If everything is for sale, what does it say about us?

Internet auction site eBay is both sacred and profane -- and distinctly American


September 04, 2005|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

If we were a nation, we would be the ninth most populous nation in the world," noted eBay CEO Meg Whitman during a CNBC documentary in June. By "we," she meant the 135 million users who had registered on the site by the end of 2004.

Add to that figure those who lurk on eBay, talk about eBay, read about eBay, create businesses based on eBay, fantasize about finding treasures or making a fortune on eBay, and the population of this virtual nation would soar astronomically.

As it reconfigures consumer culture, the auction site, which officially turns 10 years old this Labor Day weekend, stirs passionate debate over its impact on society. Does it signify the end of civil society as we know it? Is it a portal to a new, global society? Does it place materialism above any other belief system? Does it define who we are as a society? If we are what we consume, are we eBay?

Sharon Zukin is both fascinated and repelled by eBay. By translating "every experience and every object into a dollar value" it "has really hurried us down the slippery slope toward damnation," says the professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the City University Graduate Center.

Peter Sealey takes a different view. The co-director of the Center for Marketing and Technology at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business calls eBay a "transformational technology" on the magnitude of the telephone and the television.

For Susan B. Barnes, associate director of the Lab for Social Computing at the Rochester Institute of Technology, eBay, as it builds communities of buyers and collectors, "was ahead of its time to view the Internet as a social medium."

Mores and obsessions

Created as a kind of "global garage sale" by software engineer and former Maryland resident Pierre Omidyar, eBay has transcended its original purpose to become a reflection of a society's mores and obsessions. Items listed on eBay such as the grilled cheese sandwich with an image of the Virgin Mary (sold for $28,000 to an on-line casino) and a court sketch artist's signed images of Michael Jackson's trial speak to America's dueling preoccupations with piety and celebrity.

Those angry with their spouses, their kids or the world can take their grievances to eBay and post them for all the world to see. One angry dad auctioned his kids' Christmas gifts on eBay. Another guy, ticked off at his ex, auctioned luxury items intended for her. Then there was Jennifer Aniston's former high school squeeze, who had hoped to sell her high school love letters before she intervened.

Selling things on eBay for spite, a moment of infamy or quick blood cash is a way of posting a notice on the worldwide bulletin board of shame. It's a little like placing yourself or those who have displeased you into virtual stocks. At the very least, it's comparable to volunteering for the dunking booth at the school fair. On eBay, such transactions may or may not be lucrative, but at least humiliation -- of someone -- is guaranteed.

Such public fits of pique have spawned a sub-genre of journalism that brings these sorry tales to light for a much larger audience. Even eBay flops warrant media attention, including the failed ability of a potato chip said to contain the face of Jesus to spark a bidding war. As all-powerful as it appears, eBay can't always promise a good return for junk foods inadvertently manufactured in the image of the Shroud of Turin.

In that regard, though, eBay is as entertaining as Ripley's Believe it or Not, and reflects the American love for tall tales, side shows and a snake-oily entrepreneurial spirit. Selling a jar containing the same air Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie breathed at a Hollywood premiere or selling "absolutely nothing" (as an enterprising woman from North Dakota attempted to do before her offering was yanked) speaks as much to P.T. Barnum's timeless adage -- "There's a sucker born every minute" -- as it does to our obsession with fame, whether it's that of others or our own paltry 15 minutes.

Serious finds

As a "frictionless" marketplace, eBay works in countless ways, not all of them titillating or utterly commercial. Some museum curators, for example, have found that eBay finds can fill in missing pieces of cultural history.

For "Culture as Commodity: Internet Auctions and Judaica Collecting," a 2001 exhibit in Riverdale, N.Y., curators relied solely on auction Web sites to track down objects such as a 17th century engraved map of the Holy Land and a Hank Greenberg baseball card from 1938. At the time, the museum's director, Karen Franklin, told one reporter: "The whole point is that the marketplace expanded the definition of Judaica, not the experts in the field."

Melissa Martens, curator at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, has used eBay to acquire exhibit items, particularly ephemera from the past 30 years. "Now a whole world of material culture is wide open on the public market," she says. Online purchases, though, may come without a "full history of the object," Martens says.

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