The Junkman’s Dilemma: How The Internet Has Changed How We See History

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Back in in 1999, just as Ebay was coming into bloom, William Gibson wrote a piece on his experiences buying expensive watches online. He called the article My Obsession and it details his youth as a picker in the 1970s.

He writes:

When I was a young man, traversing the ’70s in whatever post-hippie, pre-slacker mode I could manage, I made a substantial part of my living, such as it was, in a myriad of minuscule supply-and-demand gaps that have now largely closed. I was what antique dealers call a “picker,” a semi-savvy haunter of Salvation Army thrift shops, from which I would extract objects of obscure desire that I knew were up-marketable to specialist dealers, who sold in turn to collectors.

This “job,” if it can be called a job, is all but dead these days because of some of the basic properties of the new market. Barring those folks on American Pickers who find items that will eventually hang in a TGI Friday’s, the potential for making a lucrative trade in a post-Internet world by finding and selling odd items is nearly nil. First, a picker depends on arbitrage. Arbitrage depends on incomplete information on someone’s part or, in the case of collectable, desire.

Second, a picker is facing down an army of folks who, in a sense, refuse to allow their items to be picked for fear that somewhere, somehow they will find out that their Garbage Pail Kid collection is worth something. After all, a listing on eBay is nearly free and a listing on Craigslist is free. The cost, then, in finding someone to take your items off of your hands at a premium price is only time. And obviously no one has any of that. So the cards moulder and the old watches sit in drawers and the Beanie Babies slump over themselves like rotten potatoes and pickers are stuck sifting through detritus at best.

The golden geek example of this impetus is the Mile High Comics story. In 1977, a friend called the owner of Mile High Comics to explain that a realtor had contacted him about getting rid of some junk at the home of Edgar Church in Boulder. After a bit of back and forth, the owner went to see the comics and found a trove – literally a house full – of old books, posters, magazines, and comics that spanned back to the birth of Superman and the Golden Age of comics. In short, he picked his way into a long and happy career.

All that is gone now, and there is definitely a side effect that, for better or worse. The Internet is changing the way we look at nostalgia and history. Take for example the recent efforts by George Mason University professor T. Mills Kelly’s class, Lying About The Past. Kelly and his students essentially propagate hoaxes, using the tools of social media to spread lies about history. They have, in fact, successfully posted fake listings in Wikipedia and by faking primary material they were able to fool a number of people over the years.

Kelly and his class recently tried to fool Reddit with some fake newspaper clippings about murders in New York, suggesting that Jack the Ripper visited New York to do his dirty work. The resulting post – bolstered by some ginned up newspaper clippings and a short backstory, was quickly dismantled. The same impetus to hunt for the best price for a piece of nostalgia has been reversed here to slam the lid on a piece of flim-flammery.

Rob Beschizza notes on BoingBoing that Reddit is specifically tuned to sense when information is, perhaps, too good. He wrote:

Superficially weighty evidence doesn’t trick an audience exquisitely tuned to the forensic texture of information; the site’s machinery heaps attention on anything interesting; and the social milieu makes it hard for would-be hoaxers to avoid adopting a pattern of behavior (“karma whore”) that threatens their credibility from the outset.On the other hand, Wikipedia is easy to deceive because it’s easy to accumulate low-profile, cross-referenced edits, and the site has a rigid, exclusionary culture that is easy to exploit once it is understood.

They are, in a way, like collectors who can see through a 20th century Chinese reproduction of a Spanish conquistador sword simply based on immersion in the market. They are intrinsically skeptical and, as such, can’t be taken easily.

Sure, things slip through just as they might at an antiques shop where a rare painting is hanging next to a mangy deer’s head or when an entire crate of early Archie comics lies next to a box of romance novels at a yard sale. But the Internet has killed the casual picker and created a new breed of meta-curators – folks who are able to see through and comment upon the collections of others without, often, having first hand experience on the topic. Some would call them trolls and others would call them obsessives. I’d just call them Internet users.

Harnessing this instinct is what all of these social creation sites are about. A market cannot exist without a group of people interested in selling and an equal number – or more – interested in buying. Sites like Reddit are the last refuge of the intellectual picker and, while there is no way for us to find a #1 issue of Mad Magazine at the thrift shop anymore, there is a way to separate the intellectual wheat from the chaff using the picker’s instinct online.