Since its inception, eBay has presented community as the foundation of security on the site: “The key to eBay's success is trust” (“Company overview,” 2002). As CEO Meg Whitman puts it with implied chiasmus, “We like to say that our community has actually built eBay” (Anders, 1999b, p. R68). Its trademark description was long, “the world's leading person-to-person online trading community.”8“Community trust” would not be effective at all were it not for the “five basic values” of eBay's community:
The rationale for the emphasis on community as a trust mechanism is that everything is done in public–all one's transactions, all the comments people have made about one as a buyer or seller. “You're putting your good name, your reputation, and your livelihood up for public view every time you list something on eBay or every time you bid on it” (Kevin Pursglove, personal communication, August 11, 1999). Brad Handler, eBay's associate general counsel and director of law and public policy, says that the core message eBay offers on security is still, “be informed, be aware, be alert, be safe, and you'll have a great experience. It was [from the beginning] caveat emptor with all of these other tools around it to help you, like feedback” (personal communication, August 11, 1999). When asked about eBay's online security communication strategy, senior vice president and general manager of international and premium services Steve Westly's response was that “strategy point number one is this is an open and safe environment with zero tolerance for fraud or bad behavior” (personal communication, August 11, 1999).
So while community is the basis of trust and safety, “common sense” and basic precautions on the parts of individual bidders and sellers is also fundamental (Steve Westly, personal interview, August 11, 1999). eBay's suggestions on safety (“Why eBay is safe,” 1999) reinforce this notion of individual responsibility for safe trading, with instructions such as, “If you're a buyer, check your seller's Feedback Profile before you enter into a transaction to learn about the other person's reputation with previous buyers. If you're a seller, do the same with your buyers.” Precautions include checking the seller's feedback and e-mailing any questions about the item and shipping or payment terms. This requirement of individual responsibility in deciding to trust, which Hartmann (1995) called “co-responsibility,” (p. 596) reinforces a tenet of trust theory that too much trust is dangerous: accepting too much risk can lead to an unsafe situation that could have been avoided (Castelfranchi & Falcone, 2001; Deutsch, 1958).
eBay: A Community of Commerce
Critics have warned that self-proclaimed “communities” may not truly function as communities. And although eBay calls itself a community, such a designation might be self-serving but inaccurate. Howard (1997) cautioned critics not to apply the “community” label to online groups too casually. Peck (1987) warned about “pseudocommunity,” which he said in his experience included all groups who loudly referred to themselves as “communities” but actually lacked the engagement and acceptance of individual differences to work as one. Burke (1996) agreed that defining community with certainty necessarily interferes with it, repressing divergent views and damaging communal life. Arnett (1986) also cautioned against confusing “community” with mere “association;” for community to exist, members of the group must be committed to both the people and ideals of the organization. Reporters have questioned the truth of the eBay “community;” one referred to it as the “so-called ‘personal trading community,’” and another demurred that “calling eBay a community site is probably stretching definitions a bit. Sure, it has a somewhat rabid following of Beanie Baby/Fiestaware trading netizens, but these folks don't form bonds with each other” (Mendoza, 1999, p. C6; Carmichael, 1998, p. 48).
Similar skepticism can be found among eBay users on discussion boards. There clearly exists with some users a tension between community and commerce, perhaps because eBay so aggressively pushes the “community” moniker while also boasting profits to investors. CM Whitby refers to eBay as the “site where ‘community’ is the most abused word in the English language” (eBay Discuss New Features, 2 August 1999). CM Maryjo complained that the “eBay community” was only “spin control” to avoid having to provide good “customer” service (AuctionWatch.com, eBay Outlook, “If eBay's a community, where's the voting booth?” 15 June 1999). In the same thread, CM relic7 agreed that the “sense of community … has been used primarily for manipulation and public relations.” But Burke (1996) has written that community, in fact, depends on tensions–that without dissent and discussion, the whole of community will never be greater than the sum of its parts.
