Long ago, in 2005,
Etsy was the great new hope for hipster e-commerce, taglined your source for all things handmade. Full of fancy tech and smiling people, it would connect artisans and artists with buyers, redefining the marketplace with a rustic, meaningful patina.
The girl who told me about it
emanated patchouli as she moused around my laptop to show me her shop, filled with her handmade, bohemian-esque scarves. It was summer 2006. Another freelance job lay on the table, awaiting my tired eyes. Literalist by trade, I stared at this made-up word on the site’s homepage, elongated white typeface letters floating in a bar of muddy orange:
E t s y.
What does it mean? I said.
She looked at me sympathetically. Like, you’re so old school.
I was raised by workaholics.
My father’s business associate was also my honorary godfather. He was Chinese. He’d say, Don’t be a writer. Be a businesswoman. Make money. He’d say, Businesses have to grow, or they die. I never understood that, which I took as a sign I should be a writer.
But then my life changed: after years of rumblings, my marriage exploded, scattering me and thirteen rooms of vintage homespun with it. And publishing was in the throes of its gerund phase: downsizing, outsourcing, retooling. So I opened my own shop on Etsy in July 2008, where, despite the tagline (later changed), you could sell vintage, or supplies. The first items I listed were the artifacts of heartbreak: revenge retail. I recouped domestic losses by turning them into cash.
Etsy was like an online craft fair, each shop a little storefront. Membership was free, each listing cost 20 cents; 3.5 percent of every sale, including shipping and sales tax, went to Etsy. Most people paid through Paypal.
The rules were simple: be honest, be nice, keep vintage at least twenty years old and handmade entirely designed and constructed by you, the seller. That definition was adjusted to include small collectives, a wee indication of how Etsy liked to evolve — by redefining its own terms (and “handmade” is elevated from adjective to noun). There was an official blog, with inspiring features like “Quit Your Day Job” and “Featured Seller,” shelter-porny home tours, discussion forums (just no call-outs, ok?), chirpy DIYs (granny-square laptop covers!) and an endless stream of market-y emails (“Handmade Weddings!”). Staff avatars had real faces. The CEO, Rob Kalin, dispensed furry optimism and used words like transparency, meaning, ethos.
Be Personal. Be transparent.
If you tell people who you are, they trust you, said Etsy. Also: create your unique brand. The advice seemed contradictory to me—a brand is made up, a tasty phantom; a person is just a person, and who wants to know who I really am? Instead I became the cheery head cook, my shop set up like a diner, a menu serving up apple pie necktie, tenderloin jacket, maple crunch pumps, blue plate specials. Neat idea, how’d you come up with it? other sellers asked. I didn’t tell them it was my inside joke: given my anemic income from publishing, I would have looked for restaurant work if I didn’t try this.
It was easy, mostly.
I was good at finding vintage; I had radar. I once spotted a roadside carton marked FREE and found Atomic Modern cocktail glasses inside. And everyone wanted vintage: it was green and hip: Dude, cool old toaster object. That apron’s really sexy. Recycled clothes are way more righteous than Chinese sweatshop factory crap. It was refreshing to have this much fun working, to have to shop. Just take some pictures (I loved photography), do some research (majored in history), write a listing (and creative writing) and voila, thirty bucks. I began making money, one sale at a time.
Handmade is noble.
Vintage was the giggly older sister on Etsy, parading around in a bouffant with her rockabilly boyfriend. But as part of the mission’s core, handmade was the kid under pressure. Handmade embodied a better past, a better future. To Etsy it wasn’t the objects that gave meaning, it was how they were made and who made them: the method was the message. And handmade spoke to our preindustrial, kinder past, of heritage crafts, authentic process. It was all so romantic, if slightly abstract. But Etsy made it fun, too: Stay handmade! staff saluted in wacky DIY videos, we’re taking over the world!
But handmade is a preindustrial concept.
