Etsy Considers Crafting Its Own Virtual World
It was just over a year ago that I first blogged about Etsy, the online community for makers and sellers (and buyers, of course) of crafts of all flavors and kinds. Because they’re here in Brooklyn and because they have their metaversal aspects about them, I thought I’d go and pay them a visit recently. The metaversal aspects of Etsy are mostly the doing of the company’s highly talented Flash programmer, Jared Tarbell, and prove that you don’t necessarily need a Z axis to have a good time. If you’ve poked around the site at all, you’ll have seen hints of them, in the form of the various “ways to shop” found on the front page. (Try time machine, and definitely check out the color page, which is slightly too awesome for its own good.) Where Etsy really comes alive, though, is when you become part of the community and start doing things like attending classes and town halls online. Jared’s cool interfaces give presence to your “avatar” (who’s nothing more than a square uploaded image) in a way few Web page have managed to. And now, Rob Kalin, Etsy’s founder, is thinking about putting Jared’s mad Flash skillz to work in a Flash virtual world that would be an online bazaar for Etsy crafters. More on that (and a couple of other interesting developments) after the jump.
First, some details. Etsy is located on a floor of an old warehouse building just this side of the Manhattan Bridge. (Phil Torrone and Bre Pettis from the MAKE Magazine blog share a corner of the floor, as does the open-source sewing patterns site Burda Style. Open-source sewing patterns? How cool is that? Rock on.) I was very kindly shown around by Vanessa Bertozzi, who handles things like nosy journalists (and is on the left in this pic, with Lori Forty, who handles customer support).
The space is the former executive headquarters of a company that no one’s sure just what they did, although they left some pretty handsome coffered walnut paneling for the current tenants. Etsy has around 300,000 registered members, at this point, of whom around 40,000 are sellers. The company employs 21 full-time employees, almost two years into its history, though less than a dozen of them work from the Brooklyn offices. All or part of the remote staff, who are mostly programmers, hold face-to-face meetings around once a month.
It’s the online face-to-faceness of Etsy that I find most exciting (as well as a couple of tantalizing possibilities that were mentioned during my visit). While I was there, I got to sit in while Anda Lewis (at right) gave a workshop on how to make a pincushion. The Etsy interface (which I haven’t really captured here) features a Webcam window in the top right of the screen where Anda is shown doing her work, and a seating area in the rest of the screen where audience members place their avatars. There’s a real sense of 2D space in the way avatars place themselves in seats and can move around — do you sit next to that guy, or across the room from him? They can even choose to sit inside the Webcam window, and Anda had to pick a couple of people up and drag them to less obtrusive locations at a couple of moments. Cooler still, your square little 2D avatar can send hearts and kisses and other emote-like things to other square little 2D avatars on the screen. It starts to feel very world-like when you see this in action, and leads to two questions: (1) Why isn’t everyone doing this kind of thing on their community-oriented Web sites? and (2) Why am I not making some kind of craftsy something so I can get in on the fun everyone at Etsy is so clearly having? (The Etsies also hold book clubs in the workshop interface. And who knows what else they get up to…)
Rob Kalin, Etsy’s founder, is firmly in the 2D camp, he says, having taken his inspiration for much of the site’s look and feel from Game Neverending, the massively multiplayer online game that eventually evolved into Flickr, as well as from the not-quite-3D MMO Ultima Online. These days, he’s thinking about a persistent crafters’ world built out in a Flash interface similar to the rest of the Etsy site, but complete with virtual currency, that would function as an online bazaar shoppers could roam around in. It would come complete with game-like elements to keep people engaged, Kalin says, and the virtual currency would be good for spending on real physical goods. Plans are still at an early stage, but if Jared’s Flash skills hold up, it should eventually be a great place to shop — or just hang out, which I’m sure is part of the point: if Etsy can rope in even the people who wouldn’t normally be shopping there, they’ll have done something right. A lot of what Etsy’s doing makes a great case for leaving flat, static Web sites behind even in the case of functions that don’t obviously call for more presence or a third dimension, and this project — at least, as it’s envisioned — is no exception.
Vanessa also gave me the run-down on a wholesaling sytem Etsy is considering that sounded tantalizingly close to crowdsourcing the production of some Etsy sellers’ items. The problem some sellers face, Vanessa explained, is that boutiques that use the site are ordering more than the sellers can produce on their own. So Etsy is considering an apprenticeship model that would help popular sellers turn out product. In return, apprentices would earn cash, possibly become eligible for group health insurance rates, and learn their craft, as well as how to make, market, photograph, list and sell stuff on Etsy. I love this idea. It sounds almost as if Etsy would be the guild managing the apprentices for master crafters. It’s 21st-century technology slingshotting us back to best of the Middle Ages, only without all the ugly diseases. (Well, without most of them.)
So what happens in Brooklyn itself? All of Etsy’s promotional materials and press kits are created at the Brooklyn location, and there’s a small gallery and even a small store. Classes in everything from metalsmithing to video editing are held there as well, but the real point of the space is to be home to Etsy Labs, which is the offline manifestation of the online community. For $20 a month, members can use the space for their own crafting endeavors, as well as take part in the trunk shows and other events that are put on there. Brooklyn’s is currently the only Etsy Lab, though other cities have formed smaller clubs, and Etsy is considering expanding the Labs program elsewhere. Bother then if you want a Lab in your town. Or just wait for the virtual one.