A Beavis and Butthead pewter necklace will cost you $6.98; $11 for a snake-killer whip; $13 for a "Way Cool Kung Fu Cute Hamster Toss Pillow." The right search term will lead you to hundreds upon hundreds of violas and viola bows eagerly posing for prospective buyers, going cheap. At any given time, you are likely to find at least one prosthetic arm.
eBay is like a sprawling medieval marketplace on the Web; you can buy anything people will sell, and there are plenty of troubadours and dancing little people to keep you entertained as you browse. For those who are serious about the art of exchange, eBay is a meeting place for those with uncommon taste to find one another against the odds. People who collect turn-of-the-century Viennese Jugendstil crafts; people who sell their own handmade goat milk soap; people buying embroidery patterns - just the paper patterns, not the threads - for up to $100, after outbidding others who agree about their worth.
You don't have to bid; just watch and learn. Onlookers get a quick lesson in supply and demand, capped by the anthropological moral that "value" isn't an objective property of objects; it's all relative to a sub-cultural perspective. If I am the only one who wants the Beavis and Butthead pewter necklace, heck, I can have it for a dollar, plus shipping and handling. If four other people want it, the price is driven up to $6.98, at which point either time runs out on the auction or, before that, we collectively decide that wearing a cold metal replica of America's anti-sweethearts around our neck would not change our lives more than eight dollars would. But notice this: to people outside of our clique of Beavis and Butthead aficionados, the necklace remains worthless. How diverse is America, how infinite in preferences!
My favorite search category is that of the "ferret hammock," which I stumbled upon a few months ago when looking for Chinese fans. (How did I get from fans to ferret hammocks? This is the venturesome thrill of the search term: it can take you to all kinds of odd corners.) The basic premise behind a ferret hammock is that your wriggly pet likes to ball up in these cloth squares, the corners of which you've secured somewhere to create a hammock-like effect.
To the ferret, of course, one dangling cloth square is probably as good as the next. To the owners, no detail of the ferret hammock is too mundane to merit attention. Just as we humans can choose between spring and coil mattresses, pillow-top and firm, ferrets can get their shut-eye in plush-polyfill; in all-natural hemp; in patterns that run the gamut from "denim farm" to "cowboy stars" to "oriental fantasy." At last count there were 62 ferret hammocks available on eBay.
One the one hand, eBay is a vast, teeming ocean of buyers and sellers, and in a cynical mood one could consider them all rapacious in their way. On the other hand, there's a world of difference between the eBay experience and the encounter with corporate marketing. For one thing, buyers on eBay stand a chance of humanizing their sellers. Even if the seller is listed only as "Minnie327" or "Dougstuff," there's a homey intimacy to many usernames, giving each transaction a distinct flavor. Compared to the distance one feels from the obscenely rich Johnson family who are distantly linked to the Glade Plug-In you just bought, it's practically like having a relationship.
While sellers may valiantly strive to mimic professional ad copy, some pull it off better than others. A gentleman selling a "Sunflower Art Print" (for $8.95, last I checked) assures us with frothy enthusiasm that it is "Ready for your own personal framing." The vendor of a set of Hello Kitty sugar, salt, and corn starch containers does pretty well for herself until she intones that her items are "A must-have for any Hello Kitty fans [sic]." In a moment of unintentional hilarity, the seller of the "Way Cool Kung Fu Cute Hamster Toss Pillow" writes in earnest italics: "I'm certain they will be asking 'Where did you get this?'"
More endearing still is when the rhetoric lapses altogether, and we are reminded that many are there to connect with a modicum of honesty and decency, even if that can become stilted in translation. The vendor of an incomplete chess set, unsure whether he is expressing a promise or a hope, informs us: "You will like this." Others are less sentimental, reminding us we're not at Bloomingdale's any more: "No stains."
Even the pictures that the sellers scan into their computers help create a human touch. In contrast to the visual perfection offered by any Martha Stewart or Pottery Barn catalogue, worlds in which tableware is airbrushed to gleaming flawlessness, many items on eBay look slightly bruised or crumpled. eBay gets its soul from the shabbiness of objects that come from real human contexts. When snapping a photo of their wares, some sellers barely bother to scootch their laundry out of the way, and even the more self-conscious photographs beam you instantly into the foreign-familiar corners of other people's homes. I recently bought a used coffeemaker from a woman in Illinois, and I find it oddly reassuring that I can picture the kitchen or at least the beige linoleum countertop from which it comes.
Most important, when things go right, clients of eBay have a real human being on which to heap their gratitude, and the feedback pages show it. Any buyer or seller on eBay can be rated, and I am touched by the depth of feeling that goes into some of these evaluations. "Thanks for the wonderful tumblers! Great pleasure doing business with you!!!!!!", enthuses one. "Wow. Gorgeous. I appreciate you!!", quivers another.
These effusions don't just impart practical information. The meaning of a rating like "A++++++++" rampant grade inflation if I ever saw it isn't just: "This buyer pays promptly" or "I liked the product." The lack of restraint is so extreme, it suggests an ecstatic, desperate, beautiful need to convey connection, even "love" (in the most diffuse sense) toward fellow human beings. It is as if eBayers are relieved to have found a corner where they just might leap over the barricades of late capitalism to hug their neighbor.
If I'm right, then eBay participants have a glimmer of resemblance to people from cultures that pay for services with beloved cattle, or that secure social intimacy through cyclical patterns of exchange. Some Maori have been said to believe that an object that changes hands has a spiritual power (called a "hau") possessing something of the person who gives it. In its own way, eBay has begun to rehumanize the American transaction, even if the human traces can be identified only through the initials in a username, the scratch on a plate for sale, or the worn kitchen linoleum in the background of a photograph.
Janet McIntosh teaches cultural anthroplogy at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA.