The Information Architecture Institute
A conference on designing
complex information spaces of all kinds.
New York City, October 4 and 5, 2007

O Advantageous Interfaces, Etsy’s Robert Kalin

Somehow, some way, during Tuesday’s afternoon break, the conference began a slow right turn into philosophy, contention, and larger topics. And it all began with Etsy’s Robert Kalin.

The talk was one 1/3rd cultural analysis, 1/3rd digital philosophy and 1/3rd about the history of his website and business, etsy.com. On the analysis front, he challenged the assertions of Linda Stone, claiming instead that for the younger generations that have grown up with so many digital demands for their attention, there is no sense of loss: it’s entirely normal for them to manage this many interactions, just as its normal for Gen-Xers to deal with TV, stereos, computers and other simultaneous inputs that their parents could not handle. Ripple in the pond was a common metaphor in his talk.

Robert KalinI wondered about the boundries of this argument: just because a technology can be assimiliated doesn’t mean it’s benefical or good for culture, human psychology, or human survival. There has to be some thinking about the impact these technologies, that we barely understand (as we’ve just made them), have on culture, society and psychology (See Neil Postman’s Amusing ourselves to death).

On digital philosophy: he briefly mentioned Mclluhan, a trickster of a philosopher who’s often (mis)credited with predicting and explaining many of the challenges of the digital age, but quickly moved on to the semiotics of interfaces, and how every successful UI model reveals something important about a particular culture (Urinials were a brief example, with a hat tip to Duchamp).

The history of etsy was told in brief - started as getcrafty.com, a site to sell handmade products done for a professor’s wife’s friend. They liked the core ideas, had learned from their mistakes, and launched etsy.com soon after. Kalin believes that innovation in design can be a way to differentiate and establish brand, despite other’s abilities to copy or mimic those traits. They work remotely (IRC): Kalin in Brooklyn, others in NJ, FL, Philadelphia and elsewhere. Kalin expressed that his own vagabond background (some art school, some music performance, stints at various colleges, some construction work, etc.) deeply impacted his views on design, culture, and more.

One point raised during Q&A was the curious, if not contradictory, relationship between Stone’s comments, etsy’s value proposition of the authenticity of handmade goods, and etsy.com’s construction as a cutting edge, uber-dynamic, web 2.0 experience. Can a website be an authentic experience if it’s trying to be innovative and buzzword compliant? Does the medium (wink to Mclluhan) impact how authentic you can be?

I left the session with more questions than answers, both about Kalin’s opinions, the signifigance of etsy.com, as well as whether value systems can work independent of a particular mode of communication.

Intellectually it was the most challenging (and in places frustrating) talk of the conference, that is until Sterling’s closing notes.

-Scott Berkun

2 Comments »

  1. IDEA Conference Blog » Bruce Sterling, opinion extravaganza said,

    October 25, 2006 @ 10:26 am

    […] If Kalin opened the door, Sterling ran through the door, tore the door down, peed on it, and then, to the applause of the crowd, set it on fire. In a rambling 30 minute opinion extravaganza, he began by reflecting back at the conference tidbits from the talks: short quotes delivered out of context and with dramatic, but sarcastic, inflections. […]

  2. chris.baum said,

    November 11, 2006 @ 10:45 pm

    A very interesting thing occurred during drinks after the conference closed. We were chatting about Kalin’s attitude towards Stone’s talk.

    Joe Lamantia wrote down (on a napkin) the descriptors that Stone used for what people will want from technology going forward and next to that list noted what Kalin said he and those in his circles wanted from their technology. Fairly jumping from that napkin was the reality that Stone and Kalin were saying they wanted basically the SAME THING, albeit with different emotions, etc.

    Funny that we, who are so steeped in the idea that frames divide us ideologically, didn’t see when vocabulary was getting in the way of agreement.

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