eBay spawns a marketplace for the bizarre
September 20, 1999
by Miguel Helft
(IDG) -- Just minutes after a bizarre item moved on the Associated Press wire, the phones were ringing off the hook at online auctioneer eBay. Every news organization in the country seemed to be chasing the story of a human kidney that had been offered to the highest bidder.
Before San Jose, Calif.-based eBay pulled the plug on the macabre auction, bids had escalated to $5.7 million. EBay officials said the auction was most likely a hoax, but still referred the matter to law enforcement; selling body parts is a violation of federal law.
Perhaps more surprising than the kidney offering itself was the amount of attention it drew. The story was picked up by news organizations ranging from the New York Times and National Public Radio to local evening news broadcasts. On eBay's home turf, the story made the front page of the San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Examiner, and was stripped across the top of the San Francisco Chronicle's national page. Over the next few days, copycat auctions for a testicle and at least three babies – which by all accounts were hoaxes – also prompted stories in major newspapers. An auction for a soul apparently went unnoticed by the press.
These strange incidents underscore how eBay, the Web's most popular auction site, has spawned a parallel marketplace for the bizarre. The sellers in this sideshow are often publicity hounds pushing pranks that range from the offbeat to the tasteless, and even the illegal. The buyers are the media and, through them, the public at large.
For pranksters, eBay promises a double thrill. "I think it is partly the media attention," says Paul Grabowicz, new-media program coordinator at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, about eBay's popularity with those troublemakers. They can also get the satisfaction of seeing others bid money for bogus items. "That is the kind of sucker mentality," Grabowicz says.
On the buyer side, eBay's success has made it a media – and Wall Street – darling. Because of that elevated standing, any weird activity attracts attention from journalists who have become almost blase about the misdeeds now common in other parts of cyberspace.
EBay acknowledges that it has a problem. "People know that if they do things here, they'll be noticed," says Steve Westly, eBay's VP of marketing and business development. "There is less poor behavior on eBay than in virtually any place in the real world. But it is gathering attention because of the interest in Internet commerce."
That's probably true. On a typical day, the site holds some 2.6 million auctions, a tiny fraction of which are believed to be hoaxes. While pranks are nothing new on the Internet, eBay has hosted a string of strange auctions that included: a teenage boy selling his virginity; a missile, a rocket launcher and other military gear; 200 pounds of cocaine; and a team of engineers offering their services, an auction that was not illegal and was done in good faith by the engineers themselves.
While most of these offerings garnered some media coverage, the kidney auction clearly struck a chord – perhaps because it made light of the plight of the thousands of people awaiting kidney transplants. EBay officials and news editors whose organizations picked up the story said they didn't know whether the bidders were serious. But the story "just happened to capture the attention, and to some extent the curiosity, of editors as it would readers," says Kevin McKenna, technology editor for the New York Times. The sale of a body part "appeared to be so outrageous that it warranted attention," says Bryan Monroe, an assistant managing editor who oversees front page coverage at the San Jose Mercury News.
For now, eBay has no plans to change its current policing procedures, which rely on users to notify the company about illegal offerings – even if they look like hoaxes. But Westly warns that eBay is one of the "dumbest" places to peddle illegal goods, especially in the wake of recent auctions that eBay had to pull. "At any given time, there are hundreds of law enforcement people watching our site," says Westly.
Going Going Gone: Some Of eBay's Stranger OfferingsThe recent kidney offer sparked dozens of copycat postings, including one that put a soul up for sale. There were at least three babies put up for auction over the Labor Day weekend. All of these offers, except the engineering team, were pulled by eBay shortly after the company was notified. The engineering team withdrew its offer voluntarily.
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