Why I am not to be trusted (or: eBay offer declined)

For the first time since my very early thirties, when a lack of ID stopped me from buying a bottle of wine in a supermarket (quite a flattering experience, if I’m honest), someone has refused to sell me something.

Sadly, if you were expecting mystery and intrigue, I can only apologise for what is an entirely vanilla story. I wanted to buy a modem (told you it was dull) for a little research side project and eBay was the obvious place to look. There were a number of choices for the item I needed, but I settled on a listing from what looked like a private individual. “One for the little guy” and all that. The item was listed as “Buy It Now” with the option to make an offer, which I did. My offer was refused and the listing ended soon after, so I bought one of the alternatives from a corporate seller.

Yesterday, several weeks later, eBay unexpectedly informed me again that my offer had been rejected but with the following message from the seller that I hadn’t noticed at the time (eBay IDs have been changed to protect those unwittingly dragged into a blog post).

Message from: a_worried_seller

“I was about to accept your offer, but I see that you choose to make your feedback private. I have a lot of concern about that, sorry. Regards, a_worried_seller”

I had just thought that my offer, which seemed to be about the going rate for the item in question, had insulted the seller. As it turns out I am apparently a concerning member of the eBay “community” because I keep my feedback private. (As an aside, I am baffled that eBay champion themselves as a community, in the same way I would be if a supermarket considered me to be a part of their community because I spend money there and minimally engage in functional conversations with the staff.)  This is not about to turn into an attack on a_worried_seller. I respect their decision and we have had an entirely civilised exchange of messages about the situation.

It is clear that eBay view feedback as very important [1]. As a predominantly distance-selling marketplace I can understand this to a point. A quick Web search also reveals a lot of suspicion around buyers with private feedback, eg [5] (I particularly recommend reading [5], not only for its shoutiness but because of the startled expression on the face of kate-at-the-sea-side‘s dog).

But I also think that eBay positions and implements private feedback quite badly. They clearly want members to have public feedback profiles [2], to the extent that members with private feedback cannot sell on eBay [2]. From a buyer’s perspective this seems entirely reasonable.  However, as someone who is only buying through eBay at the moment, what does the selling “community” lose because my feedback profile is private?

  1. My overall feedback rating is hidden on my feedback page, immediately creating an air of secrecy, even though it is visible on my public profile. This is not something that I want to hide and I do not see the value of hiding it in one place but not another. Sellers can also see the amount of positive feedback I have received in the past 12 months on my feedback page.
  2. Feedback comments are hidden. Sellers are not supposed to leave neutral or negative feedback for buyers [1] and, given that most of the feedback I receive as a buyer is a combination of banal comments and maybe some ASCII text effects, I am not sure what is lost here.
  3. The eBay “community” (and the rest of the Internet) cannot see who I have been buying from. How does where I shop have any bearing on my potential reliability as a buyer? eBay provide much more relevant ways to protect sellers [3], such as allowing them to impose buyer requirements [4].

Point three seems to have the most potential for privacy implications. Imagine these scenarios.

  1. Eric collects antique china. He makes an offer on a tureen from PotteryPeddler123. PotteryPeddler123 notices that Eric has been buying items from their main rival, Bone-anza. There is no way PotteryPeddler123 is giving Eric a discount if he shops with Bone-anza.
  2. Paula’s boss Vincent finds out her eBay ID and, by looking at her public feedback profile, notices that Paula has recently been buying items from the eBay seller BigBongs4U. Vincent says nothing but is secretly convinced that one of his team is a drug user.  Paula is passed over for promotion and never seems to work on the cash desk any more. The reality of the situation is that Paula’s brother has MS but does not have an eBay account.
  3. Radovan’s wife, Yasmin, suspects that he is up to no good (he is not). By looking at his feedback history, she notices that Radovan made an eBay purchase from VintageJewellery765 in early December. Radovan did not give Yasmin any jewellery for Christmas. Yasmin slaps Radovan in the face when he returns from work that evening, shouts a lot about jewellery and mistresses, will not listen to his explanation and so he ends up sleeping on the sofa. Radovan’s manager is a close friend, and has a daughter who turns 21 in February. The bracelet he bought from VintageJewellery765 is a birthday present that he forgot to mention to Yasmin.

Okay, I made up these stories in a desperate bid to add more interest to this post. But even kate-at-the-sea-side, who clearly seems to have a “those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear” view on eBay feedback privacy, highlights the potential for the inclusion of seller IDs in feedback to be used for unsavoury activities such as stalking [5].  On a personal level I do not want to share my shopping destinations with the world, even though they are generally dull and uninteresting. I do not see how it adds anything to the eBay “community” or gives sellers any insight into whether or not I will be a good customer.  If eBay gave the option to hide the seller ID from feedback entries then I would have no need for the feedback privacy option.

[1] http://pages.ebay.com/services/forum/feedback.html?rmvSB=true
[2] http://pages.ebay.com/help/feedback/profile-public-private.html?rmvSB=true
[3] http://pages.ebay.com/services/forum/sellerprotection.html?rmvSB=true
[4] http://pages.ebay.com/help/sell/buyer-requirements.html
[5] http://www.ebay.co.uk/gds/PRIVATE-FEEDBACK-/10000000001024891/g.html

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