Saturday, January 28, 2012

Nails in the coffin of my virtual world.


For many years I made a living selling things on eBay; I sold approximately 20,000 items (mostly cds) in a 13 year period. I listed items 5 days a week and spent 3 days a week packaging and mailing (yes, that’s eight days a week, just like the Beatles song). My house looked like a warehouse (still does, some weeks). My positive feedback was over 12,000 and my negative a tiny fraction; in all that time I never ripped anyone off, but people will leave negative or neutral feedback at the drop of a hat. One guy left me negative feedback that read “nothing really wrong, I just felt like it.” I had one guy leave me negative feedback because the jewel case on his cd was cracked when it arrived.

I learned a lot through eBay. Dealing with “the public,” albeit virtual. Also dealing with the US Postal service, which is an entire mini series unto itself. I can’t tell you the number of times I have thought to myself, just because you hate your job doesn’t give you the right to take it out on me.” 13 years ago eBay was a novelty; a cultural phenomena, it was new and shiny, and we were all on a learning curve. I learned to rise above the nastiness people would hurl at me (via cyberspace). At one point I was selling hundreds of items a week; the people at the post office know me by name. I never ripped anyone off, but people ripped me off. I learned to take it as part of the territory. I had one lady steal a $100 antique quilt from me; she said she never got it, she got a full refund from paypal. I had another lady say that one of the three dresses she bought was stained; she got a full refund from paypal, and she didn’t return any of them.

When eBay bought Paypal was major stab in my business model. Now, the only form of payment you can use to sell something on eBay is paypal. And, a fact known to some, is that you can ALWAYS get your money back with PayPal. File a dispute, they will refund your money. They will conduct an “investigation” and they will ALWAYS side with the buyer. eBay will ding you once with listing fees, then seller fees, then paypal fees. They make more money than Oprah (seriously) and do a lot less running around. You are no longer allowed to accept cash checks or money orders on eBay. Only Paypal. There is something wrong with that (I believe it’s called a monopoly)(or extortion), but what can you do.

The decline for me came when they introduced, in addition to the feedback system, the 5 star seller rating system. Buyers could now leave ratings on a scale of 1 – 5 for their transactions, rating the seller on communication, shipping prices, shipping speed and item as described.

I learned that people online will say whatever they want. It’s far too easy to click on the cute little stars and rate someone you’ve never met and could care less about. And why give anything 5 out of 5 stars? That mplies they are perfect, and no one is perfect. Don’t be ridiculous. I think one thing we all learned is there is little to no accountability in the virtual world. You can be whoever you want, say whatever you want, and no part of it will (likely) ever intrude into your real life. So just go for it.

eBay realized that they were losing money on shipping (both amazon and take a percentage of ‘shipping fees). Because they could only take a percentage of your SELLING price (PayPal takes a percentage of your total payment including shipping). So they devised a system which encouraged sellers to offer “free shipping” thus negating buyer’s voting feedback on your shipping prices, which if the shipping is free, how can they vote anything but 5 out of 5. By the way, shipping prices on eBay are CLEARLY stated on the auction page, so as far as I’m concerned, you see upfront that shipping is $5 you have no right to complain that shipping was $5. During our phone conversations, they encouraged me, in order to improve my feedback ratings, to offer free shipping. As we know, there is no such thing as free shipping, you have to factor the shipping price into the selling price (thus increasing eBay’s profit margin). But that means if I am selling an item that is worth $10, and costs $4 to ship, when I am coerced into offering free shipping, I must increase the price to $14. If other people are selling the same item for $10 (it’s real value) then my price is not competitive. Win-win for eBay and Paypal, lose-lose for the seller. eBay has since changed their policy so now they take a percentage of the selling price and the shipping, so no matter what you do, as a seller, you lose.

It really ramped up when eBay decided that sellers could ONLY leave positive feedback for their buyers. But buyers could leave positive, neutral or negative feedback for their sellers, or none at all. With absolutely no accountability or repercussions. eBay said this was because buyers were afraid to leave negative feedbacks for their sellers, and this new system contributed to a “safer” trading community.

What kind of system works when only one side of the participants can vote. People totally ripped me off and I could not leave anything but positive feedback for them. This is America?