I remember wondering about this: how could small-scale production, based on village-sized supplies and demands, work on a global scale? Nineteenth-century pre-industrial artisanal production, aka handmade, was just that. Unfettered by factories, container ships, paypal, FedEx, cities, inherently isolationist. Was it truly sustainable to ship one soy candle from Vermont to France? Could someone even support herself making soy candles? Would Etsy be able to create a magical marketplace that sustains us? A handmade utopia?
Trust us, Etsy said.
And reselling is evil.
Even in Etsy’s early years it wasn’t easy to keep the mission pure. Interlopers were always crashing Etsy’s borders to steal business away from good, honest, transparent folk. Shops that didn’t give a whit about integrity would hawk wares they hadn’t made — reselling, in Etsyspeak. There’s something Court Jester vessel-with-the-pestle about this distinction, but a maker is a seller, and a faker is a reseller. 1) make, 2) sell vs. 1) make, 2) sell it to a reseller, 3) who re-sells it. Other shops tried to get by with fake vintage, hoping no one checked the labels against logo dates on trademarkia.com. Counterfeiters bought an item from one shop, copied it, claimed the copy was their own design, and then undercut the original by selling theirs for less (there’s a missed term from the Etsy lexicon: re-makers).
So narc for us.
But we Etsy villagers, we were vigilant. It makes business sense to help keep your own playing field free of cheaters, and Etsy made it so easy to flag errant items. There’s a report this item to Etsy tool on every listing page. Etsy was ever expanding: $180 million in sales in 2009, $314 million in 2010, and 400,000 active sellers. It was refining its Board of Directors (from Facebook, Flickr, WalMart), courting investors (big influx coming right up), developing an in-house payment system (why let Paypal have all the fun), getting a CTO (Chad Dickerson, soon the new CEO). Staff had little time for dealing with all the clamoring at the bottom of this giant pool. And for years, despite extolling community, you couldn’t reach Etsy by phone: there was no phone number.
Also, Etsy wasn’t always that good at due diligence. Sometimes, shops were flagged unfairly (by crazy buyers, jealous rivals): wrongly shuttered by Etsy, sellers had to beg via email to reopen. Frustrated sellers took the forums to complain they were twisting in the cyber wind, emails unanswered. Shops eclipsed by counterfeiters had to generate so much proof it was easier to just give up. Meanwhile, shops flagged again and again were still thriving (back to that one in a bit). The discussions would pour on advice and sympathy, until finally, an Etsy admin appeared — and finished the thread with a bureaucratic Thanks, we’re looking into it. If the tone got too shrill the forum might simply get shut down. Nontransparently, part of Etsy’s company culture included muting dissent, sometimes just for a bad attitude: Please be respectful and stay positive. Thanks!
New old things all the time.
Mostly, I stayed in my vintage bubble, fully hooked, by 2011, on the highs of great finds and rising sales. I bought a pricey camera, an antique dress form, was collecting vintage by the garbage bag, any style so long as it was old. I sold Kennedy-era to Mad Men, rural farmy to Hilfiger, heritage to Japan. I cultivated a flooded-with-daylight look in my photos. And I started to imagine not having to freelance anymore, sipping that Quit Your Day Job punch. Because oh, that 1920s tux from Kerhonkson, that Ginger Rogers dress, that Danish Modern — so many new old things all the time, an endless supply, and the research fascinating, people in Indiana, Sweden, Calfornia so happy to buy. I imagined the only thing limiting me was the fact that there were only twenty-four hours in a day, but I was sure I could somehow get more efficient (how industrial, actually).
I promise I won’t leave you.
Fretsy, we called it at home. If I didn’t have a sale for a day I’d fall into a funk. If I was off the site too long I got jumpy, tilting in the direction of my laptop. Addiction, a friend said, only less fun than dope. No, I said, it is so fun. Etsyholic, she countered. And anyway, don’t you have a book to write?
But don’t leave me.
