lessons you've helped me learn. I need nothing more for Craigwatch or the work I've put into it, and if you'd like to do something on my behalf you can thank another developer or donate to a free service that you use.

Best Wishes,

P.S. At the request of some of the users, he's a link to donate (I'll spend the money on free software and services):

Update Aug 8, 2014:

Almost exactly a month had passed since the Cease and Desist letter that Craigslist's lawyers sent me, and true to my word I spent all the money that had been donated to me on free and open software, and took the time each day to thank at least one developer that provided a product or service that I enjoyed. I had really benefited from the whole experience. Then I got another letter which stated:

Dear Mr. Lynn-Miller:

As you are aware, this firm is legal counsel for craigslist. On July 11, 2014, we sent you a letter demanding that you cease and desist from all violations of craigslist’s legal rights and Terms of Use (“TOU”). Our July 11 letter’s demands included, among other things, that you cease and desist from distributing your “Craigwatch” software and that you not induce or assist others in violating craigslist’s legal rights or TOU.

In response, you represented via email that you “deactivated Craigwatch.” We appreciate your cooperation, however, it has come to our attention that you continue to offer and distribute your Craigwatch software on (“Github”).1 As explained in our July 11 letter, such conduct violates craigslist’s legal rights and TOU. Further, your actions induce others to violate craigslist’s rights as well.

In order to close this matter, you must immediately stop offering your Craigwatch software on any and all websites and online profiles under your control, including your online profile on Github. craigslist reserves all rights.

Very truly yours,


Update Nov 15, 2014:

Craigslist finally incorporated a built-in alert feature to their service.