My feedback rating started to slip, and even though I had close to 13,000 positive feedbacks, most of them “didn’t count,” for whatever reason (the reason is they were more than 6 months old, in today’s eBay world, anything that happened more than 60 days ago is out of your control, let a lone 6 months ago). But the negatives sure counted. If you take my overall positive feedbacks and lay them side by side with my negatives and neutrals, they total less than 1%. But that is math in the real world, like using a calculator, or the law of gravity. eBay math significantly weights the negatives more than the positives. That is not fair on so many levels, but also because most people who are happy with things (see the missing 7200 feedback ratings) don’t bother leaving feedback at all.

According to eBay math (and I discussed this with several employees on the phone who attempted to explain their unique formula to figure out the percentage of positive vs negative) my negative feedback hit 2%. Then they put me on ‘restriction’ so I could only sell a few things per month. What that really mean is, I could only LIST a few things per month, whether they sold or not. They said this was to teach me a lesson. No, they said this was to teach me to be a better eBay seller. And to “give me the opportunity” to raise my feedback percentage. Which, I think statistically was impossible. Realistically it was simply impossible.

So the day came when my feedback slipped to -2.4% and they cut me off. Completely. One day I woke up and my entire inventory (I had nearly 2000 books listed on, a division of eBay) had disappeared. I called them and spoke to several young individuals who attempted to justify their rationale. One of them actually said to me, “you are a hindrance to the eBay community and we cannot allow you to list or sell items on eBay.” Even though I had been a member more than 13 years and sold nearly 20,000 items. Another one of them told me, “we invite you to sell your items on” I kid you not. How much money did eBay (and PayPal) make off of me? A hell of a lot I can assure you. Some months my eBay seller fees were in the hundreds of dollars, which because it’s all linked together (eBay PayPal and my bank account and credit card) they never hesitated to take their fees directly out of my bank account.

I opened a new account, under my pseudonym. But that only lasted a couple weeks because it all filters through and they realize I’m using the same ISP, and have the same bank account. So that account got pulled as well.

So, I hijacked one of my friend’s accounts (with his permission). Not as easy as it sounds. Even though he had been a member of eBay for 10 years and had 100% positive feedback, he had only used the account to buy things. once I started selling things, the virtual walls started popping up. And to my friend’s credit, and patience, he trusted me and he jumped through the hoops for me.

We did this all in the fall, and, again, I appreciate my friend’s tolerance. I listed and sold several items and his feedback remains 100% positive. But then I had a couple real big jobs and then with the holidays, and I didn’t list anything on eBay for a few months. Lat week I started listing some of my collectible and expensive items (artwork, antiques). I got a prompt, “you have reached your selling limit for the month of January. What? I had only listed 5 items. My selling limit was set at 10 items, or $1000 maximum opening prices. I have three Japanese prints from the 1850’s which are $300 each, so my $1000 limit went fast. These are LISTED items, not SOLD items. So I can’t list any more items for a full month. I have a lot more items to list. There is a button on the eBay page, “how to increase you seller limits”. I had my friend call and pretend to be (uh) himself. The eBay employee told him that because he hadn’t listed anything in the last 9 days, his seller account had been restricted. And there is nothing he can do about it for 90 more days. So at the moment, I am stuck with 4 items listed maxing out my $1000 listing limit. And I can’t do anything else.


Now, a similar situation is happening with craigslist. I have managed to open several accounts, which I need because they “they” consistently, no there is no consistency whatsoever, and no rhyme nor reason. They periodically flag my ads down, which means remove them. Some days all my ads are pulled and I can’t psot anything until the next day. The flagging system is Craig’s notion that, being a free society and a free site, the natives, as it were, self regulate themselves through the flagging system. If you find someone’s ad inappropriate, you can click a button on the corner and “flag” it. Once a certain number of people (this number apparently varies according to traffic) flag your ad, it is removed by Craig’s computer. Also, Craig’s staff can remove your ads.

Both of these situations, there is no accountability and no reasons given. So, you can sift through all the ads on Craigslist, and flag every one of them if you feel like it (and have the time, which clearly some people do.) CL also has a very secret system known as “ghost listing.” Once someone’s (let’s say, for example, mine) account has a significant number of flagged posts, some posts still go through, but they are actually never posted on the site. Now, I’ve been manipulating the CL system for years; I also spent many years working in the music business in the marketing and promotion department, so I do know how to write ads. I’m also a photographer, so I know how to take amazing pictures. So when I post an ad I know I will get responses. Many of them are spam (I have learned how to spot the spam responses very quickly, although occasionally I fall prey and within seconds of an errant mouse click, I am receiving spam phone calls and texts.

