In the words of self-help gurus everywhere: "The first thing you haveto do is admit that you have a problem." I'm here to admit publicly thatI have a problem ... a big problem. Specifically, I'm in need of atwelve-step program to help me deal with myeBay addiction, which has sprung up recentlybut with alarming speed. And it doesn't help much to know I'm not alonein my growing bondage to this behemoth among auction/trading Web sites,as recent bare-all confessions at Wired and Salonattest.
If you've followed the financial news lately, you may recognize eBayas one of the shiniest sparkles on the recent so-called Internet stockbubble (I'll believe that when I see it pop, as opposed to just exhaleoccasionally, but that's a whole other discussion). When I first becameaware of eBay about a year ago I had not even the beginnings of aninkling that it was destined to become one of the hottest Internetphenomena around -- a company spoken of in the same breath asYahoo! andAmazon, a site with more than 1.3 millionregistered users, a service whose icon Compaq will shortly feature on the desktops of its Compaq Prosignia Desktop 310 and Notebook 210 personal computers.
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The way eBay works is simple and -- once you get your feet wet --frighteningly seductive. Once you register, you are free to offer itemsfor sale at auction or to bid on others' offerings. When an auctionreaches its designated end, the seller and the high bidder are alertedby an automatic email from eBay; it is then up to them to complete thetransaction privately, making arrangements with one another by email forshipping and payment.
What keeps everyone honest? Well, once payment and purchased item areexchanged and received, the happy buyer and seller can leave "positive"feedback against each other's names in the system. This stroke of geniusmeans three important things for eBay. First, longtime honest traderssport large positive feedback scores after their names, encouragingcontinued trust by prospective buyers and sellers. Second, fewparticipants renege on their promises; a high bidder who refuses to payup, or a seller whose merchandise is inferior to its description orfails to arrive, will be swiftly blackballed with negative comments.(Various clever mechanisms are in place to forestall disguise tacticslike changing one's user ID or email address.) Hence, the fraud quotastays minimal enough that confidence stays high enough that trade keepsbooming.
The third benefit of the feedback system is as clever as the othertwo and much more insidious. If you are an honest person -- a desirablemember of the eBay community -- then the more transactions you engagein, the more your "score" (number of positive comments minus number ofnegative comments, attached to your user ID) grows. In other words, ifyou've engaged in eight successful transactions and made everyone happythroughout, you'll soon see yourself mentioned everywhere as "yourname(8)." It's like a moral rating of who you are that's permanentlyattached to your identity. You feel a compulsion to increase your score,to reinforce the excellence of your reputation. You want to show howupright a citizen you are. You internalize the rhetoric of "the eBaycommunity." You feel you've found a new online home. You're happy. Youkeep trading.
That's one of the factors in eBay's addictiveness. The other (whichincreases with the site's stature and popularity) is selection. It's notjust that there are all sorts of categories of items for sale at eBay --weird vintage collectibles (like the Pez dispensers for which the sitewas 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 twoand never come back. No. The trouble is that YOUR personal obsession isalmost certainly now being traded at eBay -- the one that pushes allyour buttons; the one that taps into whatever idiosyncratic and powerfulyearning it is that crystallizes the sorrow of time's passage for you.
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Maybe you have a passion for old mahjongg sets, like the one yourmother's friends used to play with. Type "mahjongg" into the searchfunction, 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 haveregretted bitterly ever since. The original Star Wars board game youpossessed as a child, and wish you still had so you could give it toyour own child this May? That handpainted Limoges cookie jar in yourgrandmother's house? It could be for sale right now. Somebody elsecould be bidding on it. Better check, just in case. Every couple ofdays -- forever. And while you're looking for the grail of yourchildhood, you'll stumble upon things so similar to it, you just have tohave them as well.
I know I have a problem. But I don't want to be cured. What I want isa copy of Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies, with Rosalie K.Fry's perfect illustrations (don't even talk to me about the loathsomeJessie Wilcox Smith), in the original Dent edition published in Londonc. 1930, not the later New York Dutton reprint. And I wouldn'tmind picking up a hard-to-find Sue Barton or an illustrated Dr. Dolittleor maybe even a good Angela Brazil girls' school story along the way.I'll meet you in "Books, Movies, Music: Books: Children."