It was a strange world, all confined to these pastel framed screens, sales hinging on your ability to be found. You might get an item on the Front Page — possibly via the treasury system, in which members scrambled to curate collections (hundreds of them) that Etsy might pick and post for half an hour. (Another twisty term: a treasury is a storehouse of wealth, which we kept replenishing, for free, for Etsy’s use as front page content.) You might strike gold and be profiled as a Featured Seller. Or land in an Etsy Finds email (“Rustic Wedding!” “Trending: Chevrons!”). Still, there were so many ways to disappear. Use the wrong keywords in listing titles. Let listings expire. One night I dreamed I was a sweater, lost in the woods, lying unseen on the forest floor, while giant, spidery search engines roved overhead. Because I’d forgotten that Search (a verb turned noun) was now based on relevancy, not recency.
on a sunny Sunday, I’d leave the screen and go outside, feeling like I’d stepped off the crazy bus. Everything would be quiet. Birds were flying, dogs playing in the yard. My eyes would relax, free of that endless pixelating overload. I’d pick up a book, read language unco-opted by agenda. Then I’d hear a voice: What, you want to lose your edge? Get back on that horse.
We’re getting Bigtsy.
By 2011 that old village felt more like a new international airport, a heavily invested behemoth hub attracting, according to Dickerson, now CEO, some 25 million visitors a month. There were more than 7 million members, 800,000 sellers, and so many ways of knowing what everyone else was doing; a vast social network with facebooky feeds that made it so you never wanted to look away. Numbers began to fill Etsy’s announcements, as if they were magic, as if they were better for everyone. It’s amazing, Etsy seemed to be saying, We’re growing exponentially and yet still able to maintain our integrity and transparency! Start patting backs now, everyone!
And kind of creeptsy.
That’s when Etsy made its first overtly un-transparent mistake. Not like having no phone number, or shutting down the wrong shops (that just seemed like rank incompetence). It brought in a data mining company, KISSmetrics, presenting it as Google Analytics on steroids, meant to help us learn what drove traffic to our shops. But KISSmetrics didn’t give one byte about our shops. It slipped into our browser files, installing secret, undeletable tracking codes — Supercookies — to record everything we did online. Was Etsy selling this data? Using it as value to beef up its value? A lawsuit charged KISSmetrics with violating U.S. privacy laws (the firm settled with plaintiffs), and everyone felt sold out: Etsy (named in the suit but dropped) had ignored it own member privacy rules.
The debacle was widely reported, in Inc., the Daily Dot, Wired. Everyone asked (rhetorically, really, because think about it): could a breach that vast be unintentional? We had no idea, Etsy insisted. Very Nixonian, very we are not a crook. Also cutely retro, I thought. Then as if to save us, it announced it disabled KISSmetrics. You’re safe now, it said. Not according to my Mac guy.
I began falling out of love with Etsy
in 2012. The skimcoat of meaning was peeling away. Having ramped up my shop with a do or die momentum, I was having my best year. But the romance was fading, that sense of community curdling into scared factions — facing a growing epidemic of resellers (bubble necklaces, prom dresses), and a new feedback system where a buyer’s negative (this vintage sweater arrived preworn!) could damn you forever. At least get a freaking phone number, members raged.
Etsy seemed strangely above it all: rehashing the same ideas (no really, Quit Your Day Job!), the same trend reports (Mermaids, sapphire!), same aspirational profiles. In spring, its coveted Featured Seller spot was devoted to furniture maker Mariana Schecter, whose shop, Ecologica Malibu, was exposed as a reseller in a heartbeat. Was it her French manicure, diamond ring, her spotless, creamy hands that gave it away? Watchdog and spoof blog Regretsy (tagline: Where DIY meets WTF) posted bills of lading from an Indonesian factory to Schecter, and found the same neo-Brutalist armchairs on Overstock.com. The interwebs had a field day.
