eBay fever

Last week, my time was fairly evenly divided between libraries and, well, eBay. It has been a successful business model for more than 10 years, and for all those years, I’ve read so much about it. Not only Fortune-kind magazines. Interesting academic papers have been published – for example this JCMC article where the author argues the key to eBay’s success is its “rhetorical construction of ‘community’ on the site [providing] a foundation for trust between users”.  That said, I’ve never bought or sold anything on it. In fact, I’ve never searched anything on it, either, until this time. I am comfortable with online commerce in general. It’s just that I detest adrenalin surges, which should be expected at any kinds of auctions.

This time, I wanted to buy an Axim X30 keyboard. As it was a discontinued item, it seemed too difficult to find one elsewhere. I finally found one on eBay UK. New and genuine, so the seller said. Believe me, I was about to buy it. With the college network being extremely slow at that particular moment, however, the only stock of the item was sold in front of my eyes in a matter of minutes. This totally worked me up. I then became obsessed with this keyboard hunting. As if my writing is not moving forward swiftly only because I don’t have a portable keyboard… A positive by-product of all this is that I am now such an expert on PDA keyboards. After having carefully read dozens of consumer reviews, I’ve finally decided on which model I want other than the X30-specific one. Now all I need is someone who will put one on the market at an insanely low price. 😛

This whole psychology of auctions reminded me of the Introduction to Economics course I took in university. My first degree was in Business Administration, for which I had to take two compulsory courses in Economics. When we were discussing the concept of utility, Professor Kim told us that if we went by a pure utilitarian approach, i.e. aiming at maximising the sum of human happiness, auctioning would be the best way to distribute limited resources. His argument was that one’s willingness to pay indicates how desperate the person is to have a certain item, and that reflects the possible utility the person will gain from the consumption of it. In other words, through auctions, things will be given to those who want/need them most. Except the impossible condition that in his idealised world every individual has the same capability to pay, he sounded so convincing.

That said, now I disagree. His theory seems to have ignored the fact that human beings are by and large competitive animals. Those who lose their bids will suffer greater dissatisfaction and even frustration, which will make a bigger deduction from the total amount of happiness in society. Only if we could quantify such things…

A bonus. A photo of Jeremy Bentham I took when I dropped by the UCL two years ago. The cabinet displays his preserved body, dressed in his own clothes, EXACTLY AS HE REQUESTED IN HIS WILL. I humbly confess I don’t understand how the mind of a great man like him works.



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