Auction Hero

This was my introduction to eBay, the wildly successful online auction service that gives new meaning to the phrase “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” In the market for a talking necktie, a porcelain pig, or a beer helmet? Odds are that a brief search will yield what you’re seeking. But far from being limited to tacky kitsch and bizarre curios, eBay also serves as a clearinghouse for a number of useful goods, from computers to automobiles to pressure cookers. Profitable since its inception and boasting more than 42 million registered members, eBay is one of the bona fide New Economy success stories.

Yet, to hear Adam Cohen tell it, Wall Street success was the last thing on Pierre Omidyar’s mind when he founded eBay in a spare bedroom in 1995. In his new book, The Perfect Store: Inside eBay, Cohen reports that the online auction service began as an exercise in economic theory, a real-world attempt at forming that most basic of microeconomic precepts, the perfect market.

EBay’s unofficial motto could well be “eBay: Eliminating the middleman since 1995,” for that has been the crux of Omidyar’s perfect market–bringing together individual buyers and sellers on a level playing field where the market perfectly determines an item’s price at the intersection of supply and demand. Early on, Omidyar realized that “the Internet was driving down the value of middlemen because it was making it easier–and therefore more economically efficient–for individuals to carry out their own transactions.” By providing a setting where buyer and seller could come together in free-market bliss, Omidyar hoped to discover whether or not a perfect market could be established. Becoming a multi-billionaire, it seems, was only incidental to that goal.

Such an assertion would seem laughable from someone else. But in this case, it isn’t. Cohen portrays Omidyar as the antithesis of the typical dot-com CEO, refreshingly free of smooth talk and flim-flammery. Omidyar thrived on innovation and preached fiscal responsibility, urging employees to spend company money as if it were their own. He maintained that running a major corporation was not something that he wanted to do. And, in 2000, he put his money where his mouth was and walked away during the height of the company’s success.

Omidyar is a compelling figure. The child of French-Iranian parents, and a veteran software developer, he is described as exuding a “profound, existential calm,” piquing readers’ curiosity. But the trouble with Cohen’s narrative is that Omidyar flits in and out like an enigmatic butterfly, preventing the reader from really getting to know the man. This is emblematic of the main problem with The Perfect Store. The book is structured as a series of bite-sized anecdotes, but Cohen bounces from one to another without any semblance of cohesion. Characters are introduced, abandoned, and then picked up again 100 pages later. This frustrating structure is a product of Cohen’s desire to illustrate his thesis that eBay’s success derives in large part from the sense of community it fosters among its users. On the site’s bulletin boards (the “eBay caf”), buyers and sellers come together, creating unique identities and forging friendships. Cohen writes that “[b]oard regulars lost sleep, and even missed work, because they stayed up all night in the Cafs . . . In the vast, cold expanse of cyberspace they were a convivial outpost, a place where users never felt alone.” Holding the eBay community in such high esteem, as he does, Cohen wanted to profile as many of the members as he could, in the hope of arriving at a greater understanding of just what it is that makes eBay tick. The trouble is that, compared to Omidyar, these eBay fanatics just aren’t all that interesting. In fact, most are rather pathetic and depressing. EBay’s message boards seem to be a gathering point for outcasts and loners, people who would “cry all night, sometimes all week,” over a nasty post. Regulars included a cross-dressing dairy farmer, an amnesiac hermit, and “an Elvis groupie who believed the King had personally intervened to get her a job at eBay processing payment checks.” The profiles shed more light on Internet addiction and obsessive-compulsive behavior than they do on eBay’s rise to the top.

The result is confusing and ultimately disappointing. It prompts one to imagine how somebody like Michael Lewis might have treated the same subject matter, narrowing his focus and concentrating solely on Omidyar and his quest for economic perfection. Had Cohen done this, his book would have been an unqualified success. In a way, though, Cohen’s obsessiveness is fitting. Just as The Perfect Store offers an anecdote about seemingly any and every eBay shopper, the perfect store offers seemingly anything and everything that anybody would ever want. Including my Colonel Sanders suit, which I sold back on eBay three months later for a $20 profit. Perfect market, indeed.

Justin Peters

Justin Peters is a correspondent for Slate and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.