The Book Club

Cohen: Under the Spell of eBay’s Founder

Yo Andrews!

I knew about used underwear, and for fetishists, it makes perfect—if twisted—sense. What was more surprising was that people complained about finding sex toys when looking for used underwear for legitimate daily use! Let’s see—underwear drawer empty. Better get online and buy some used ones on eBay. Now that’s sick! What does this tell me? Buy eBay stock, now.

You’re right, Andrew C., “It’s the community, stupid.” eBay’s pride of invention, however, is misplaced. Online community wasn’t an invention of eBay at all, but rather began within the chat rooms of AOL or before, a very relevant history that Cohen inexplicably omits altogether (when eBay was in its infancy, AOL already had millions of users). That the two biggest successes of the Internet were built on chat rooms and forums is testimony to the strengths of community.

The reliance on community, however, may also indicate some of eBay’s and the Internet’s limitations. Chat works well in selling Snoopy lunch boxes but has a hard time sustaining a real business relationship. Business-to-business marketplaces, once touted as the “killer app” of the Internet, have languished except for certain commodity items. From what I can tell, business people expect a higher degree of long-term personal relationship than “*Hugs* to ya’ll, got2go, LOL” when millions of dollars of business (and your job) are on the table.

In the few auctions my family has participated in, there has been friendly communication back and forth between buyer and seller, but I wouldn’t say that this is of an altogether different character than is available at a clothing store or the local deli. The human touch still exists on eBay, but its size has to be a big impediment to community. We all know how difficult it is to have a sustained, single conversation with just eight friends around a table. How about 30 million? However much Cohen pines for the days when a riot of user feedback over the color of rating stars could galvanize the community, now that eBay’s population is larger than California, its small-town feeling is best left for the Pioneer Museum.

On the whole, I very much enjoyed the book, but it’s not simply “very positive”—it’s marred by a journalistic Stockholm syndrome. Kidnapped by the “iconoclastic, self-effacing” founder Pierre, with his “profound, existential calm,” Cohen simply leaves his critical objectivity at the door and swoons. For instance, when reporting that eBay’s founding myth—that Pierre created the site to sell his girlfriend’s Pez dispensers—was created out of whole cloth, Cohen’s response is, “And a small irony: that a company built on a philosophy of openness and honesty toward the community was finally noticed with the help of a well-crafted lie.” Small irony indeed. Mightn’t this make one question the founders’ true adherence to their philosophy? Just a little? We’ll have many opportunities in this discussion, I think, to pick apart more of eBay’s “philosophies” and their inconsistent implementation that Cohen simply skims.

I suspect that Andrew No. 2 will have more to say on the issue of community, but I’d also like to hear from you guys about the second pillar of the eBay philosophy—that eBay is a “perfect market” that yields the “perfect price.” My skeptical nature (clearly not Cohen’s) tells me that this may be a wee bit of an overstatement. How says y’all?

Finally, I love the site “” that gives a selection of unusual eBay listings. My personal choice of the day is an undated country club bill for $4,150 for dinner (two Caesar salads and a $3,000 tip). Who would need this? Helpfully, the seller suggests that you use it to cheat the IRS. At $5, that’s a bargain! I better get online.