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A place of tension, lies and the dark side of the human soul. I can’t resist the theatre of Facebook Marketplace | Emma Brockes

A place of tension, lies and the dark side of the human soul. I can’t resist the theatre of Facebook Marketplace | Emma Brockes
A place of tension, lies and the dark side of the human soul. I can’t resist the theatre of Facebook Marketplace | Emma Brockes

There was a snowstorm in New York this week, triggering the shutdown of schools, the excitement of children and, in my case, a flurry of activity on what has become a small but central drama in my life, Facebook Marketplace. There are better forums for buying and selling, and worthier ways to donate your old stuff. But for sheer theatre, it is hard to beat the personalised exchanges of a platform where you can low-key stalk the woman haggling for a 50% discount on your kid’s old snowsuit, to discover she has her apartment on the market for $5m. No deal, madam!

It goes without saying that the joy of the Marketplace has little to do with the money it generates. Facebook knows this, as it knows everything about us, starting with how venal we are. The thrill of the game is all, the slight but real satisfaction of offloading a clapped-out old scooter for actual cash money – as long as none of your Facebook friends see you doing it. To this end, there is a “hide listing from your friends” button that you are invited to hit when you publish a listing, which ensures that no one whose eyes you’ve ever looked into knows you are trying to flog a used colander (strand of spaghetti still stuck to the side) for $4.

One result of this discretion, in combination with the trust that Facebook still, amazingly, generates is that, in contrast to the neutrality of eBay or the sketchiness of Craigslist, the vibe of Facebook Marketplace is a sort of wild west, where extraordinary acts of savagery take place within a community setting. I have witnessed bidding wars break out over secondhand toys, price hikes communicated from a seller to a buyer while they are en route to pick up the item, and general levels of rudeness one would never stoop to in real life. It’s absurd, but for a hot minute after the woman from the Upper East Side offered me $10 for the $20 snowsuit, I was as indignant as if she’d burgled my house. “There are other offers, so $20,” I replied, exquisitely coldly, as I regarded it – no apology from me! – overlooking the fact that this is America, so to her ears it would’ve sounded perfectly civil.

The point, I suppose, is that Facebook Marketplace is yet another example of the way in which behaviour online can differ from behaviour in contexts where we’re more accountable. The fact is that if any of these transactions and exchanges were more widely visible, I suspect the entire marketplace would collapse. In a single, unedifying case, a distant friend, who forgot to hide her marketplace activity from the group, has been providing a steady stream of entertaining listings in which no item – a single, ancient looking T-shirt from Old Navy; one battered book – is too small to try to scrape back a profit from. From a purely financial point of view, it would, it seems to me, be smarter to donate everything to Oxfam and take the tax deduction, but of course, for sellers in the fancier zip codes, the money remains beside the point.

Oddly, there is a human aspect to all this that routes back to the way Facebook was once perceived: as a halfway nourishing community. If we don’t want our friends to witness our grubby efforts to make $20, there is still something occasionally gratifying about the human contact that comes with selling items to people who genuinely need them. In a city like New York, where you are never more than 20 minutes away from the person you’re selling to, there can be a highly cheerful aspect to all this when the handover in the lobby of your building goes well. I have sold old pushchairs, car seats and a complete set of Littlest Pet Shop toys to other mothers in the neighbourhood, and the warm glow of reciprocal interest is worth all the cranky exchanges and dropped offers. Plus – after countless hours of photographing and marketing items and exchanging messages with buyers – I have made, over the course of the last five years, approximately $147.

The snowsuit, meanwhile, remains on the shelf – quite an achievement after two days of snow, and what you get for ignoring the first rule of Marketplace: in a forum in which 90% of engagement ends in one party ghosting the other, take the offer on the table. There is never a better one coming.

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