NS Internet column
Written for the New Statesman
Ebay is the biggest boot sale in the world. It was the original auction site on the web and is still by a huge margin the most useful and certainly the most fun. This is despite the fact that it has a largely American bias. Though there is a British site, it is fairly easy to lose it and find yourself wading through acres and acres of junk which is frustratingly unobtainable. What gives it charm is the scruffiness and lack of pretension of most of what is on offer. People sell more or less what you would find in Exchange and Mart, or the classified columns of the local paper. This means that you can not only buy lenses for obsolete manual focus SLR cameras: a man in Holland is selling one I have been searching for years: but that also, a little further down the same page, someone else is selling the filters that sit on the end of these lenses, with bidding starting at $5.00.
Of course you can buy new and shiny and expensive things on Ebay if you want to: there have been celebrated cases where people auctioned Van Goghs — bought by a thirteen-year-old, playing with his parents' credit cards. There are celebrated frauds, or jokes among the sellers, too: someone once put the entire UK new media industry up there with opening bids of a dollar. Other people have offered human kidneys and things. These are stamped out quickly when found, but for the most part, Ebay, like a real market, relies on a system of self-policing among buyers and sellers to build up reputations.
If you want to buy something, it takes only a click to check on what previous buyers have written about their experiences with the seller. Similar dossiers are maintained on buyers, so it is possible very rapidly to build up a picture of opinion. This works much better, I think, than trying to have a central ratings authority, which would in any case be unworkable with the hundreds of thousands of auctions that run simultaneously on eBay. Above all it supplies what people most want from a computer system: the illusion, and perhaps the fact, of sociability. You don't really get bargains on eBay, any more than you get them in street markets. Although I have bids in at the moment for a hand-built fly rod, at $120; a modem card for a laptop at £30 (one of the few things on sale from England); and a computer game involving cats, complete with promotional soft toy, for $11.99, I confidently expect to be outbid on all of them except the stuffed fluffy cat, which I don't really want but bid for because my daughter was watching over my shoulder as I did the research. . Consumer electronics or cameral lenses are just as expensive on eBay as in specialist second-hand shops, if for no other reason than that it has become a place for the owners of such shops to prowl.
This lack of bargains is even more noticeable in the sites that auction new goods, like QXL or Lastminute.com. I have never found anything on any of these that seemed to close at a price that made it worth the extra trouble. Often the auction process results in the price climbing rather higher than you would pay in a shop. The fun is clearly in the bidding, rather than the purchase. And here is where eBay really triumphs over the competition. It is tremendously easy to make a bid, and the auctions appear to be taking place in real time, in between your mouse clicks. This is because the software can be set to bid up by proxy, so that it will automatically raise other people who bid beneath your top price; and they in turn raise you back a dollar or two every time you see a bargain. It has exactly the allure of a really good video game; there is always just one more go before you get what you want.
Nearly as interesting as these are the constant discoveries you make about what other people want: I could not resist the category of miscellaneous: metaphysical. I don't know what I had hoped to find there. Perhaps a Platonic Idea or two, unique, absolutely as new, sold as imperfectly seen. In fact there were 47 pages of stuff to give Plato the screaming abdabs, such as four Pewter Fairies, going at present for $12.00 a Scarab candle for $7.00 or a "poison pentagram ring" for $5.00. An industrious journalistic jackdaw could construct a huge lament about the decline of the west from such ridiculous trinkets but I find it really rather inspiring that one of the very few web businesses ever to make a profit should do so by constructing a huge junkyard where grown-ups who ought to know better can play like children bargaining over playground trinkets.