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The eBay Community - Both The Solvent And The Glue: The Re-Defining Of The Online Industry

Aug 4, 2008
Why the anarchy on eBay? Why the apparent contradiction between the merchandising as a community and the escalating tension that is creating an exodus to independent platforms, a slow down in growth on eBay, and reduction in users on the platform?

The empowered eBay business person

EBay empowered the small user to compete in the business world on an equal footing with the brick and mortar stores without the overhead due to facilities costs and labor costs. They campaigned the ideal by marketing eBay as a community, albeit virtual, enjoining the User thru mutual goals regardless of geographical location thus mitigating the virtual isolation. Access to the community at eBay , akin to a global village, is won by acceptance of the notion that there are mutual goals. The goals, presented as a team effort, depend on driven self interest both on eBay's part and the part of the user - a driving desire for both to succeed with spiraling success and escalating sales.

The empowered User feels betrayal when the team concept breaks down due to lack of any meaningful discussion on application and interpretation of the Terms Of Service (TOS) and fees. Enforcement of TOS is final, arbitrary and capricious with little opportunity for discussion or appeal. The reporting mechanism is the community itself which defers policing costs away from Corporate. The mechanism is driven by self reporting by other members who usually have a self benefit as the reported target is often a competitor or personal rival.

Dispelling the enthusiasism

The individualism and team effort that is encouraged by eBay, during the initiation period, is smothered by over zealous nameless members of a community work pool in a brick and mortar establishment often far removed from Corporate offices. The TOS violation decisions are delivered by faceless email that offer little explanation excepting multiple reference to nebulous complicated passages in the TOS that may, or may not apply, to the infraction with notices that the auction is cancelled, the user is suspended, or the Pay Pal account frozen. The User is left floundering with the ability to do little but email an unknown eBay employee whose name will change as the shifts change - this resulting pool of participants add further interpretation , conflicting opinions, and no promise of a hearing or any tangible recourse.

Protesting, picketing and boycotts

And so the User retreats to Forums and Boards to process the events, in virtual communities, giving a biased version of a problem presenting it as a threat that tends to inflame moral panic. Further debate of the moral panic escalates the alarm that is then spread to similar boards with similar stated goals to undermine the credibility of eBay. The negative identity of eBay is created, escalated, and maintained by the conflict. The problems are further compounded by trolls that bait the user groups and then stand back to enjoy the conflict. The search engines spider the comments further spreading the negativity that not only impacts the eBay community but the credibility of the online auction marketplace as a whole.

A system fed by the anonymous Buyer and Seller

The online marketplace auction community is based on annominity encouraged by eBay and now moved out onto the independent platform as they emulate the eBay image. The usernames are the basis for all business transactions and real names are discouraged with the argument that the security of the 'User' is jeopardized by such familiarity. Further compounding this are the users who have multiple usernames.

This argument for annominity is negated as the identity of any User can be found after one transaction down to full name, address, phone, and email address. So if the username is so easily 'found' - why the challenge to continue to hide the real identity? The practice of anonymous usernames continues to be encouraged even on the eBay forums themselves further compounding the problem.

Driven by annominity and compounded by the allowed use of multiple usernames for individual posters - posts are more antagonistic in the online environment than it would be in a real face to face confrontation. Attitudinal negativism is ramped and driven by biased inflammatory responses meant to bolster the injured parties position. Those not contributing to the popular position on the board are treated to group hazing rituals that isolate the target and drive the non compliant poster off the board or forum. The hazing on eBay forums themselves varies from board to board and is dependent on the tolerance of the eBay appointed Moderator, who may not work for eBay itself, but a subcontractor brought in to run the forums. As the anarchy escalates so does the number of forums forming to campaign the anti eBay sentiment and sponsors independent auction platform growth.

A nationally mandated solution?

Coming soon maybe a solution in that all online Sellers will have to be Nationally registered as mandated by the Streamlined Tax Act. The current practice of the multiple anonymous usernames policy maybe looking at a radical overhaul in the near future. The lack of annominity may change current business practices as they need to protect that National License and also temper the tone on the boards as personal integrity is at stake - and there maybe a trickle down effect on the negativity.

The brick and mortar standard - a solution.

Currently the community is both the solvent and the glue driven there by a company that has become so aloof it will not communicate directly with its own team , the Buyers and Sellers, except in press releases, limited notices on the announcement board, faceless extended email campaigns, and the promise of token access to phone service if the user 'pays' for the extra service - excepting stores where it will be provided as one of the benefits. So much for the team effort - that would take discussion and that is non existent. Thousands of new online auction platforms are springing up to compete as the exodus continues but the new platforms do not escape unscathed. The fall out - the entire online auction community as it struggles to gain credibility in the eyes of the public with all the bad publicity spread so efficiently with the search engine spiders.

It is time for a change in the online industry and maybe conforming to brick and mortar business standards is what it will take.
About the Author
Kathleen Johnson founded the Yahoo Group Appraisals and Expert Help. The group is for assisting people with their antique appraisals and merchandising questions several years ago, and she still offers those services today.  Kathleen is also under contract to Primedia Inc to Moderate the Allexperts Board at About.inc. For many years she worked as a registered expert on Yahoo Experts, Keen, AskMe and Allexperts. Kathleen continues to write articles on online facilitation but is currently working full time on the iCell.biz platform as it goes thru Beta testing.
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