Auction Nation: Auction Nation

Town square, community center, social scene--eBay turned into much more than an auction

Melissa Wicker likes to shop for her friends. And she has a lot of friends--nearly 8 million, at last count. Of course, the word friend is used loosely these days, in an era when e-mail establishes instant intimacy between total strangers separated by thousands of miles. So it's no surprise that Wicker, 46, an assistant district attorney in Isle of Palms, S.C., hasn't met many of her new friends in the flesh. But they're on her mind when she cruises clothing stores and comes upon a tantalizing markdown in designer duds. She buys by the armful, goes home to her computer...

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