A journalist’s admiring history of eBay, written with a dated enthusiam for the new economy.
The Web site eBay is quite a phenomenon—the Internet’s flea market cum chat room, where only a few clicks separate Rolex watches from Elvis Presley oven mitts. In addition to the thousand-odd people who work for eBay directly, the New York Times estimates that 75,000 people rely on the site for their livelihood. It is, claims founder Pierre Omidyar, the perfect market—a place where buyers and sellers meet without middlemen and where price fluctuates in concert with supply and demand. Cohen is inclined to agree, viewing Omidyar as a visionary and eBay as an exemplar of the new economy as he traces its evolution from an ad hoc garage-based Web site to a multi-billion-dollar corporation. Because the site began as a hobby, Omidyar designed it to be self-regulating so that, rather than officiate disputes, he created a system of feedback that made both parties dependent on strong reputations. In lieu of customer service, he created bulletin boards that allowed users to answer each other’s questions. The result, claims Cohen, was an Internet community that saw the site both as trading post and social club. Powerful customer loyalty in its early days allowed eBay to win the dominant market position it now enjoys. Unfortunately for Cohen, however, the quirky start-up story covers only the first half of eBay’s history. With an initial public offering that valued the company at $16 billion, eBay became a giant that kept users by buying out competitors rather than improving its own product—not exactly the stuff of a perfect market. But Cohen plugs on undeterred. Although he sees eBay as a philosophically driven experiment in economics, the latter half of The Perfect Store describes a thoroughly ordinary corporation, working to maximize profits and expand operations.
An in-depth, if credulous, look at an Internet pioneer.