Home eBay Seller Boycott: UGC Means User Power

eBay Seller Boycott: UGC Means User Power

The problem with running a site that relies heavily on users to generate content, is that it puts a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of those users (in relation to the site owners). If users are unhappy with something about the way a site that relies on user generated content is run, they can theoretically hold the site hostage until they get what they want. This week, eBay sellers unhappy with the auction giant’s recent change in listing prices and policy, launched a week-long boycott of the site. So far, the impact appears negligible, but the action highlights a risk that any business that relies on a UGC-centric model takes.

Fortune Small Business reports that in the first few days of the eBay seller boycott listings are down about 3%, according to third party tracking firms (eBay says that the boycott has had no impact). A 3% drop is probably within the margin of error — that is, it isn’t necessarily something we can attribute to the boycott and may just be the result of a normal, seasonal swing. Further, FSB points out that eBay recently ran a listing fee special that caused a spike in listings that have muddied the numbers.

FSB expects the results of the boycott will be clearer later in the week, especially after the listing fee changes take effect tomorrow. “If [eBay’s listings total] falls below 12 million we’ve made a pretty good impact,” eBay PowerSeller Nancy Baughman told Fortune Small Business. “I’m hoping that it goes down below 10 million. If that happens, we will have made a huge impact.”

What eBay sellers are trying to do is not new. We saw a similar user revolt take place at Digg last May. That brouhaha was the result of users responding to what they felt was censorship by the social news site over the release of the AACS encrypition key. In the end, after users effectively took over the site, Digg caved and the users got what they wanted.

Unlike a traditional product boycott, when the users are integral in creating the product being boycotted, the results are felt more acutely. If you boycott a certain type of candy bar, for example, the candy bar will still exist on store shelves for others to buy and the company can throw additional marketing muscle behind it to offset the boycott. If, however, you get enough people to boycott the creation of content on a site that relies on users for content, then the site is effected for everyone. The candy bar is no longer on the shelves because the boycott leaves the shelves empty.

While it seems unlikely that what happened at Digg will happen at eBay — which has a much larger and more mainstream (and thus less tightly connected) user base and would require a much bigger movement than on Digg to effectively damage the site — both instances illustrate how much power users have when sites rely on user generated content.

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