So when I post an ad and don’t get ANY response, I sometimes look on the site to see if my ad is there. Most of the time, it isn’t. The post went through the system but was never posted on the site. That’s just mean, and, honestly, doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s so underhanded and passive aggressive. Frankly, can’t you just say no, this post is not approved, let’s see what we can do to make it fit within our guidelines.

I do post “dummy” posts, in order to get them off the Top 100, then I can change them to say what I really want. The flaggers in general, stick to the Top 100 (first two pages), but not always. You can do a specific search (obviously), let’s choose, oh “handyman” for example, and flag every ad that has the word handyman in it (ie mine). Some days every single ad I post will be flagged, including the dummy posts (which are specifically so innocuous no one could find any fault or inappropriateness). One time I made the mistake of “complaining” about a flagged post. When your ad is flagged down, CL will (usually, not always) send you an email that is extremely condescending, and says 98% of posts are flagged down because they are inappropriate. If you are in the 2% we apologize and invite you to re-post.” Or you can send the flagged post into the “help” board and say, why was this flagged, there is nothing against the terms of service (TOS) in this ad.

I did that once, and within minutes, every single ad I had posted was flagged down. No reason, no jsutification, no response to my question, nothing. Just disappeared (not unlike my half,com inventory). Thus proving that one mustn’t complain. Once you get flagged too may times, you will start getting ‘error’ messages like “you have reached the posting limit for your account.” And nothing more will be entertained. After you have been flagged too many times, they will close your account. To this, there is no warning, no justification and no appeal process. Not dissimilar to eBay. All bow down to the almighty Craig. Do not make eye contact, do not speak unless spoken to (and even then).

The last week, the file share market has collapsed. File share server Megaupload was sued and shut down and billions (yes billions) of dollars confiscated. Very quickly, several more servers stopped working. This has thrown the world of file sharing into turmoil, scrambling to find servers who are still operating (mostly European and Asian based), reloading their movie and music files. At this point the long term implications are uncertain. It could be the end of file sharing as we know it. Or it could be a blip, and after a couple weeks things will be back to normal (albeit on new servers) and the incident will be forgotten.


After a decade of being able to download pretty much any music or movie or software we wanted, will we be forced back into brick and mortar stores, back into buying cds and DVDs again? Is this a little too late, considering there are only a handful record stores left to go buy cds. The only choice we have is or eBay (coincidence? Or just ironic?)

After a decade of selling things on eBay, they have made the selling process so expensive (in eBay and PayPal fees) and convoluted, not to mention risky (with regards to customer feedback) and, with PayPal’s extremely liberal refund process, expensive, since several items are being shipped out not only for free (when people get a refund) but at an expense (eBay fees are still in effect regardless.) Yes, eBay has a ‘dispute’ department, weighted almost entirely toward the buyer and only available to a seller for a few weeks (often not enough time to realize that a buyer has ripped you off).

After years of using Craigslist to basically market and promote my businesses (I have several irons in the fire at all times), with their newfound enthusiasm for removing my ads and posts, has effectively become more effort than return.

The most successful days (financially) I have had in the last year have been doing yard sales in front of my friend’s hair salon in North Hollywood. You get a fraction of what things are worth at yard sales (people seem to want everything for basically nothing, which is their perogative). As opposed to eBay where you get more or a market value (especially on collectibles such as art and antiques). Or craigslist where you can get at least a reasonable return (albeit at a much slower pace than a yard sale). Yard sales are a lot of work, a lot of effort, and try one’s patience. I have to do a lot of praying to get through yard sale days. But I do.

And you do get immediate result$. You are working with your feet on the ground. You do get a feel (real quick) of the value of the things you are peddling. What flies and what just sits there (online sales are a little less tangible). You also deal face to face with people, you have one to one interactions, you can get a little attitude from people but you can also have interesting conversations and make some real contacts (nothing like putting a business card into someone’s hand as opposed to doing an email blast). It reminds me of the fun I used to have working in the Rhino Records store in Westwood. Wow, human contact!

Is this the future? Analog interaction? Face to face transactions? Conversations that don’t involve electronic mail or digital pictures or iPads? People picking up an item, holding it in their hands, falling in love with it, and asking,“how much is this?”

What’s next, will people start going out to bars and roller rinks and dog parks again to meet people instead of opening Grindr on their smart phones?