This tension bears out Arnett's (1986) warning from Buber that inviting community is better than demanding it, which can lead to rebellion. Some users have argued that allowing themselves to be interpolated into the “community” causes them to surrender rights they would demand and receive if they were “customers.” The benefits of being “community members” might include more influence on other community members. Conversely, “customers” might have recourse with eBay management, but they would have no claim on other “customers” who were actually the ones buying from or selling to them. eBay is structured so that to bid and sell regularly, a user must demonstrate responsibility to the community. Irresponsibility results in negative feedback comments and makes a user something of a pariah, fulfilling Deutsch's (1958) requirement that a co-operative trust orientation include a way for people to react to the violation of expectations.
The commerce/community tension can be resolved by cautiously accepting eBay as both: as a community of commerce. eBay blends a “community of interest” with a “community of transaction” (Armstrong & Hagel, 1996) to become one of the “new kinds of communities”Rheingold (1993) predicted would be made possible by creative applications of new technologies. Communities can be interest-oriented (Moemeka, 1998), and as Wellman and Gulia (1999) observed, “Online relationships are based more on shared interests and less on shared social characteristics” (p. 185–186). Because social characteristics are not as readily apparent on the Internet as they are in the offline world, the shared interests based in commerce form an appropriate alternative foundation for the kind of community that exists at eBay. Community members at eBay generally join a social circle by virtue of buying and selling in the same category, sharing experiences as sellers, or sharing some collecting interest on a bulletin board. In all of these situations, commerce is the basis for interaction; were it not for the fact that transactions were being conducted, people would have no reason to be part of a virtual community together.
This commercial orientation is not peculiar to eBay, however. Other “communities” have been commercially grounded as well; even the quintessential American community, the small town, typically has a commercial district at its center. It is not belittlement of eBay's community, then, to call it a “community of commerce.” And eBay embraces this blend, with Whitman commenting, “One thing that really is true about eBay is it is a community-commerce model, with users who help one another” (Anders, 1999b, p. R68).
McMillan and Chavis (1986) defined the sense of community as “a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members' needs will be met through their commitment to be together” (p. 9). These feelings and commitments are just as valid if they are wrapped up in commerce.
Though eBay's emphasis on online auction community as security is novel, all sorts of auctions depend on community. Auctions are, after all, social processes for determining value through communication, and for those social processes to have any integrity, participants must trust each other and trust the process. Smith (1989) wrote that “a sense of community is necessary if the auction process is to be seen as legitimate” (p. 13). Auctions work best as economic tools of pricing and allocation if they take place in a community capable of defining the situation (Smith, 1989). The need for community is even greater, however, at online auctions where there is no auctioneer present to oversee everything; after the auction is over, the rest of the transaction (payment, shipping, etc.) is worked out between buyer and seller. Without a community, legitimacy and definition in such a one-on-one situation become quite difficult.
Fundamentally, communities are “defined and constituted … by rhetorical discourse” (Hogan, 1998b, p. xvi). eBay is not a classic community in the spatial or geographic sense. But “members of electronic virtual communities act as if the community met in a physical public space” (Allucquere, 1991, p. 104). Senior director of communications Kevin Pursglove compared the need for trust at eBay to the need for trust in a neighborhood where people would feel comfortable living (personal communication, August 11, 1999). Whitman has used a spatial metaphor to explain new demands on eBay as it expands from “small community” to “big city.” (Anders, 1999a, p. B1). More recently, she explained eBay's growth in 1999 from “a vibrant community about the size of Portland” to more users than the population of Michigan, the nation's eighth largest state (Whitman, 2000); now, of course, it has become more like a small country. Conventions for offline communication cannot automatically be transferred to the online environment of eBay. The virtual world is different, as Howard (1997) argues in calling for new terminology.
Popular and even scholarly conceptions of community are often naive. Elias and Scotson (1974) charged that many concepts of community “are fashioned as if the nearest approximation to the most normal, most desirable form of social life were some imaginary pre-industrial villages” (p. 38). Critics who say online community isn't “real” community “are confusing the pastoralist myth of community for the reality. Community ties are already geographically dispersed, sparsely knit, connected heavily by telecommunication (phone and fax), and specialized in content” (Wellman & Gulia, 1999, p. 187). Additionally, traditional physical neighborhoods and communities defined by geography have been in decline for some time (Schuler, 1996).
