Missing the eBay point

A new book about the auction Web site sheds little light on one of the Net's biggest successes.

By John Geirland

Published November 15, 2000 8:30PM (EST)

I'm the son of swap meet habitués. As a child I spent weekend after weekend in pebbly, dilapidated drive-in theaters teaming with restless buyers in search of bric-a-brac and booty. Even though I hated the scene, I still couldn't resist the opportunity to squander a week's allowance on a bag of plastic vomit.

Now thanks to eBay, the hugely successful online auction site, I can bid on plastic vomit (or a remote control fart machine -- item No. 488929976) against folks all over the world. EBay is more than just another Silicon Valley dorm-room-to-boardroom success story. Few Internet companies have had such a dramatic impact on people's lives and livelihoods. All the more reason why David Bunnell's new book, "The eBay Phenomenon," is such a disappointment.

Bunnell is a legend in computer journalism -- the founder of PC Magazine, Macworld and New Media, and the CEO of Upside magazine. So readers might be predisposed to take what he has to say seriously. And to be fair, "The eBay Phenomenon," co-authored with business writer Richard Luecke, looks more like a primer aimed at the business crowd than a serious journalistic exercise. The book does a workmanlike job of describing how the eBay site functions and of recounting the company's humble beginnings in founder Pierre Omidyar's apartment in 1995. Bunnell also deftly explicates eBay's business model and its positioning within the "demand-based or dynamic pricing" segment of the e-commerce sector.

Once the reader gets past these surface details, however, the book's intellectual laziness begins to emerge. Bunnell attributes eBay's success in part to the company's willingness to trust the community that has grown up around its site -- its "hands-off approach to user transactions." He feels eBay executives have done a good job of keeping corporate trappings on the site to a minimum and staying focused on the user experience.

As might be expected, the book occasionally gets tripped up by Internet time. "[By] the spring of 2000," Bunnell writes, "it appeared that the frequency and severity of past service outages was unlikely to repeat itself." EBay auctioneers who experienced last month's service outages might take issue. The book does contain the occasional compelling observation: "Over the long haul, business-to-consumer (B2C) auctions seem destined to shoulder out person-to-person (P2P) auctions in terms of transaction numbers, participants, and gross sales. The reason is simple: for manufacturers, retailers, and airlines alike, auctions are an efficient way to liquidate unwanted inventory." Nothing revolutionary, but a useful insight.

Unfortunately, the book is studded with just as many obvious and empty observations: "In all likelihood, eBay will continue on its current course of making many small, little-noticed changes and improvements to its site." What major commercial Web site doesn't? At times the tone turns sanctimonious: "To their credit, eBay's newly minted millionaires were quick to give away portions of their sudden wealth." Often the writing style is tired and hackneyed, as in "[T]he site had all the appearances of a money-making machine."

Bunnell's main point is that eBay has succeeded in designing an efficient commercial system. But apart from pointing out that eBay's "asking and bidding prices are not far apart," Bunnell offers little support for that assertion. In fact, he later belies his own point by telling the story of a woman who saw her late brother's homemade mandolin being auctioned by Barr's Fiddle Shop on eBay. The woman rushed to the brick-and-mortar shop and tried to buy back the mandolin. Rather than sell her the mandolin outright, the owners showed her how to register on eBay and participate in the bidding. The mandolin eventually went for $1,500 when, one of the owners admits, "a reasonable price would have been seven hundred to eight hundred dollars." Where hath chivalry gone?

Nor has eBay proved efficient for sellers. As former eBay auctioneer Claudia O'Keefe has pointed out in Salon, the sheer number of auctions running under some categories makes it difficult for bidders and sellers to find each other.

For a short book (224 pages, including index and notes), "The eBay Phenomenon" feels padded. EBay policy statements are printed at length, as are not very interesting quotes from the site's discussion boards. Many pages are devoted to general discussions of decision-making and effective management practices in dot-coms, none of which are specific to eBay.

The major problem with the book becomes clear on Page 97 when Bunnell belatedly admits that "eBay would not make its executives available for interviews, or let me roam the corridors, and no ex-employees could be located" -- this in a chapter entitled "Inside eBay." OK, so we can't all be Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporters. But Bunnell also admits he's never even met eBay's VP of communications, Kevin Pursglove -- though that doesn't prevent him from speculating about Pursglove's state of mind. Surely the CEO of Upside Media has enough clout to quaff lattes with eBay's top flack -- especially if he's writing a book about the company?

If Bunnell wasn't able to gain the cooperation of eBay executives in writing this book, as was apparently the case, why not shift the focus to the consumer side of the story? Some online auctioneers were interviewed, but Bunnell doesn't dig very deeply into this potentially rich side of the story. We are hard-wired to seek novelty, social interaction and bargains, which is why tens of millions of people fan out to swap meets, flea markets and garage sales every weekend of the year. Better than any company I can think of, eBay has leveraged the Web to appeal to these aspects of the consumer experience. If the Internet is fundamentally a P2P phenomenon, as is increasingly clear, then the real lessons of eBay are to be found out there among the community of users, not in the telling of yet another rags to riches Silicon Valley story.

Bunnell notes that eBay's site is "fun" to use. He misses the deeper point that eBay is also the most successful entertainment site on the Web, an observation made last year by Jim Banister, the former executive vice president of Entertaindom, Time Warner's online entertainment portal. Banister believes that sites like eBay appeal to our right-brain sensibilities as much as do movies like "Titanic" or television shows like "ER." EBay executives must be catching on, as they are now in discussions with the major networks to produce an eBay television show.

Nail together any two pieces of crap -- no matter how dissimilar -- and some American will offer you $1.50 for it, comedian George Carlin once opined. Judging by eBay's expansion overseas into markets such as Australia, Japan and France, Carlin's joke might now apply to the whole planet. Someday a fascinating, insightful and instructive book will be written about the eBay phenomenon, but "The eBay Phenomenon" is not that book.

John Geirland

John Geirland is co-author of "Digital Babylon: How the Geeks, the Suits and the Ponytails Fought to Bring Hollywood to the Internet," to be published Sept. 1 by Arcade.

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