Items currently available for sale on Facebook Marketplace within eleven miles of my kitchen table (a partial list):
- Two antique candlesticks, $20
- One 1994 Lane cedar chest, $110
- One Birkin philodendron, $20
- Drunk Elephant Bronze Drops, $30
I became a Facebook Marketplace power user when my husband and I moved from a one-bedroom in San Antonio to a lovelorn Victorian in Pennsylvania. We had 3,000 square feet to furnish, and a budget depleted by closing costs and moving expenses.
Marketplace is a classified-ad section of Facebook that was introduced as a less-seedy alternative to Craigslist, a place your grandma could browse for an antique footstool without stumbling across a solicitation for feet pics. You set your location and the distance you’re willing to travel — and you’re shopping at a community-wide garage sale.
Amid the ginger-jar lamps and lone nightstands, the chests and planters, decorative knick-knacks and the wedding dresses (only worn once!), you may find exactly what you’re looking for. The great promise of Facebook Marketplace is that, unlike a consignment shop, your neighbors may not know what they have: bookcases free of particle board, heavy brass floor lamps, dressers with dovetailed drawers, all for less than you’d pay for the vinyl-clad equivalent on Amazon. This solid old furniture is a nuisance to them — but an opportunity for you.
The peril of Facebook Marketplace is that your neighbors literally do not know what they have. This chair: is it genuine leather? Who manufactured this bedroom set? Is this desk made of cherry or walnut? When it comes to design styles, too, confusion reigns: antique, MCM, boho and shabby chic are used interchangeably. Is this side table 1960s vintage or 2010s Target “vintage?”
Sellers often use the space meant for describing their wares to dictate the terms of engagement. The seller of two marble-top accent tables inexplicably listed for $150 warns: “I WILL REPORT ALL LOW-BALL OFFERS AND I WILL NOT TOLERATE ANY NEGATIVE COMMENTS! IF YOU LOW-BALL, PREPARE TO PAY IN ADVANCE ON VENMO AND PARTICIPATE IN PORCH PICKUP. YOUR LOW INCOME IS NOT MY PROBLEM!!!!!”
“Please don’t ask me if this item is still available,” many sellers plead, though Facebook’s auto-generated prompt tells most buyers to ask exactly that. Leave another seller’s message un-responded-to for an hour or more, and they might get antsy. “Are you coming to pick this up today?” they want to know, while you’re still hunting for your tape measure. I have more than once received a lone question mark, radiant with irritation, after neglecting a thread for too long.
I try to limit these charged interactions by acting decisively. That’s how I found myself sailing my hatchback over the hills of central Pennsylvania one pristine Friday afternoon in late summer. The order of the day was mirrors, which the house badly wanted: a cherry cheval in Enola, and a gold-framed hanging mirror in East Berlin. Each seller had requested to meet in the parking lot of their respective Weis Markets grocery stores, thirty miles apart. I fell behind schedule early and stayed there. Messages piled up: “Are you coming?” “How far?” Finally, I reached my last stop: the gold mirror in East Berlin.
It is, I am not exaggerating, the ugliest piece of furniture I have ever seen. The frame is the yellow-gold plastic of a tee-ball trophy, with tiny black speckles meant to convey antiquity. It looked nothing like the picture. But I had made this woman wait for half an hour. I had the cash; I’d come all this way. So the mirror sits on my mantel.
I was put in mind of an internal dialogue I might have had once upon a time while battling the rush hour subway out of Manhattan to meet a Hinge date in Red Hook. It’s his fault I’m late. Who asks for a first date in the middle of nowhere? On arrival, single-me would have succumbed to the sunk-cost fallacy: I’d come all this way, and he’s been waiting. May as well stay for a second drink. Even if he looks nothing like the picture.
App-based dating is often compared to online shopping, but checking out of Amazon is swift and clinical. If you decide against a product, it can’t argue back. On Marketplace as on, say, Bumble, sending or receiving a message generates the feeling of a social obligation toward the person on the other end. It’s rude to shirk social obligations. But what qualifies as a shirk? Is it “ghosting” to stop responding to in-app messages? How about to no-show for a pick-up? Is it rude to be late to an arranged meet-up? The person on the other end of your interaction likely has an opinion on each of these questions, and they may not be the same as yours.
Facebook Marketplace and dating apps share this characteristic: an interaction that might have once been governed by clear social norms — bartering, courtship — is now loosed from any standards. They offer freedom and seemingly infinite choice but also confusion and disappointment. It can be challenging to respond appropriately to online dates and Marketplace sellers whose behaviors have been shaped not by agreed-upon customs but by the behavior of the person before you. Hence the hostile dating app profiles (“do not swipe right if you expect me to pay for dinner”) and product listings (“stop asking me if this is available!”). The internet reduces the friction of finding something but increases the friction of attaining it.
I am basically optimistic about people finding their way through imperfect systems. I married a Hinge match. I also found an Amish-made walnut desk for $65 on Marketplace. (The husband was the bigger find.) But now I’ve discovered a few decent consignment shops in the area. Though their prices tend to be higher and their selections limited, the products are trustworthy and available for close inspection and checking out is intoxicatingly simple. No one takes it personally if I leave empty-handed. And as long as the store is open, I’m always on time.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2023 World edition.