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In the words of self-help gurus everywhere: “The first thing you have
to do is admit that you have a problem.” I’m here to admit publicly that
I have a problem … a big problem. Specifically, I’m in need of a
twelve-step program to help me deal with my
eBay addiction, which has sprung up recently
but with alarming speed. And it doesn’t help much to know I’m not alone
in my growing bondage to this behemoth among auction/trading Web sites,
as recent bare-all confessions at Wired
and Salon
attest.

If you’ve followed the financial news lately, you may recognize eBay
as one of the shiniest sparkles on the recent so-called Internet stock
bubble (I’ll believe that when I see it pop, as opposed to just exhale
occasionally, but that’s a whole other discussion). When I first became
aware of eBay about a year ago I had not even the beginnings of an
inkling that it was destined to become one of the hottest Internet
phenomena around — a company spoken of in the same breath as
Yahoo! and
Amazon, a site with more than 1.3 million
registered users, a service whose icon Compaq will shortly
feature
on the desktops of its Compaq Prosignia Desktop 310 and Notebook 210
personal computers.

The way eBay works is simple and — once you get your feet wet –
frighteningly seductive. Once you register, you are free to offer items
for sale at auction or to bid on others’ offerings. When an auction
reaches its designated end, the seller and the high bidder are alerted
by an automatic email from eBay; it is then up to them to complete the
transaction privately, making arrangements with one another by email for
shipping and payment.

What keeps everyone honest? Well, once payment and purchased item are
exchanged and received, the happy buyer and seller can leave “positive”
feedback against each other’s names in the system. This stroke of genius
means three important things for eBay. First, longtime honest traders
sport large positive feedback scores after their names, encouraging
continued trust by prospective buyers and sellers. Second, few
participants renege on their promises; a high bidder who refuses to pay
up, or a seller whose merchandise is inferior to its description or
fails to arrive, will be swiftly blackballed with negative comments.
(Various clever mechanisms are in place to forestall disguise tactics
like changing one’s user ID or email address.) Hence, the fraud quota
stays minimal enough that confidence stays high enough that trade keeps
booming.

The third benefit of the feedback system is as clever as the other
two and much more insidious. If you are an honest person — a desirable
member of the eBay community — then the more transactions you engage
in, the more your “score” (number of positive comments minus number of
negative comments, attached to your user ID) grows. In other words, if
you’ve engaged in eight successful transactions and made everyone happy
throughout, you’ll soon see yourself mentioned everywhere as “yourname
(8).” It’s like a moral rating of who you are that’s permanently
attached to your identity. You feel a compulsion to increase your score,
to reinforce the excellence of your reputation. You want to show how
upright a citizen you are. You internalize the rhetoric of “the eBay
community.” You feel you’ve found a new online home. You’re happy. You
keep trading.

That’s one of the factors in eBay’s addictiveness. The other (which
increases with the site’s stature and popularity) is selection. It’s not
just that there are all sorts of categories of items for sale at eBay –
weird vintage collectibles (like the Pez dispensers for which the site
was originally started), computers, jewelry, Furbies, meteorites,
anything you like. Sure, browsing all those random categories is fun,
but not so much fun you couldn’t tear yourself away after an hour or two
and never come back. No. The trouble is that YOUR personal obsession is
almost certainly now being traded at eBay — the one that pushes all
your buttons; the one that taps into whatever idiosyncratic and powerful
yearning it is that crystallizes the sorrow of time’s passage for you.

Maybe you have a passion for old mahjongg sets, like the one your
mother’s friends used to play with. Type “mahjongg” into the search
function, and up come seven or ten or twenty-five related items –
including, maybe, that perfect, complete set of 1950s Bakelite tiles,
the one you saw and didn’t buy at a flea market six years ago and have
regretted bitterly ever since. The original Star Wars board game you
possessed as a child, and wish you still had so you could give it to
your own child this May? That handpainted Limoges cookie jar in your
grandmother’s house? It could be for sale right now. Somebody else
could be bidding on it.
Better check, just in case. Every couple of
days — forever. And while you’re looking for the grail of your
childhood, you’ll stumble upon things so similar to it, you just have to
have them as well.

I know I have a problem. But I don’t want to be cured. What I want is
a copy of Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies, with Rosalie K.
Fry’s perfect illustrations (don’t even talk to me about the loathsome
Jessie Wilcox Smith), in the original Dent edition published in London
c. 1930, not the later New York Dutton reprint. And I wouldn’t
mind picking up a hard-to-find Sue Barton or an illustrated Dr. Dolittle
or maybe even a good Angela Brazil girls’ school story along the way.
I’ll meet you in “Books, Movies, Music: Books: Children.”

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