Rothenbuhler (1991), in a study of a geographic community, found that the two necessary conditions for community involvement are staying informed about what happens in the community and getting together with community members. These foundational elements of offline, spatially-oriented community are also present in eBay's online community in mechanisms such as the feedback forum, bulletin boards, chat rooms, and the most fundamental eBay activity, buying and selling. But these are only some of a variety of community-reinforcing structures that rhetorically invite people into the community of bidders and sellers that exists and that maintains order and safety on eBay's online bazaar.
Threats to eBay's Community Trust
In spite of the existence of dangers at offline auctions, people seem more conscious of dangers at online auctions and all kinds of other online interactions. But Gelman and McCandlish (1998) believe that in general, stories that circulate about electronic abuse are blown out of proportion, and that evils “exist online in proportions approximating those of the physical world. The online world represents a microcosm of the world around us, with its knowledge, its wonder, and its darker side” (p. xxi).
A serious threat to eBay's community security, however, is self-imposed. Non-community-based security initiatives that have lasted more than a year now include eBay's free insurance (up to $200 with a $25 deductible) and iEscrow (later Tradenable) services. These were added as two more tools for users to choose from in order to feel confident in trading. The problem is that these new security measures do not build trust; rather, they compensate for a lack of trust.
Insurance replaces trust by reducing the need for it (Rea, 2001). What do insurance and escrow communicate? Not, “This is a safe place,” but, “It's a risky world out there.” Rules, guarantees, and promises assume a lack of trust (Fukuyama, 1995; Gambetta, 1988; Seligman, 1997). Fukuyama asserts that there is actually “an inverse relationship between rules and trust” (p. 224). And Castelfranchi (2000) argued that attempting to control site security technically “is unrealistic and even self-defeating in some case [sic], like for building trust” (p. 8). Nissenbaum (1999) argued that attempts to somehow enforce trust “make its emergence impossible” (p. 11). The more eBay introduces non-community based “security measures,” then, the less eBay foments community-based trust. Anders (1999a, p. B1) suggested that these measures are meant to manage “a community with too many strangers.” A community is not supposed to be peopled by strangers, but rather by community members one hasn't yet met.
The new control mechanisms also remove problem-solving a level from the community—the community doesn't deal with the problem, an outside organization does. The use of an escrow service relies not on trust between parties but on a trusted third party (Rea, 2001). In announcing SafeHarbor 2.0, which introduced many of these non-trust-based security measures (e.g., the delayed Verified User plan, $200 insurance with a $25 deductible, and alterations to the feedback system), eBay indicated a paternalistic change in stance toward its community, calling the new plans “comprehensive programs that help promote safe online trading as well as protect the community from fraud …. eBay vigilantly looks to protect its community” (“eBay launches,” 1999). Rather than the community policing itself, reporting deadbeats and frauds and remaining vigilant on its own behalf, the community will be (passively) protected by eBay management. Certainly the feedback forum still creates a touchstone of community involvement, but there is clearly a move toward control rather than reciprocal cooperation.
Some users have questioned these “improvements.” CM Qxq wrote a fable: “The owners decided that all the users were untrustworthy, out to create scams, cheat each other, but worst of all, cheat eBay out of their rightful fees. They felt they needed to control the users, and began manipulating them” (AuctionWatch, eBay Outlook, “eBay … A Cautionary Tale,” 24 August 1999). CM Oldman wrote, “Kind of makes you wonder about the meaning of eBay community and if it ever really meant anything to the leaders of eBay” (AuctionWatch, eBay Outlook, “Business ethics and the Internet,” 29 July 1999). CM Tedfos asked why, if eBay is as safe as it purports to be, iEscrow was being pushed by the company—“maybe I just don't get it” (eBay Discuss New Features, 16 August 1999). As the community grows, continuing community security means indoctrinating new community members (and there are thousands each day) with an understanding of why community is trustworthy. Measures intended as supplements could become substitutes, undermining the community that has helped build trust at eBay for seven years.