Instant America
By Adam Faubert

Why buyers have their share of blame when auctions go awry

The 2005 holiday season is over. The wrapping paper has been thrown in the garbage, the Christmas candy has been eaten, and the leftovers from Christmas dinner are all but gone—or turning all shades of green in the back of the fridge. Also coming to a close was one of the biggest Christmas video game holiday seasons in the past four years with the debut of the Xbox 360, and the following mad dash for consumers to get their hands on Microsoft’s wonder box. This included many people who rushed to auction sites such as Ebay or Videogame Auctions to lay down a hefty sum to satisfy their electronic lust. Some people got their consoles while others received empty boxes, pictures, and even e-mail addresses for their hundreds of dollars. But when it’s all said and done, is the ornery buyer the one to blame?

By far the most publicized of the Xbox 360 scams happened on Ebay when a holiday shopper purchased a picture of the console for $600. What made it justifiably angering is how she was deceived by the seller, who included text indicating it was a photograph, but later replied in an e-mail and stated it was a typo. In cases like these, it is clear that sellers are to blame. In others, however, it becomes a hazy mix of desperation and impatience on behalf of the buyers.

There’s no doubt that a lot of sellers are out there to make a buck. When the 360 first debuted there was a myriad of auctions for empty 360 boxes, e-mail addresses that included the words ‘Xbox 360’ and even photos of the console. A few reports indicated that some didn’t even send a physical photograph, instead opting to use the anonymity of the Internet as cover and e-mailing the picture. Still, for all the bad apples, there was some semblance of honor among thieves. In multiple auctions it was clearly stated that auctions were for a picture or an empty box, but even these auctions still sold for well over $500.

People, particularly those who didn’t get their consoles, cried fowl and on GameSpot’s Xbox 360 forum the flamethrowers were pointed at the fine print. When this writer investigated certain linked auctions it was immediately apparent that the fine print was not fine at all, but clearly noticeable. In most cases the sentences indicating what buyers were actually getting were the same color and font size as the rest of the description. Yes, the ‘fine print’ was sometimes at the very end of the paragraph. Yes, sometimes it interrupted two fluid sentences and seemed randomly inserted. Yes, sometimes it was in a separate paragraph all together. When it’s all said and done, the old Latin saying caveat emptor—or may the buyer beware—has never been more true. The buyer may not be looking at the most obvious source though, and instead of blaming the seller they should be looking at their own impatience.

Americans are an impatient group, a sentiment commonly hinted at by major news organizations, international observers, and members of our own government. And why shouldn’t we be? The idea of ‘instant’ has been hard-wired into our culture so much that our attention spans have been led like lambs to the slaughter. Just look at the foods that we eat. There’s instant pudding, instant rice, instant oatmeal. Kraft Foods managed to take all the ‘hard work’ out of boiling water and cooking pasta by introducing Easy Mac. The hell with 20 minute preparation, I want my macaroni and cheese in two minutes from a microwave.

The emergence of broadband connectivity has thrust us out of the snail’s pace of dial-up Internet, and the result is instant video, instant music, instant loading of Web sites and not to mention the most important function: instant pornography. At the click of a button someone can snap a photo of a dog being intimate with a rabbit and e-mail it to their friends. Our products and web surfing habits all point to a mentality of “I want it and I want it now.” Anyone involved in web-based publications will admit that the key to a successful article is to keep the paragraphs short because many people don’t want to look at large chunks of text.

This is most likely a factor when impatient holiday shoppers browse Ebay looking for an item in short supply. Web sites have unintentionally conditioned surfers to locate the pertinent information in one central location, typically at the top. This isn’t the case in many 360 auctions, and sellers may knowingly exploit this bad tendency of ours to skip the big chunks of words. The result is someone paying $500 for a cardboard box and wondering what went wrong. Blaming the seller for an inconvenient placement of a single sentence isn’t good enough.

A credit card company won’t cancel your late fees when you tell them you forgot to read the part about late payments. Insurance companies don’t care if someone told you their contract meant one thing but the wording itself was very different. Those ‘free membership, no credit cards required’ sites some of you may frequent won’t care when a dialer is installed and has you calling every public telephone in Singapore.

When new hardware and software debut in short supply, prices will almost certain skyrocket on the secondary market. But the best defense against paying $1000 for a pet rock is just relying what we’ve known all along but have chosen to ignore. Make sure you read everything so this summer you don’t shell out an entire month’s salary to get that PlayStation 3 picture that you always wanted.