September 16, 2005

Ode to the ebay of Old

I've been buying and selling on ebay since 1999. February 20, 1999 to be exact. Selling quite nicely in those days, thank you very much. We had a spare bedroom usually 1/4 filled with boxes to ship, a mini assembly line of tape and markers and printed-out emails and the ever important auction number.

Often, I'd purchase animal figurines at the dollar store, or on clearance in my shopping travels, and sell them on ebay. I'd scour garage sales looking odd things I knew would sell well. You see, if you bought a $1 zebra at the dollar store, it was much more valuable online to a zebra collector on ebay. Honest-to-goodness collectors, from your Aunt Hazel to your Uncle Lawrence, camped out on ebay in the old days. I would sometimes turn a $15 profit on dollar store figurines representing some animal, vegetable, or mineral that sparked the imagination of x-random collector.

In fact, I got so into selling on ebay that I sold pretty much everything of value we owned by 2001.

But I digress.

You see, in the early days of ebay, the high bidder on your old Barbie would tell you she cried when she won. You had to WORK to get a deal as a buyer, right down to the last second, long before "buy it now" hit the too-many-options scene, back when being high bidder on a coveted item felt like winning the lottery, not like you had to go to the bank and get a money order to send to someone for something you really could live without.

These were the days before the convenience of paypal, when most of us requested postal money orders because Uncle Sam, not spammers, was our biggest worry. These were the days before HYPER-AUTOMATION, just before sellers gained the functionality to be able to import hundreds -- thousands -- of records with listed items in batch mode, before storefronts could hop on and sell entire odd lots of kitchenware and linens.

These were the days when buyers and sellers had to use external email to contact one another to set up payment and shipping arrangements, when leaving and getting good feedback mattered more than any other part of the transaction.

I used to make about $400 a month off ebay back then. It was enough to pay my car payment. It was like having a best-selling garage sale from inside the house. It was not a business.

Today, ebay is a mess.

Spammers have infiltrated every mechanism and intersection point between buyer and seller. I'm not talking about the spam that everyone gets -- whether you buy or sell on ebay or not -- but instead the very specific event-driven spam that plagues and puzzles participants to the point of driving me off ebay until they get a handle on what matters.

For instance, soon after an item sells, sellers are inundated with "fake" users claiming to have been the high bidder, threatening to call the police of the item doesn't arrive immediately, OR pretending to have contact you by accident in their attempt to reach a seller of a similar item. Everywhere someone is DARING you to email them. I know why, but I bet a lot of folks don't.

What a damn fabulous and ingenious way to capture verified email addresses! Simply pose a potential problem to a seller or buyer that goes to the very core of what their value as a marketplace participant: good feedback, satisfied customers, reliable payments.

Even the ethics of legitimate ebay participants, who can now remain personality-free thanks to over-automated processes, are in question on every sale. If you're a legitimate buyer, you don't ask for a bid retraction in the last five minutes of a seven-day auction. THAT kind of person is up to something, and that something is no good.

Combine all of these aggravations with hyper-automation that pretends to make life easier, but instead provides more automation than any human being needs, and what was once an elegantly simple and vibrant marketplace is now a littered parking lot.

Enter Skype. I haven't read much yet about what ebay intends to do with Skype. But I can tell you that providing one more way for the underbelly of emarketplace riffraff to contact and stalk me for the purpose of getting my email means one less time I'll bother to buy or sell on ebay.

Sometimes technology changes things for the better.

Sometimes technology just changes things.