Boot camp

Internet - Andrew Brown isn't bidding for four Pewter Fairies

If you want the biggest boot sale in the world, go to eBay (www.ebay.com). This was the original auction site on the web. It is still by a huge margin the most useful and certainly the most fun. This is despite its largely American bias. Although there is a British site, it is fairly easy to lose it and find yourself wading through acres and acres of junk that is frustratingly unobtainable. What gives it charm is the scruffiness and lack of pretension of most of what is on offer. People sell more or less what you would find in Exchange & Mart, or the classified columns of the local paper. This means that you can not only find lenses for obsolete manual focus SLR cameras (a man in Holland is selling one I have been searching for for years) but also, a little further down the same page, the filters that sit on the end of those lenses, with bidding starting at $5.

You can buy new, shiny and expensive things on eBay if you want to: there have been celebrated cases where people auctioned Van Goghs - bought by a 13 year old, paying with his parents' credit cards. There are celebrated frauds, or jokes among the sellers, too: someone once put the entire UK new media industry on there with opening bids of a dollar. Other people have offered human kidneys and things. These are stamped out quickly when found, but for the most part, eBay, like a real market, relies on a system of self-policing among buyers and sellers to build up reputations.

If you want to buy something, it takes only a click to check on what previous buyers have written about their experiences with the seller. Similar dossiers are maintained on buyers, so it is possible very rapidly to build up a picture of opinion. This works much better, I think, than trying to have a central ratings authority, which would in any case be unworkable with the hundreds of thousands of auctions that run simultaneously on eBay. Above all it supplies what people most want from a computer system: the illusion, and perhaps the fact, of sociability. You don't really get bargains on eBay, any more than you get them in street markets. Although I have bids in at the moment for a hand-built fly rod at $120; a modem card for a laptop at $30 (one of the few things on sale from England); and a computer game involving cats, complete with promotional soft toy, for $11.99, I confidently expect to be outbid on all of them except the stuffed fluffy cat, which I don't really want but bid for because my daughter was watching over my shoulder as I did the research. Consumer electronics or camera lenses are just as expensive on eBay as in specialist second-hand shops, if for no other reason than that it has become a place for the owners of such shops to prowl.

This lack of bargains is even more noticeable on the sites that auction new goods, such as QXL or lastminute.com. I have never found anything on any of these that closed at a price that made it worth the extra trouble. Often the auction process results in the price climbing rather higher than you would pay in a shop. The fun is clearly in the bidding, rather than the purchase. And here is where eBay really triumphs over the competition. It is tremendously easy to make a bid, and the auctions appear to be taking place in real time, in between your mouse clicks. This is because the software can be set to bid up by proxy, so that it will automatically raise other people who bid beneath your top price; and they in turn raise you back a dollar or two every time you see a bargain. It has exactly the allure of a really good video game; there is always just one more go before you get what you want.

Nearly as interesting as these are the constant discoveries you make about what other people want: I could not resist the category of "miscellaneous: metaphysical". I don't know what I had hoped to find there. Perhaps a Platonic Ideal or two, unique, absolutely as new, sold as imperfectly seen. In fact there were 47 pages of stuff to give Plato the screaming abdabs, such as four Pewter Fairies, going at present for $12, a Scarab candle for $7 or a "poison pentagram ring" for $5. An industrious journalistic jackdaw could construct a huge lament about the decline of the west from such ridiculous trinkets, but I find it really rather inspiring that one of the very few web businesses to make a profit should do so by constructing a huge junkyard where grown-ups who ought to know better can play like children bargaining over playground trinkets. And nothing for sale on eBay could possibly be as inflated in worth as its shares, currently trading at $136, or more than 594 times earnings. Yes, that's 594: an error in reality, not a glitch in transmission.