Definitions of electronic commerce are many and varied. They indicate a lack of consensus about what electronic commerce is. ‘A ‘definition’ implies a direct and unproblematic correspondence between the phenomena and the way a researcher identifies it. However, electronic commerce presents a reality that is too complex for a mere definition to extract its true ‘essence’. Weber’s ‘ideal type’ provides a construct to interpret complex phenomena at a less simplistic level. The ideal type acts as a yardstick for assessing actual situations but is never seen as a direct definition of that reality. To provide an improved basis for theorising, we attempt to construct an ideal type for electronic commerce and use it to develop closer approximations to reality. We conclude that definitions provide a gauge of current conceptual problems in seeing what electronic commerce is. Once we have applied the ideal type methodology to electronic commerce, definitions provide us with a point of orientation for building features, developing and refining understanding of its complexities.