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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

Everyday eBay begins with an assertion that is not exactly earth-shattering to any academic who has frequented the auction site: eBay is "a series of stages allowing sellers to design, perform, and sell memorable experiences" (1). The essays in the book, fortunately, transcend this broad metaphor, looking thoughtfully at the subcultures and microcommunities that constitute the eBay community. The book examines the ways eBay users are compliant with, complicit in, and resistant to the corporate and capitalist structures underlying the auction site, as well as the ways they rewrite history and identities in the hopes of making a sale or completing a collection.

One theme running through Everyday eBay is community -- and it is used in three different but interrelated ways: to describe the community of buyers and sellers engendered by eBay; to reference communities that predate eBay but that have found an additional virtual meeting ground on eBay; and to refer to broader social groups, such as the gay and lesbian community.

Thanks to these varying definitions of community, the chapters discussing the intersection of eBay and community -- and most of the essays do so -- range widely and delightfully across the disciplines. Those that are most successful focus on a community's relationship with material culture. For example, Rebecca M. Ellis and Anna Hayward's chapter "Virtual_radiophile (163*)" demonstrates how collectors' desire for whimsical finds and coincidence is at once frustrated and satisfied by shopping on eBay. The article also highlights the importance of demonstrating knowledge to one's fellow collectors, either on eBay or on another site, in order to be accepted into the community. Similarly, Eric Gardner's essay "Fortune-Telling on eBay: Early African-American Textual Artifacts and the Marketplace," examines the language used by vendors and collectors of Afro-Americana: "by necessity," Gardner writes, "eBay searches combine features of contemporary information technology ... and echoes of the nineteenth-century language of race and racism" (67).

Less successful are those essays that take eBay to task for apparent betrayals of its community members. For example, Jon Lillie's essay "Immaterial Labor in the eBay Community" posits that eBay is taking advantage of its vendors' labor, veiling a capitalist enterprise with illusions of community. The article seems to dismiss average eBay users as naive buyers and sellers who see e-commerce as superior to bricks-and-mortar retail and yet fail to "consider the consequences for place-based communities of the huge shift in volume of commercial transactions to online settings such as eBay" (100). In this essay, eBay users become hapless cogs of the eBay machine, providing the "immaterial labor" that "extends the practices of advanced capitalism and consumer society." Lillie essay's suggests that eBay extends a harmful consumer paradigm, whereas Wikipedia is an exemplar of an online community where immaterial labor contributes to the common good. This unmitigated praise of Wikipedia (which has its share of community problems) and the critique of a virtual auction house for being capitalist seem too simple a binary. eBay users are, the other essays in the book demonstrate, savvy individuals who understand the complexities of identity, narrative, and technology.

The chapters of Everyday eBay that document or imagine individuals' interactions with physical objects tend to resonate more richly than those that focus more intensively on virtual communities. We watch, for example, as Katalin Lovász, a scholar of 1930s film, tries on dresses from different eras to see how they might constrain the actresses who wore them. Of 1950s dresses she has worn, she writes,
The tight waists restrict breathing to the top part of one's chest (And we of the twenty-first century are used to breathing through our whole lungs), and the narrowly tailored three-quarter sleeves hold one's elbow in a perpetual slight bend, which also made me think it isn't accidental that Barbie's arms bend exactly at the angle they do to this day: Barbie was born in 1959. (286)
Also fascinating is Susanna Paasonen's piece on the grilled cheese sandwich that appeared to contain an image of the Virgin Mary and the various kitsch objects that appeared on eBay following its highly publicized sale. Paasonen illustrates how one mundane object can be "representative of a cultural landscape in which religious sentiment and consumer capitalism, kitsch and spirtuality have become interpenetrable" (213). The specificity and tangible nature of material culture gives these essays an edge over the thoughtful, but less interesting, chapters on community. The bend of an elbow, the cheese that wouldn't mold, cartes-de-visite of women and girls holding books: all of these lend the essays in which they appear a particular credibility; even if one disagrees with the author's reading of the objects, the material culture itself inspires further contemplation.

Several of the essays elucidate the importance of narratives to the sale of objects on eBay. Zoe Trodd's "Reading eBay," about cartes-de-visite, as well as Michele White's "My Queer eBay," examine how vendors craft stories about the people in photographs in order to make them more appealing to potential buyers. Trodd writes that "story turns junk into collectible" (80), and White, Trodd, and Ken Hillis detail exactly how, to use Hillis's phrase, "story collapses into sale" (171). Not all collectors value narrative for the same reason. Trodd's collectors of visiting cards may be seeking "instant ancestors," while Hillis observes how bidders on a divorcée's wedding dress or a video game console being sold to punish disobedient boys seek to contribute to -- or complete -- the story of an object (171, 173). Buyers of "gay interest" photography take a different approach to narrative, seeking to remake or rewrite the past through queer readings of photographs (245). These essays suggest that these fabricated narratives, perhaps ironically, lend objects an air of authenticity.

Taken collectively, the essays in Everyday eBay make a significant contribution to the cause of interdisciplinarity across the humanities and social sciences. American studies scholars may find especially delightful the material culture essays, while sociologists and cultural studies scholars may prefer the essays examining community, labor, and identity. There is plenty of fodder for digital anthropologists as well, as many of the essays touch on the ways eBay community members use the site in ways that are or are not intended by eBay. The book would be an excellent text for any number of courses in the humanities and social sciences, but particularly those on digital cultures and everyday material culture.

Leslie Madsen-Brooks:
Leslie Madsen-Brooks coordinates faculty programs for the Teaching Resources Center at the University of California, Davis. A scholar of cultural and American studies who also teaches museum studies at John F. Kennedy University, her research interests lie at the intersection of material and digital cultures, gender, and collecting.  <ljmadsen@ucdavis.edu>

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