September 2, 2005 4:00 AM PDT
eBay at 10: Boon and bane
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hooked. The amount of material available even in the early days was shocking, and often at prices far below those found on Usenet or at shows, he said.
Omidyar himself saw the site as a community, at least as welcoming as the offline collectors' shows and swap meets. He often e-mailed regulars to see if they were happy, and set up forums where people could discuss auctions, eBay itself, or whatever else they wanted.
That's how Jim "Griff" Griffith, an early regular on the site and now one of eBay's chief spokesmen (his official title is dean of eBay Education), ended up working for the company. Griffith was a frequent poster on eBay's forums in 1996. Omidyar eventually called him, and hired him to be an evangelist and guide for people new to auctions.
"From the very beginning, the power of community was something bordering on ownership," said Griffith, who remains one of eBay's most public faces today. "Everyone felt very strongly about it from the very beginning. Nobody's indifferent about eBay."
The next few years saw quick expansion into international markets, growth of features and audience at home, and the acquisition of online payment firm PayPal and other companies. Other companies, including Yahoo and News.com publisher CNET Networks, started their own auctions site. But none ever rivaled eBay's reach.
eBay's expansion has drawn complaints from some users, however, who say that the auction site doesn't have the same community feel it once had. Continually rising fees have ruffled feathers. Some have complained that rules such as a ban on all firearms (including antique muskets) and a lack of appeals processes for cancelled auctions are too arbitrary.
eBay executives say they try hard to stay responsive to their users, even hosting a quarterly "Voices" program where they bring in different people from the community to discuss the site's operations. But they concede that listening to more than a million people is far more difficult than appealing to the original thousands.
"In the early days, the community was self-sustaining, if you let them do things their way," Griffith said. "It's still kind of the same. But when there are several million people involved, and different languages and different locations, creating a support structure to assist and moderate is something of a challenge."
Meanwhile, the offline culture has been wholly changed.
Many of the shows that housed collectors have closed. Brogan's PMA show in the San Francisco Bay Area has dropped from three convention center buildings to just one, with its attendance halved.
Griffith, who still collects antiques, said he has sympathy for the people who miss the past. But change, he added, was inevitable.
"I talk to a lot of collectors and dealers, and there's no doubt that eBay really shook that world," he said. "But if you position yourself as a middleperson in any market and remain static, then market changes can always overwhelm you. You have to be able to adapt."
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