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The Numbers Game

Baseball's days as our national pastime may be numbered.


On the neurological underpinnings of geekdom.

It's the Medium, Stupid

Amidst all the clamor over the Starr Report, one Webzine reminds us what journalism on the Net was supposed to promise.

Psychotherapy on the Net

Boldly going where Freud never went.

Celebrity Trades

With the market in turmoil, the only safe bets may be at the box office.

There's Something About Harry

How a twenty-six-year-old college dropout became the king of "film geeks" -- and the bane of big Hollywood studios.

The Second Coming

Jesus and Elvis meet Dolly.

New Definition

A preview of the Oxford English Dictionary's electronic edition points the way to a new kind of reference work.

The Lolita Effect

What Vladimir Nabokov and Bill Clinton have in common.

Normandy: 1944

As Saving Private Ryan sweeps the country, learn about the reality behind the celluloid images.

Investigating the Renaissance

An interactive exhibit shows how digital imaging can reveal a painting's secrets.

For more, see the complete Web Citations Index.
Everything for Sale
October 15, 1998

Ebay In 1995 a software developer named Pierre Omidyar created a small online auction to help his girlfriend, an avid collector of Pez dispensers, find people to trade with. That auction was followed by others, and led to the birth of eBay, a company now worth almost a billion dollars after recently going public (the stock price tripled on the first day of trading, despite the market's bearish mood). eBay's success suggests that online auctions are the Internet's get-rich-quick scheme of the moment -- both for those who run such sites and for those who sell their wares on them.

There are hundreds of different auction sites on the Web, specializing in everything from golf tee times to seafood to used lab equipment to meteorites and dinosaur fossils. eBay is the most successful so far, with more than a million registered users and almost 10 million bids placed since its founding, but several other established companies, both on and off the Web, are jumping on the bandwagon as well: Yahoo! has recently launched its own auction site, as has the Home Shopping Network. Even Sotheby's has tested the waters, with an online auction for first-edition books this summer. (The auction house plans to hold similar auctions in the future.)

Going, Going, Gone Some companies set up auctions to sell their own wares; others serve as middlemen between manufacturers and individual buyers. The Home Shopping Network's site, for instance, sells everything from Samsonite suitcases to Magnavox stereo systems, in half-hour "flash" auctions during which bidding always starts at a dollar. (The deals at times seem great, but potential bidders should be careful: products are often listed with the price they'd sell for if new, yet many items are being resold after being refurbished by their manufacturer.) Travel Facts Auction is one of a growing number of sites where one can bid on plane tickets, hotel rooms, and other travel-related items. Most auction sites, though, offer something closer to traditional offline auctions and concentrate on person-to-person sales, for which the site is merely the facilitator, receiving a small percentage of the money paid for each item. Not surprisingly, pop-culture trends are well represented on these person-to-person sites. At around the time Mark McGwire hit his seventieth home run, 6,000 McGwire-related items were for sale at eBay. Almost all the big auction sites have a category just for Beanie Babies; Lady Di and Elvis memorabilia are ubiquitous.

While online auctions can be entertaining, a good way to locate hard-to-find items, and financially rewarding, they also are attracting hustlers and cheats (many of the items for sale are booklets or disks promising to help one "make a million dollars" playing the auctions). According to Susan Grant at the Internet Fraud Watch, complaints about online auctions top the group's list of most-reported Internet frauds. People often don't receive the item they paid for, or the item is different from how it was represented -- and, when one is buying from an individual rather than a business, most consumer-protection laws don't apply. (The Internet Fraud Watch has published a list of tips to help people avoid being had in online auctions.)

Several auction sites, concerned that their business will suffer if online auctions come to be thought of as playgrounds for less-than-honest characters, are taking pre-emptive measures. Auction Universe, owned by Times Mirror, is about to roll out BidSafe -- for a fee, the auction house will keep money in escrow until buyers have received their goods. eBay, which emphasizes in its guidelines that "we believe people are basically good," asks its patrons to police one another: all users are encouraged to rate their experiences with sellers, and the ratings are then posted for everyone to read. (There's nothing to stop someone from registering multiple times under different names, however.)

Despite the risks of trusting strangers to deliver their Beanie Babies, people continue flocking to online auctions. At what other single location can one find a sweaty Michael Jordan jersey, a sixteenth-century knight's helmet, and "the world's most powerful stinkbomb"? And for those who still can't find what they're looking for on the many existing auction sites, there's hope: with the help of software from companies like Beyond Solutions, anyone can now follow Pierre Omidyar's lead and set up their own auction, if not become the founder of the next billion-dollar Internet start-up.

--Katie Bacon

Discuss this Web Citation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

Katie Bacon is the senior editor of Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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