Hurry! Don't let [random eBay item here] get away! Increase your max bid before someone else steals away your item.

There are a few ways in which the creation of eBay was absolute genius; it played upon the needs and wants of society as a whole, combining them and providing easy access to previously unavailable or difficult to find items.

The Internet as a medium is not inherently addictive, but its ease, speed and availability allow addiction to seed, spread and flourish in already susceptible people.  Before, interactions, shopping, discussions, and other internet activities were very personal. But the Internet offers another ease: anonymity. Because the Internet is fairly anonymous, it’s easier to delve deeper into activities, interactions or other behavior that one might not engage in other settings.

Photo credit: flickr user liewcf

According to a paper about internet addiction published in American Behavioral Scientist
“Internet use in the United States alone has grown from just less than half of American adults in 2000 to about 59% of adults at the end of 2002, and studies have shown that nearly 6% of online users suffer from Internet addiction” (Young 2004).
If only 59% of Americans used the Internet in 2002, now in 2009, that estimate is undoubtedly much higher, and as the usage of the internet goes up, so does the number of people whose internet use goes far beyond what is healthy, and can be destructive to their normal lives.  For some, the Internet allows the emergence of their unrestricted alter egos. Applied to eBay specifically, you are more inclined to buy what people determine as “embarrassing” or other items with more ease due to the convenience and anonymity.  For example, shopping for a car warrants people venturing outside to do their research, but when buying sex toys, online is preferred to in-store.

First of all, we want convenience. We value drive through, instant, immediate gratifications of our every want and need. We need immediate downloads and high speed internet, instant coffee and induction hybrid cook-tops that boil water in 90 seconds. The internet has expanded our knowledge and definitions of convenience.  When we have a question, we type it into Google, and are immediately met with an answer. When we don’t know how to get somewhere, we find directions on the internet. Don’t know where to eat, that’s ok, search for restaurants in your area. The internet has armed us with more information than we know what to do with and as such, our consumer behaviors have followed suit.

Now, we have our convenient medium, what else do consumers want? A good deal. Thus, the other core tenet of eBay: affordable shopping. The mentality for eBay shoppers is that the whole place is one giant garage sale. Operating on the belief that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, you enter the site knowing that your items are going to be less expensive than buying them through a retailer.

Besides the deal mentality as well as the convenience of access, there is also a much wider variety of items to browse through than other venues. Imagine something you want to buy. Perhaps you are simple, and like me, want to browse the shoes. Currently there are 11, 819 size 6.5 women’s shoes listed on eBay. If you are obsessed with shoes like me, this doesn’t bode well for your addiction. By a simple stroke of keys, I can search for whatever color, style, heel size and other search criteria that I desire for my latest shoe conquest. There are heels, boots, sandals, tennis shoes, flats, and stilettos, in colors, patterns and styles that are much more varied than any department store. But there are much more than just shoes on eBay.

There are clothes, jewelry (you can buy your engagement ring on eBay), power tools, cars, houses, boats, collectible dolls, and other miscellaneous items that you can spend hours (or days) sifting through. Offered in the “Everything Else” category ranges are listings ranging from headphones, S&M gear, and my personal favorite, the “mystery box,” which is offered for 26 dollars and gives no clue as to what’s inside. 

If these weren’t enough to keep you coming back for more, let’s look at another eBay component, the auction. Instead of normal purchasing, where a consumer decides to buy an item and then clicks “buy” and pays for it, most of eBay is based on auction, where members bid on listed items for a designated time period. This auction mentality builds in a gambling component into eBay which alters slightly the motives and impulses of consumers to buy products.

If I bid on an item, I know that I want to buy it, but it is not guaranteed that I will win it unless I monitor the item in question to make sure that my bid remains the highest. This ensures that I will spend more time on eBay more frequently. Secondly, since I know that I am “getting a deal” and am more willing to increase my bid to buy out other competitors. According to a paper published in the International Journal of Consumer Studies,
"several long term users [of eBay] indicated that they had become more and more obsessive and competitive as time had gone on. One seller even compared the use of online auctions to gambling and commented that it is as much about having fun as it is about making a profit” (Cameron and Galloway 2005).
This mentality pushes me to spend maybe more than would have in the beginning of the auction. Also, the item’s value to me can be affected by the number of bidders there are. I may bid on an item, and may want it and there may not be any other bidders, which won’t change my established spending range for that item. However if there are a large number of bidders who want my item, its corresponding value is driven up, and I increase my range of spending to compensate it. Because people want it, it must be a good item, and I need to buy it.

Although there have been some initial studies that have shown the draw of the internet and its potential for abuse, there is still need for more research and definitive findings on the subject of internet addiction.

But perhaps eBay is merely another tool in our behavior evolution. According to a paper examining behavioral ecology of consumption, published in IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, postulates that our online consumer behavior is nothing new, and is merely an old behavior expressed in a new way. According to Ecologist, eBay may be the key to understanding modern Darwinism.  Survival and reproduction are based upon those members than can efficient exploit nearby resources and forage most effectively. Based in an electronic environment, effective foraging behavior is seen in online consumer actions. The results of the study showed the most frequent and repeated consumer behavior linked to shortened delay time of shopping. Coupled with fulfillment of need, swiftness of results denotes that foraging behavior is inherently linked to our modern day consumer impulses.
“This amazing technologically advanced environment does not change the nature of the person interactive with it, but instead features of the online environment that most closely resemble features of long-lost ancestral environments evoke the same patterns of behavior that would have been found in the Pleistocene era” (Hantula et. al. 2008).
Perhaps this is more the case. As online settings become more ingrained into our daily lives, instead of being consumed and controlled by them, they have become a mere tool in the development of our evolution. In that case, I’ll see you on eBay.


Cameron, Dylan D., Alison Galloway. Consumer motivations and concerns in online auctions: an exploratory study. International Journal of Consumer Studies. 29(3) May 2005.

Hantula, Donald A, Diane DiClemente Brockman, Carter L. Smith. Online shopping as foraging: the effects of increasing delays on purchasing and patch residence. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication. 51(2) June 2008.

Young, Kimberly. Internet addiction, a new clinical phenomenon and its consequences. American Behavioral Scientist. 48(4) December 2004.