In the annals of transparency, an “Our bad” would have gone far. But Etsy would not retract the profile. Our only mistake was not calling this a collective, it insisted. Dickerson himself defended Schecter (we’re satisfied, based on her evidence …). Okay, but what about those chairs on Overstock, Ebay? [vigorous, futile pointing gestures here]. Etsy simply deleted all the comments. 4,400 shops staged a one-day blackout — Protestsy. Ecologica disappeared — but probably voluntarily, since the profile’s still up: there poses the fake carpenter on that Frankenbench, magazine in lap, declaring her passion for working with her hands. Etsy was dead. Long live clueless Etsy.
Imagine you’re a merchant on the other side of the world,
wanting a bigger foothold in e-commerce. You’ve been watching Etsy — at first, it was bafflingly noble, elevated above evil mass manufacturing, extolling the noble artisan, so odd and out of step with the times. But now it’s courting international markets, heavily invested, projecting escalating profits — and, as if to broadcast its real values, defending an accused reseller. Except for that weird handmade hangup, it’s turning into a business-friendly place after all.
Then Etsy took the grand, final step.
It deregulated itself. Simply did away with its own rules. Took a once functional word —handmade — and killed it . Re-revised the definition, unfurling it this past October like a golden scroll.
Handmade items must begin with the imagination and creativity of the member operating the Etsy shop. Sellers can use the help of other shop members, or outside manufacturers, to bring their visions to life.
Outside manufacturers could mean anything, including factories. Sketch a dress on a napkin, reproduce it in thousandplicate; it’s still considered handmade. Sellers can also dropship now, factory direct. It was couched as a way for growing sellers to stay on Etsy, but it was much more. Etsy followed a very traditional, very capitalist, very organic economic trajectory — from rural hamlets of makers to one grand city of industry. It just accomplished the shift in eight years instead of centuries.
In Etsy doublespeak, handmade means not handmade. Maybe brainmade; thoughtmade, but there’s a loophole the size of the sky here: all a shop has to do is say it thought of that same coat you see everywhere, and who’s going to be able to prove otherwise? Just say, No, I’m not reselling that coat, I thought of it first. Here’s my sketch on a napkin. Then forty other factories somehow got a hold of my design and copied it. Honestly.
To be fair, there is a manufacturing approval process. Sellers have to submit a manufacturing application. But on it, you don’t need to actually name the manufacturer. You can use a display name. Etsy also lists guidelines to consider when choosing a manufacturer. Like fire exits, no child labor, possibly a place where fingers don’t wind up in conveyor belts or where animals are not skinned alive. But the operative verb is “consider.” These guidelines are non-enforceable.
Just in case, there’s a line to make it clear: Etsy is not responsible for any manufacturers chosen by sellers.
The thing about transparency,
as Etsy defined it, is that it was about something intangible, fueled by idealism. The thing about business is that it’s fueled by a very tangible drive to grow. Rob Kalin, Etsy’s co-founder and former CEO, may disagree, but now he’s busy planning a giant hotel/restaurant/crafter’s workshops up in the little town of Catskill, bringing artisanal tourism to a defunct industrial complex, which I find rather poetic: he’s returning to the beginning of the evolution to start the process all over again. Meanwhile, Dickerson projects exceeding $1 billion in sales next year, wants half of Etsy’s business to be in international markets, and there’s talk of a pending IPO (hey, dejected crafters, possibly quit your shop and buy some stock).
Don’t Quit Your Day Job.
Yes, there was a profile in the recent Etsy blog of a cute American couple making their living handstamping forks with phrases like Live the Dream. We can hardly keep up with demand! they gush. But they’re just banging words into premade forks. You can hit a lot of forks in a day. And Etsy is Sweatsy. It is a reseller’s paradise: factory-issued polyester chiffon frocks, plastic necklaces, chevron-patterned laptop sleeves; none of it handmade, all of it listed under the category of handmade. The listing might actually include the word handmade to get seen by the search bots. It’s an e-commerce version of the emperor’s new clothes: It says it’s handmade, so it must be. Though really, when you can get a “handmade” wedding dress for $169, does that even matter? Even if the shop is called SuperDressFactory? The search bots certainly don’t care.
