Consider the MacBook Pro that Swoopo sold on Sunday for that $35.86. Swoopo lists its suggested retail price at $1,799; judging by the specs, you can actually get a similar one online from Apple (AAPL) for $1,349, but let's not quibble. Either way, it's a heck of a discount. But now look at what the bidding fee does. For each "bid" the price of the computer goes up by a penny and Swoopo collects 60 cents. To get up to $35.86, it takes, yes, an incredible 3,585 bids, for each of which Swoopo gets its fee. That means that before selling this computer, Swoopo took in $2,151 in bidding fees. Yikes.
Essentially, you pay 60 cents to place a bid. And since each bid causes the price of the item to go up only by 1 cent, that's a lot of 60 cent bids that Swoopo gets!
In essence, what your 60-cent bidding fee gets you at Swoopo is a ticket to a lottery, with a chance to get a high-end item at a ridiculously low price. With each bid the auction gets extended for a few seconds to keep it going as long as someone in the world is willing to take just one more shot. This can go on for a very, very long time. The winner of the MacBook Pro auction bid more than 750 times, accumulating $469.80 in fees.
With regards to math, economics, and psychology, this is akin to a "dollar auction", in which people place bids to buy a dollar bill:
The setup involves an auctioneer who volunteers to auction off a dollar bill with the following rule: the dollar goes to the highest bidder, who pays the amount he bids. The second-highest bidder also must pay the highest amount that he bid, but gets nothing in return. Suppose that the game begins with one of the players bidding 1 cent, hoping to make a 99 cent profit. He will quickly be outbid by another player bidding 2 cents, as a 98 cent profit is still desirable. Similarly, another bidder may bid 3 cents, making a 97 cent profit. Alternatively, the first bidder may attempt to convert their loss of 1 cent into a gain of 97 cents by also bidding 3 cents. In this way, a series of bids is maintained. However, a problem becomes evident as soon as the bidding reaches 99 cents. Supposing that the other player had bid 98 cents, they now have the choice of losing the 98 cents or bidding a dollar even, which would make their profit zero. After that, the original player has a choice of either losing 99 cents or bidding $1.01, and only losing one cent. After this point the two players continue to bid the value up well beyond the dollar, and neither stands to profit.
The human psyche....