The Book Club

But Is It a Community?

Hi guys,

My favorite eBay auction? It’s a tie between the kid who tried to auction off his virginity and the guy who sold his “soul” (an empty jar with the words “Kembrew’s soul” scrawled on it) for $1,325.

Yesterday I said it was hard not to share Cohen’s nostalgia for the intimacy of eBay’s early days, and David agreed that “strength of community” was the secret to eBay’s success. It’s to Cohen’s credit as a rhetorician that he elicits this response from his readers, but it may be worth considering (as Andrew R. suggests) whether there’s really much to it. Like many nostalgias, this is one whose object may be a figment of our (Cohen’s) imagination.

True, there was a time when you could get to know all the regulars on the boards and when you might conduct many transactions with the same user. But did that—much less today’s hydra-headed marketplace—really merit the term “community”? Tell me if you think I’m too much a Luddite, but doesn’t an authentic community involve bodies in space—eating, playing, embracing, laughing, and weeping together? E-mailing, too, perhaps, but not in isolation from these other modes of interaction. The sense of community that one gets on a site that is primarily devoted to “getting and spending” is such a poor facsimile of the real thing that it strikes me as mild hubris on eBay’s part to use the same word.

Cohen himself—inadvertently perhaps—draws attention to this in a couple of ways. First, he points out that the most fanatical early eBayers were often clinically depressed, ultra-shy, or otherwise isolated individuals. He then celebrates the fact that, thanks to eBay, someone like Jim Griffith (user name: “Uncle Griff”) went from being suicidal to exchanging virtual “*Hugs*” with auctioneers across the globe. But consider what these hard-core folks were really doing: spending (as Cohen admits) 10-plus hours a day alone in front of a screen, posting anonymous comments to other disembodied pseudonyms, making money off one another, participating in “sing-alongs” (one person posts the first line of a song, someone else follows with the next line, and so forth), and in the process neglectingwhatever real (i.e., bodily) community they may have had left. “A little sad and soulless,” as Andrew R. says, isn’t too far off the mark.

Cohen also mentions that psychologists now see excessive Internet use as a form of addiction. (Reading Slate, of course, is an exception: You can never get too much.) For eBay to regard the devoted users who made it millions as normal, sociable kibbutzniks seems, in light of this, to be bad faith at best.

As for your question, David, about whether eBay establishes the “perfect market” for any item: I decided to try a little experiment. The Perfect Store is selling, used, on Amazon for around 17 bucks. On the dust jacket, Rosie O’Donnell is quoted as predicting that this is “the only book that will never be sold on eBay” (because it’s just too good to part with?), so I decided to see if she was right. Over the weekend, I put my used copy up for auction with a starting price of $1. (Slateeditors: Don’t worry, I’ll deduct my earnings from the original receipt before sending it in.) So far, I’ve gotten a handful of bids, and one plaintive e-mail that said:

Hi, does this book tell you how to sell things on eBay? I’ve been spending hours at this all summer, but no one has paid much attention.

So much for community.

The auction closes today; I’ll let you know what the “perfect market” price for The Perfect Store was in tomorrow’s post.

Till then,
Andrew C.