Many of the shops are based in China, with nonsense names like Commandery (owned by “Comma”) or misspelled ones like MordenMiss (as in “modern”) and Fantacydress (oh, that’s fantactic). Or they’re smashed up phrases: AlwaysBeUp, PureStunning. Other shops are simply selling goods manufactured in China. It’s lots of China, lots of times: a search for “handmade chiffon dresses,” resulted in forty sherbet colored frocks, of which ten were the exact same (and photograph). Often, you can match the identical item, down to its photograph, to a factory’s listing on the giant wholesaler portal, Alibaba.com. Some sellers throw in a line on how everything is from their heads, or how their families create every single wool neon-colored coat you see. But it’s a formality, a dot the i — based, I suspect, on a tacit agreement: Okay Etsy, we’ll help you reach for the stars, but you need to just let us sell.
We can talk about China now.
A recent forum thread complaining about Chinese resellers got shut down for being racist, as if the fact that these shops are Chinese was the issue. (Nice sidestep, Etsy.) But if Etsy is going to defend the resellers as pariahs again, I nominate my favorite, Idea2Lifestyle. Based in China (really, I can’t help it, it is), the shop has been repeatedly flagged since 2009, with 34,241 sales to date of $75 tunics, $150 muted wool coats. The models wear hippie-tinged jeans and boots. You rarely see their faces, just their skinny frames.
Idea2Lifestyle insists they’re just a collective dwelling in “Neverland,” who “brainstorm, explore, experiment together to work out things verify our existence.” And everything is “hand-cut,” handmade. When, between experimenting and brainstorming, do they have time to sew all those clothes? In 2010, a blog, CallinOutEtsy, matched a dozen Idea2Lifestyle items to another Chinese megaportal, available by the hundredlot, and sent the info to Etsy with a Why haven’t you shut them down?
The shop has grossed over $3.4 million since it opened, and that’s a low estimate. It’s an undeniable cash cow. If you really want to think about what transparency means, it means a business is a business.
One of Etsy’s November 2013 emails
was a pre-holiday gift guide. Beneath the header, Shop small: one of a kind gifts was a unisexy teal canvas knapsack with leather trim. I clicked on it because I liked it, and landed in Commandery, a Chinese shop for accessories. The description was transliterated nonsense: “Luggage bag opening method: pumping with.” I found the bag on Alibaba, manufactured by a company called Shenzen Reach. Minimum order: 600 pieces. Supply ability: 500,000 bags a month. This is one of Etsy’s picks for small, one-of-a-kind gifts? Is this just more incompetency, or is it something else — a willful push to tout nonsense as meaning — if that’s what it takes to make money? If you start with a company whose name is a word that doesn’t actually mean anything, perhaps that sets a certain sky’s the limit kind of tone.
Which makes me love Idea2Lifestyle.
Unlike Commandery or MissPretty, where the descriptions are straight off a manufacturer’s line sheet, Idea2Lifestyle works on its illusion. It’s crafted a mystical, ethereal allure, similar in raggedy hipness to Urban Outfitters (possibly from the same manufacturers). As Etsy drowns in mass-market sameness, Idea2Lifestyle may be regarded as a quaintly eccentric forebear, who actually took the trouble to create an impression, painting an implausible portrait of some free-thinking group of Shanghai longhairs, jamming on asymmetrical hemlines. Even if it’s not really a bunch of artisans, at least it honors the idea.
There’s real verse in every description, like this (from an orange tunic):
I try to sail across,
But come to a standstill,
I find myself in front of a sorrow narcissus,
I have to go on the venture
Hope none understands what I am writing
As long as you get it.
I find these lines gorgeous, a bit of art and fresh air. And they describe my journey on Etsy as well as theirs. We’re both on the venture, trying to sail across. Which makes me forgive them.