Dear Andrew and David:
I’m glad you brought up the connection between heavy Internet usage and psychological health, Andrew C. The story Cohen cites from the eBay users who “had cried all night or even all week” about what had been said in the forums made me wonder, too. That’s not to say that anyone who likes bulletin boardsis inherently strange, but that for any of us to characterize Internet communication as either inherently soulful or soulless is probably too broad a claim.
One of the strengths of Cohen’s book, besides his narration of the ups and downs as the company grew, is the way he reveals the breadth of the eBay collectibles subculture, from Elvis to classic cars. One good example is the weekend-warrior antiques dealer who spent $3 at a tag sale on an interesting-looking container that turned out to be one of the rarest pickle bottles in the world: It went for over $44,000. I mean, I like pickles, and I have a healthy respect for the bottles so necessary to the pickling process, but I also like Acura Integras.
Far be it from me to question the logic of the hard-core collector. But I can wonder if the pickle bottle sale was a good, or even perfect, deal and, like David, what “perfect price” might mean. According to Cohen and Jaron Lanier, auctions tend to produce a lot of sales above and below what an expert would deem the right or “perfect” price. “Dumb sellers,” as defined by Lanier, get less than an item’s list price because they do not present the item well in the listing or post it in a badly chosen category. Then there are “dumb buyers” who overestimate the worth of an item or get caught up in the competition of the auction and submit one bid too many.
Despite these distorting factors, Cohen concludes that the auctions work best for items that have no list price—a rare collectible like the pickle bottle, or the old, rusty ship that the state of Massachusetts thought unsellable before it fetched $125,000 on eBay. But for a mass-produced good like The Perfect Store itself, I’ll bet Andrew C. could probably do as well at a fixed-price site like half.com.
Cohen also offers some amusing and revealing cultural insights resulting from eBay’s ultimately successful attempts to expand into Europe. While eBay.de proved popular, German users strongly objected to any negative feedback from other users, which is publicly viewable and one of the site’s strongest protections against fraud. “When Germans got a single negative—or even a neutral feedback rating—from another user,” Cohen writes, “they often called eBay.de to lodge a formal complaint, and demanded the right to submit detailed documentation for use in adjudicating the dispute.” British users objected to the tone of eBay customer service e-mails, filled with exclamation points and expressions of gratitude even in response to a complaint. eBay also had difficulty generating the same level of interest in forums in the U.K., suggesting that the Brits are not much for online chatting as a meaningful form of community, either.
As to whether Internet communication can help us “touch the spirit” of one another or is merely an unsatisfying prosthetic for a diminished civic life: It depends on your temperament. Cohen cites some of the social science on the subject, starting with the 1998 “Internet Paradox” report. The revised conclusion: Already-extroverted people tend to use the Internet to become more sociable, while introverts retreat further into isolation.
So: Personally I agree with Andrew C. that face-to-face contact is preferable. But that’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of people out there whose most meaningful conversations occur over e-mail, or in a chat room, or like David, our club’s unofficial underwear expert, as they type in their BVDs.