Thursday, December 08, 2005

Schadenfreude is a German word for pleasure derived from someone else's misfortune. It's a terrible thing to admit; but we're all human, and I suppose there's no point in pretending otherwise. So I'll tell you about my eBay confession.

EBay uses automated proxy bidding. Despite sounding complicated, it's actually quite simple: You tell the computer how much you're willing to spend for an item, and the computer will try to buy the item for as little as possible. As other bidders join, the computer will raise your bid incrementally -- if necessary, up to your maximum bid. It's entirely possible that you can place a bid of $40 for a CD; and, if no one else tries to outbid, you can win the auction for a nickel. EBay will only raise your bid when necessary, and never higher than you permit.

If people simply used this system as intended, eBay would be simple. Instead, people place lowball bids, hoping they'll win cheap without having to commit to a higher cost. John Doe will bid $3 for a CD; but when he returns the next day to discover that someone else was willing to pay $5, John will reconsider and decide to bid $10. This goes back and forth, and results in a bidding war that drives the price up. Sellers love bidding wars.

The only way to avoid a bidding war is by placing your bid at the last possible second, leaving no chance for someone to change his mind and outbid you. It's impossible to predict whether your last-second bid will be below some previous bid, in which case you'll still lose; but at least you can prevent the artificial price inflation that results from bidding wars.

This last-second bidding is called "sniping." I'm a sniper. First, I decide how much I'm willing to spend; it's usually an exorbitant amount, because I don't buy on eBay often and I aim only for rare CDs. Now, if I place that high bid early, one of two things will certainly happen: either someone will outbid me and I'll lose, or someone will challenge my bid and I'll pay more. Either way, perceived demand will drive the price up -- great for the seller, bad for me. So I keep my hand hidden until the last possible second.

If this sounds competitive, it is. It's a game; and it's dangerous, because it pits testosterone in direct conflict with my wallet. I begin and end by wanting a specific item; but in the interim, the process is an adrenaline charge. There are automated programs available for eBay sniping, but that drains the sport out of it. I sit patiently by my computer during the last few minutes, preparing my bid; I synchronize my computer's clock to eBay's, and I watch the seconds tick down. Then I wait for the last possible moment -- and I click CONFIRM BID.

Then I refresh the page to see the result. If I was the only last-minute bidder, then I win the item for much less than I was prepared to spend. But truthfully, I'm always disappointed to see that. Sure, it means I got a great deal; but I didn't win. I didn't beat anyone. The real glee is in seeing that a couple of other would-be snipers jumped in during those last ten seconds, and that I came out on top.

Last weekend, I won an auction with a bid placed two seconds before the auction closed. I beat another bidder whose bid was placed two seconds before mine. Now, I won because my bid was higher, not because it came later; eBay actually gives priority to earlier bids, so if we had bid the same amount then I would have lost. He bid $22.05, and I bid considerably more. But here's the catch: If his bid had followed mine, I would still have won the auction for exactly the same dollar amount. The sole difference would be that his bid would have raised mine, rather than my bid trumping his. It's purely cosmetic. It's ego.

What's worse, though, is that I thought about him sitting by his computer after placing his bid. His screen would have said, "You are the current high bidder!"; and he must have felt secure that with only two seconds to go, the CD would belong to him. Then he would refresh the page, and suddenly he would sit up in his chair and shout, "WHO THE FUCK IS CRIBCAGE?!?"

I smiled at that thought. And that's a rotten thing to admit; because besides being poor sportsmanship, this guy and I have something in common. We both wanted a great, rare, out of print jazz CD, which frankly separates us from most of the people on eBay, let alone the planet Earth. My first instinct should have been to email him and offer to share the disc when I received it, not to pat myself on the back.

I don't intend this journal to become a confessional; but if I'm going to develop voice as a writer, I have to also find depth in both action and emotion. To be honest, it's not about being kind or charitable or well-liked; those things are well enough I suppose, but as I've said, it's the craft that matters. No, it's about depth -- moving beyond selfish, immature reactions and being able to forge real character. Any teenager with a typewriter can be clever; but to have something to say, and to make that insight resound through successive generations, is another goal entirely. For that, you've got to reach far; and sometimes it's as much about what you don't put on the page as the words you choose.


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