Here’s a sentence I couldn’t have predicted I’d ever write when I became a tech reporter: There’s a controversy brewing in the world of handmade crafts.
Etsy, a site often framed as a beacon of hope for those looking to sell goods that they’ve made with their own two hands, is battling a budding protest amongst the very userbase that makes it worthwhile. As of this morning, 3300+ Etsy shops have pledged to close their doors for a day of Silent Protest on May 10th. The reason for the remonstrance? A perceived notion that Etsy is failing to keep the site free of not-so-handmade wares.
Such complaints aren’t really anything new to Etsy. As the userbase and number of shops on the site have skyrocketed, so too has the number of sellers trying to stretch the definition of “handmade” to include stuff that kinda-sorta looks like it could be made by some dude in his garage but is in fact the end result of mass production. Etsy’s policies have been tightened over time to try to battle such things — simultaneously, other policies have been loosened to allow legitimate sellers a bit more flexibility.
One such loosening was in the introduction of “collectives” and “production assistants.” When Etsy first launched in 2005, they generally aimed to restrict shops to one-man operations. Over time it became clear that many independent business that would thrive on Etsy and still vibe well with the whole hand-made mentality were instead groups of artists — hence “Collectives.” Meanwhile, the production of some items (like those that required precision-milled metal molds) required some degree of outside assistance to be sold at anything resembling a reasonable price but were still mostly made by hand — hence “production assistants.”
For every bit of flexibility that found its ways into the site’s aptly titled “Dos And Don’ts,” a few more sellers would hop in and test the boundaries of what was allowed.
It all boiled over last week, when Regretsy — a popular (and often quite hilarious) site that exists mostly to highlight (read: lampoon) the worst of what Etsy has to offer — raised a number of questions about a shop that had been selected for the site’s much coveted “Featured Seller” position. While that post itself is worth reading, the overarching claim is that Etsy had screwed up and highlighted a company that breaks Etsy’s own policies. Where the shop in question actually falls within the rules is still being debated, but the whole ordeal was enough to push a chunk of the site’s shop owners to protest.
In the past few days, just over 3,300 Etsy shops have pledged to put their site into “vacation mode” as an act of “silent protest” to show their disdain. They’re primarily rallying through a site they’ve dubbed “Protesty” (heh), where the protest’s organizers write:
Etsy was originally established in 2005 to support indie artists, meaning that the person behind the shop was the artist, seller, photographer and everything else involved with the shop. Throughout the years some shops grew larger and to respond to their needs in 2007 Etsy modified the rules so that ‘collective shops’ were allowed to open. These are shops where a group of people work together, all having a say and input in the shop, although this can’t be an employer and its subordinates (this would fall in the firm or factory category) or a person who buys handmade goods from someone else and sells them as their own (i.e. a reseller). Unfortunately, many shops from the latter two categories are allowed to operate and thrive on Etsy, a competition with which small shops and artisans who make every single item by hand simply can’t compete, pushing small shops out of the market.
I reached out to Etsy for comment, and its representatives were quick to point out that the site is very actively working to find the balance between member privacy and policy transparency, all while attempting to avoid knee-jerk reactions that’ll tarnish the community in the long run. They also provided the following comment:
Every single seller on that list is important to us. Right now we think the best way we can address their concerns is to focus on clarifying our policies in the ways our community has requested. These policies have been unchanged since 2009, but they do need clarification. Every marketplace’s policies grow and evolve with their community. We’re committed to that evolution and in fact have been working on it seriously for a few months.
To provide a bit of perspective: While 3,300+ shops are clearly a non-trivial chunk of their audience to be upset, Etsy tells me that there are “over 875,000 active shops as of today.”
As someone who’s never sold a product on Etsy and thus has no skin in the game, I can’t help but side with the company here. When you’ve got a userbase of nearly a million people each selling a handful of completely unique items, policing the content is perhaps the most difficult task to be had. Mistakes are going to happen — Whether it’s shops that slip through the cracks and are allowed to exist for longer periods than what may seem reasonable externally, or featuring an artist with questionably sources goods. The company seems to be quite aware of their shortcomings and seems to be going rather far out of their way to work out the kinks.
[Image via Protesty. This is the image that the protest organizers are encouraging participants to use as their Etsy avatar]