eBay: Won’t you be my neighbour

Lest anyone think that it is totally clueless when it comes to the whole social-networking thing, eBay has launched eBay Neighbourhoods, a kind of mashup of MySpace and Digg-style features that has been grafted onto the shopping site. Not surprisingly, perhaps, these social features are all mixed up with the main focus of the site — which is, after all, shopping. That’s part of the problem (along with the fact that it’s about two years late, of course).

ghost-town.jpgSo when you go to the “Coffee Lovers” neighbourhood, for example, — which eBay suggested I might be interested in, despite the fact that I wasn’t logged in with my eBay user name — the URL is actually “espresso machines.” The implication is clear: come here to our beautiful neighbourhood and chat about coffee… and then please buy one of our lovely espresso machines. Is that the kind of basis for a social network that will have any kind of traction? I’m not sure (neither are GigaOm or Techdirt). I’m not a big shopper, really, and I don’t like to spend a lot of time talking about my prospective purchases. But maybe that’s just me.

It reminds me a little of a social network that Chapters Indigo — a large Canadian bookseller — recently launched. It has all the requisite features, with recommendations and friends and links and so on, but it appears to be a bit of a ghost town so far. Maybe that will change, I don’t know. But as I keep saying, I don’t think you can just create a community (not a real one, anyway) by just building something and then flicking a switch. That’s not how real-world communities are formed, and it’s not how online ones are formed either.

eBay has lots of users who have signed up to buy or sell things — but is that the kind of community that will translate into a big user base for its “neighbourhoods?” I’m not sure it will. Does it mean anything to me that when I look at comments, it shows that person’s eBay feedback score? That means people enjoyed buying things from them, but I’m not sure that means their comments on the Coffee Lovers chat forum should be given any more weight than anyone else’s. Maybe they should be given less.

Even if eBay does just want to use social-networking to facilitate more shopping — which it is free to do, of course — Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch says it is pretty much missing that boat too.

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

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