Definitions

The Maker Fakers: As Etsy Scales, the Definition of ‘Handmade’ Gets Slippery

Etsy's Dos and Don'ts have evolved into a "giant hairball."

embroidered kanye west tweet The Maker Fakers: As Etsy Scales, the Definition of Handmade Gets Slippery

On Etsy, framed embroidery of Kanye West’s tweets, just one of many Kanye West-themed items.

What one is and isn’t allowed to sell on Etsy is dictated by the Dos and Don’ts, a 10,000-word document that waxes absurd in its attempt to articulate the laws of Etsyland.

The site has three categories: handmade goods, vintage items and craft supplies. The rules forbid handmade sellers from relying on a third party for a “majority share of a handmade item’s creation.” Etsy says “handmade” can also mean “hand-assembled” or “hand-altered”; gift baskets, however, are verboten, as “creatively re-packaging commercial items does not qualify them to be sold as handmade.” Items must be more than 20 years old in order to be considered “vintage.” In the craft supplies section, sellers may not list tools such as make-up brushes or wax warmers “that are used in conjunction with handmade items, but are not used to create a new item.”

The Etsy community takes the Dos and Don’ts very seriously, carefully hunting down transgressions. Betabeat messaged a very general inquiry to one suspected “reseller,” the vernacular for Etsy sellers who skirt the rules. The seller, a Chinese jewelry shop with 1,214 items, guessed immediately what we were after: “Sorry,just Work hard,and more than 18 hours every day,no other shortcut.”

Many of the apparent “resellers” are actually compliant with the terms of service, Matt Stinchcomb, Etsy’s VP of marketing and brand, told Betabeat on a recent visit to the company’s sunny office, which now spans four floors in an industrial-chic building on Water St. and is half under construction.

The Dos and Don’ts, written in 2007, were supposed to be a simple guide, but they have become more Talmudic over time. “It gets really tricky,” Mr. Stinchcomb explained. “If you assemble a necklace of mass-produced beads, is it handmade? If you paint a painting and then scan it and print out a digital print, is that handmade?” As members of the community raised various objections, he said, the list became a “giant hairball.” Now, it’s “like German tax law,” he said.

Mr. Stinchcomb, a musician and screenprinter, was Mr. Kalin’s roommate when he became Etsy’s first employee. (Mr. Kalin stepped down in 2008, returned briefly, and exited again last year.)

Mr. Stinchcomb is responsible for maintaining Etsy’s integrity as a brand for crafters, makers and seekers of “authenticity,” as he put it. His morning had started with a cease-and-desist call to a tech conference that had slapped an Etsy logo on a display Ferrari. “I can’t think of anything more off-brand,” he said.

Mr. Stinchcomb still likes a tagline he came up with that Etsy never used: The People’s Marketplace. It sounded too Communist, he said. (Ironically, people in formerly Communist countries can be wary of Etsy’s love affair with making, he said. “A lot of times they were forced to make their own clothing if they wanted to have a different style. And so the minute they didn’t have to do that anymore, they’re like, ‘I’m never doing that shit again.’”)

People are what make things authentic, Mr. Stinchcomb said. So rather than codifying what already seem an arcane set of rules, Etsy is responding by demanding more transparency from sellers, requiring more information about their means of production, so a customer can choose just how handmade she needs her furniture to be.

The company has also beefed up its Marketplace Integrity, Trust and Safety team. The group, which occupies a large room in the office, crawls the site for violations and reviews sellers that have been flagged by the community. An Etsy vetting can be quite thorough: The site may require flagged sellers to submit the names of their employees, receipts for materials, and photos of themselves in their shops holding up handwritten signs.

Maintaining Etsy’s marketplace integrity demands more than mere manpower. It’s easy to say that a miniature zine inked with original poetry and wrapped with braided twine is handmade, while that Moleskine bought in the checkout line at Starbucks is not. But there’s a large gray area. If a seller buys a plastic flower from Wal-Mart and glues it to a Moleskine from Starbucks, is that handmade? What if she buys a box of plastic flowers and a carton of Moleskines, and does it 500 times? Under Etsy’s terms of use, this would be okay—but it’s not really what the founders had in mind.

Further complicating the matter is the problem of “graduation”: some of the best Etsy microbusinesses leave the site once they become successful enough to hire workers. (UPDATE: Etsy says these users choose to leave on their own because they feel they’re no longer in compliance, not because Etsy kicks them out.) But even though Etsy’s rules seem to forbid sellers to have employees, it’s okay for a group of artists to share a shop as long as it is labeled as a “collective”—which is how Ms. Schechter and her carpenters slipped through.

The prevailing conspiracy theory says that Etsy secretly allows resellers on the site because they generate a lot of revenue. Not true, Mr. Stinchcomb said, insisting that the damage to the brand would outweigh any fees resellers could bring in. Etsy only gets complaints for about .02 percent of listings, he said. Right now there are no serious Etsy competitors—Seattle-based Bonanza is moving in the eBay direction, and the Google-funded CustomMade.com is focused on commissions—but that could easily change.

The uproar and Protesty protest prompted Etsy to review Ms. Schechter’s business. While giving her business model the okay, an update to the interview noted that she should have labeled her shop a collective.

That didn’t satisfy the detractors. “What a scandal!” wrote Regretsy commenter meeow78. “It looks like Etsy is turning into a Antropologie type website.”

“That’s it, I’ve shut my shop – I’ve had enough of Etsy’s dubious cupcakery bullshit,” declared Kaiser.Tia. “Any suggestions for a place to sell genuine handmade goods that I have genuine callouses on my hands from?”

Funnily enough, the definition of “genuine handmade,” Protesty’s cause célèbre, still remains elusive. The whole kerfuffle reminded me of a trip in 2007 when I bought a black-and-orange painting of a monk holding an umbrella at a precious lantern-lit night market in Laos. Over the next few days, I saw the monk with the umbrella everywhere—someone must’ve painted the image once and realized he had a hit. I caught a ride with a teenage boy on a motorcycle. He said he was a painter. What do you paint? I asked. “Monk,” he said. “Monk with umbrella.” Handmade?

“There is no clear-cut definition,” Dóra Jánki, one of the Protesty organizers, said in an email. “Everyone must define it for themselves.”

Still, she said, “it’s not rocket science.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Etsy gets complaints for about .02 percent of sellers; the company gets complaints for .02 percent of listings. Betabeat regrets the error.

A version of this story appeared in the New York Observer the week of May 29, 2012.

Follow Adrianne Jeffries on Twitter or via RSS. ajeffries@observer.com