eBay eXplanations: A Symposium

Francine DuBois, moderator, with Theodora Carson, Mittens DuBois-Dugan, Thomas J. Overstreet, Jr. and Horace Simmons

Issue 2 * Spring 2000


DuBois: I have with me here tonight an assembly of esteemed scholars. To my left is Theodora Carson, a self-proclaimed conspiracy theorist and "guerilla academic."

Carson: Greetings.

DuBois: I'd like to introduce Mittens DuBois-Dugan.

DuBois-Dugan: Hello and thanks for inviting me to join you.

DuBois: The pleasure is ours. To Dugan's right is Horace Simmons, our resident Marxist.

Simmons: (laughing) The labeling's already started.

DuBois: And to his right is Thomas J. Overstreet, Jr. who specializes in minority and American studies.

Overstreet: Always a pleasure, Ms. DuBois.

DuBois: We're here tonight to dig our minds into understanding eBay. eBay has been a powerful presence on the Internet and Wall Street for over a year now. It's come a long way since it was started as a source for Pez collectors. Now it's an international auction house to be reckoned with, especially with eBay's purchase of an established traditional auctioneer, Butterfield & Butterfield. What is your take on the popularity of eBay? Why is it so popular? But before we go much further, let's get a little personal. Tell us if you participate in eBay and in what capacity.

DuBois-Dugan: I've sold a few things.

Overstreet: I found a few rare books I bid on, but I was outbid. There are some outrageous amounts of money floating through those auctions.

Simmons: I've only observed my friends' travails.

Carson: My feedback rating is 1125. (Laughs). Yeah, I'm addicted. I like having lots of stuff. I admit it.

DuBois: Who has access to eBay? Who participates?

Overstreet: Obviously only those with a computer and Internet access. Ms. Carson allowed me to look over the names of those she's done transactions with, and they largely sound like upper-middle class white names. There were two Asian names, but mostly the list seemed composed of suburbanites. A lot of the deals were done from California, New York, and Florida. Of course, Ms. Carson regularly only buys in a few different fields (CDs and books), and these can in no way be taken as a true sample. But it does tell us something. Also from my searches on eBay, items of African-American culture are rarely offered, except for those awful Little Black Sambo-era things, and few consider those Black culture at all, but merely white visions of Black culture.

Carson: Yeah, it seems really white, really upper/middle class participants. In many ways, it's just a huge neighborhood wide garage sale. There are a lot of houses that have only Beanie Babies and Avon crap, but there's one that may have someone who reads and is selling books. But you don't really find much diversity outside the typical garage sale, except that there are items that fetch higher prices, such as fine art, that you normally don't find at garage sales. You have to go to estate sales for those. But the same types of people are involved in the physical version and the online version: white people with a certain amount of leisure time.

DuBois: How does eBay affect its participants?

DuBois-Dugan: Well, I think that eBay promotes a sense of trust that we've been missing in this country since Watergate. Nixon betrayed his political party, supporters, and the whole nation with that action, and I think we've been paying ever since. But eBay, in a roundabout and unconscious way, is attempting to overcome that. It's a big battle though, and I think that trust is one thing that eBay can't assure. I've been ripped off once, and I can't say that I've gone running back to eBay to try again. If I had gotten ripped off at a garage sale, I wouldn't necessarily distrust all garage sales, but it's a little different with eBay. We're lead to believe, unofficially, that we're protected in some sense since it's so standardized. We feel like we're buying from eBay, not from Joe Smith in Boca Raton. It's a misleading feeling, but it still exists and it still has quite a pull. Feedback ratings are the way that eBay attempts to give some control, to allow buyers and sellers to comment on each other's performance. Of course, some manipulate that. The seller that ripped me off had a positive rating of ten, then posted a bunch of different items for sale. Once he had collected the money orders, he withdrew from eBay. We can't complain about him on his feedback because he's no longer registered. We can charge him with fraud, but it is only twenty dollars that I'm out. There's no way of knowing if he used his real name or not. eBay, despite my good transactions, has not renewed my faith in the human race.

Carson: There's a tremendous deal of anonymity built into it, which protects everyone's privacy, but also hides accountability.

DuBois-Dugan: I think that's the cause of a lot of problems today, the lack of accountability.

DuBois: Who benefits from eBay, other than eBay itself, of course?

Carson: Well, shipping companies, of course. Since these "garage sales" aren't being held in person, someone has to get the package to its buyer.

Simmons: And a large part of that is done through the United States postal system. I think they, along with eBay, are the big winners here. The whole Internet explosion, especially with big names like Amazon.com, relies on the USPS. I think that might be why the government's not touching Internet commerce right now, besides the fact that many Congressmen are just shy of computers anyway. And the post office does more than ship; it's also got many more people wanting PO boxes so no one knows their home address. Also, the post office has got to be making a small fortune with money orders.

Overstreet: It also can't be hurting non-governmental services like UPS, FedEx, Mailboxes Etc. and those types of stores.

DuBois: Do you think eBay is hurting other businesses? How has eBay integrated itself and influenced shopping habits?

Carson: Not a damn bit. At the beginning of my eBay career eight months ago, I could find CDs at very reasonable prices. But now, the average price is close to retail. For a few more dollars, I'd rather have a brand new CD from a company I trust instead of some scam artist in Kentucky. Maybe this is something that every eBay user goes through, but there does seem to be a point where the old-fashioned way is the easiest way. While eBay removes the middleman, most eBay sellers still want the middleman's cut in addition to their own. eBay has become too retail-oriented.

DuBois-Dugan: A large part of that is obvious this Christmas. I've heard numerous reports about people buying the "must-have" toys and selling them above retail prices on eBay, knowing that some people just won't have access or the time to track down the right Pikachu toy. But if I worked 60 hours a week, I might just buy it off of eBay because it's easy. Who knows? I'd rather just go to Wal-Mart.

Overstreet: You don't have kids who threaten your life if you don't get the right Gameboy, do you?

DuBois-Dugan: No, I don't, and that might change things, but it'd likely just lead into a lecture on greed.

Simmons: eBay presents sort of an uber-supply and demand model. If there's no demand, your item won't sell. But how long will it take until Hasbro simply releases its new products directly to the consumer through eBay?

Carson: On a recent Space Ghost, they offered the "ending" to the episode on eBay, supposedly. After that aired, there were at least eight different auctions claiming to have the ending, none of which were Cartoon Network's, of course. I think what Ms. Dugan mentioned about trust will prevent that from happening. If eBay ever promotes a particular company as being official though, I think all that could change. And frankly, the association between Rosie O'Donnell and eBay terrifies me, but that's a whole 'nother issue.

DuBois: Do you think eBay is more than just a fad? Predict its survival for me.

Carson: It will stick, but those competing auction sites will likely fail. Maybe a few auction sites that have very specific markets will survive, but I don't foresee Yahoo! Auctions making any money. eBay has worked hard to establish itself as a brand name, and I think it's going to be hard to beat that.

Simmons: It won't disappear until everyone has unloaded their crap onto someone else, and that's a cycle that won't end until we're in a war or an asteroid hits the earth, or maybe someone stupid and careless will buy nuclear weapons from China online.

DuBois-Dugan: More likely, civil war will break out over possession of a particular Beanie Baby.

Overstreet: Or Gameboy Yellow.

DuBois: Any final comments?

Overstreet: I'd be interested to see what would happen to eBay if it really were a world marketplace. I'd love to see African workers who make wonderful artwork, or all those people in sweatshops, get the money they deserve directly.

DuBois: Thank you all for joining me tonight. It's been most informative.