On eBay, A Little Less Conversation

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, April 10, 2008

Sometime in mid-May, the conversations behind each sale on eBay will become a lot more one-sided.

The site will change one of its core features, the feedback system allowing buyers and sellers to judge one another, by cutting sellers out of part of that back-and-forth. Buyers will still be able to give a thumbs-down to a seller, in the form of a negative (or neutral) feedback rating -- but the new rules will block sellers from returning the favor.

EBay says it's doing this because the old system had become a retaliatory feedback loop, silencing buyers afraid that sellers would ding them if they posted bad ratings.

Instead, as part of the new system, eBay says it will crack down on problem buyers directly. In essence, it's asking sellers to trust it to keep the peace from now on -- and looking less like a landlord and more like a government.

This change has upset many of eBay's 82.3 million active users. But it might also be a lesson for sites trying to encourage strangers to get along.

In the same way that offices need a bureaucratic organization once they get too big for people to know one another, large numbers of users who connect on the Web need a mechanism to establish mutual trust. Setting up such a system is a bit like writing a constitution for a new country; you need to get it right at the start, then be ready to revise it.

On social-networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, the trust system is built on validation by other friends. On social news sites like Slashdot and Digg, it's other users voting stories up or down.

As these communities get bigger, these systems can break down. Spammers try to exploit them, and even well-meaning people can strain rules by overstepping their bounds. The overflow of comments on popular blogs can be tedious to monitor. Facebook, for example, has had to rewrite its privacy system now that people use the site for business networking.

EBay says it's making these changes because the way buyers and sellers use negative feedback has gone sour.

Even one negative feedback against a seller can send a skittish eBay buyer to the exit; a high enough number shuts buyers out of auctions. Buyers, in turn, can be tarnished if a seller writes something bad about them.

This dynamic has led some sellers to punish buyers who leave negative feedback with "retaliatory negatives." Said Brian Burke, the site's director of global feedback policy: "Buyers become unwilling to leave negative feedback."

EBay's plans to rewire this feedback loop, announced at the end of January, go beyond banning negative feedback from sellers. It will limit buyers' opportunities to leave negative feedback and pledges to step up its own enforcement against bad buyers. For instance, it will erase negative feedback left by deadbeats. It's also adjusting its fees and adding incentives for popular sellers.

Many sellers have seized on what they see as the unfairness of not being able to talk back to problem customers. They've launched boycotts and complained to the news media (a blog post I wrote on this topic in February has drawn almost 800 comments).

In a survey at the popular AuctionBytes site, 43 percent called the feedback changes the biggest threat to their business.

AuctionBytes analyst Ina Steiner said in an e-mail that these changes will hurt "even their best sellers," since they will have a harder time looking out for bad buyers.

An executive at one high-volume eBay seller with a 99.8 percent positive feedback rating, Sterling-based Dyscern, said feedback is a form of conversation. Chief operating officer Bill Frischling said leaving negative feedback for disgruntled buyers often gets their attention, giving the company a second chance to make them happy -- after which both sides rescind the negatives.

"Sometimes our e-mails get caught in spam filters," he said. "So at least when we post the feedback, we can say [in feedback comments] 'we hear you, please call us.' "

Without that recourse, his company will have to use eBay's costlier arbitration system.

Others aren't so worried. Another eBay observer, Scot Wingo, said only "casual sellers" face a real danger from not being able to issue negative feedback to uncooperative buyers -- assuming eBay lives up to its law-and-order campaign promises.

Wingo suggested cutting buyer ratings. "If you think about it, eBay is the only e-commerce site where buyers are even rated, much less can receive negatives," he wrote.

That's how retail in the real world works. As long as you can extract U.S. currency or a working credit card from your wallet, a retailer doesn't have to care who you are. As far as they're concerned, it's all just money heading into the till.

At its size, eBay may be most accurately seen as a marketplace, not a community. But the more important issue may be what eBayers think it is. To judge from their outraged reaction, they don't want to stop doing their part in defending that community.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com. Read more athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward/

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