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Everyday eBay: Culture, Collecting, and Desire

Editor: Ken Hillis, Michael Petit, Nathan Scott Epley
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2006
Review Published: August 2008

 REVIEW 1: Leslie Madsen-Brooks

I am particularly honored that RCCS has selected Everyday eBay for its August 08 Book of the Month. Along with Michael Petit and Nathan Epley, I edited the anthology and appreciate the specific difficulties entailed in assessing a collection of essays focused on a particular object while also making assessments of that object from a variety of differing standpoints. I thank Leslie Madsen-Brooks for her thoughtful and supportive review of the collection.

Madsen-Brooks observes that one of the anthology's strengths is its "significant contribution to the cause of interdisciplinarity across the humanities and social sciences," and her observation suggests the value of using this response to set out how we, as editors, wrestled methodologically with how to produce a volume that would, in its entirety, advance interdisciplinarity without inadvertently dismissing the value of different methodological and theoretical underpinnings of various humanities or social science approaches. To achieve this mix it was necessary to incorporate a range of theoretical assessments of the objects -- both virtual and material -- that flow through and around the commercial web platform we know as eBay. From Madsen-Brooks' perspective this may mean that we worked hard to include articles that document individual forms of engagement with physical objects acquired or sold through eBay as well as writings focused more on virtual communities and their theorization. We do not see one approach as superior or inferior to the other -- any such determination lies with a reader's particular set of interests and disciplinary formations no matter how interdisciplinary the reader in question.

But our interest as editors remained broader still. We were committed to find an academically-rigorous way of resolving a difficulty lodged at the core of several anthologies. Too often, all or almost all contributions share an overall methodological approach or a similar political "take" on the object under review. While such anthologies may have the virtue of a sustained focus on an aspect of the object in question, they can suffer from the consequent lack of different points of view. As noted in our introduction, we attempted to avoid this, in part, through bringing together in one volume essays with different methods and assumptions so that readers could make the links and allow the essays to enter into conversation with one another in productive ways.

While most of our contributors have used eBay to buy and/or to sell, a cursory examination of the volume reveals that some authors speak to their experience of eBay from cultural studies or material culture approaches while others approach the site from the perspective of political economy. In the case of the social science contributions to the collection, authors analyzed the rich veins of empirical data that the eBay site makes available in such features as the Feedback Forum. Those writers assess how the necessary trust between individuals seeking to engage in a commercial transaction depends, often in under-acknowledged ways, on the kinds of settings -- virtual and material -- within which and through trust is posited and produced. What should be clear is that, as editors, it was precisely our intention to include as wide a variety of complementary and at times contradictory assessments of eBay as possible given the confines of a print publication. To this end, most of the volume's essays are, by design, under 6,000 words. The resultant economy of expression, we believe, was achieved without sacrificing academic and theoretical rigor.

Additionally, almost all pieces were written to be as accessible as possible to undergraduate audiences and truly interested lay readers. Madsen-Brooks touches on eight of Everyday eBay's 19 articles. The volume's number of articles is almost double the norm for most contemporary anthologies not organized as Readers. Even so, of necessity, there remain many un- or under-examined facets of eBay-the-firm and eBay-the-culture and community that space limits precluded fully considering.

In organizing the book's essays to appeal to a wide range of readers, therefore, we were focused not only on anticipating the kinds of reading decisions made by those, such as Madsen-Brooks, who prefer material culture approaches such as Susanna Paasonen's piece on the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese sandwich sale over political economy critiques such as Jon Lillie's (or Kylie Jarrett's) assessment of the ways eBay induces its members to engage in forms of immaterial labor. We also approached the anthology's organization with the assumption that eBay is "a series of stages allowing sellers to design, perform, and sell memorable experiences." Contrary to Madsen-Brook's implicit assertion, there are many interested readers who, for better and for worse, have not thought about the site in this way. Equally important was our recognition of the need to problematize that while reliance on spatial metaphors such as eBay's "stages" may be precisely that -- metaphors -- that for many community members and other interested users distinctions between metaphor and actuality as applied to the site have long since collapsed or intermediated one another.

As editors we support the broad project of cultural studies. But, as editors, we also see the intellectual value of including points of view and arguments that do not fully subscribe to cultural studies approaches. eBay appeals to many different forms of subjectivity and we sought to produce an anthology that ranged intellectually and ideologically across academic vectors. It is within the context of this thought that I counter the assertion that an essay such as Lillie's is "less successful." We fully expected that other readers also interested in interdisciplinarity would, nonetheless, gravitate toward political economy and social science approaches, perhaps even finding the superb essays on material culture Madsen appreciates as much as we do "less successful" than these other approaches. eBay's success depends on its participants being able to construct meaningful personal experiences articulated directly to the act of buying and selling. eBay's success, however, equally depends on several other factors -- for example, its sophisticated uses of IT and intertextuality; its complicated auction model, the mechanisms of which still remain imperfectly understood by many bidders; and its successful efforts to interpolate or hail users as community members who have a stake in working for nothing in order to build themselves as a trustworthy brand worth consuming. As editors, we agree with Lillie that many eBay community members/sellers invest great effort in helping others through sharing knowledge.

This is affective labor -- the production of a service rather than a good -- and it has been carefully cultivated by the company since its inception. In such a way, eBay is a model for the kinds of e-consumption fostered by newer Web 2.0 applications and the forms of "crowd sourcing" upon which they rely. We believe that this kind of analysis is crucial because it speaks to the global scale at which eBay operates. The more personal essays in the volume, moreover, are equally as important because they speak to the ways that eBay succeeds through direct personal appeal. In short, for these reasons the mix of essays in the volume includes those that approach eBay as appealing to individual sensation and experience as well as others that assess its influence as a global institution and organization.

Once again, I deeply appreciate Leslie Madsen-Brook's review and the support from RCCS for the anthology that it indicates. I hope that this response, organized as a consideration of the ways that interdisciplinarity is constructed and received, encourages those interested in eBay or the methodological issues that attend sustained efforts at interdisciplinary (OR BOTH) to pick up a copy of the book and start reading.

Ken Hillis


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