How Etsy created joyful online events pre-Zoom

An Etsy co-founder shares thoughts on designing for communities [Read time: 6 mins]

This is part 2 of my deep dive into community products! In this newsletter, I chat with one of Etsy’s founders about the virtual world created pre-Zoom-times at Etsy––a world built for ritual, identity, connection, and community.

I was the 12th employee at Etsy. Before this, I was a top seller and voluntarily ran a few Etsy teams. Etsy noticed and invited me to move to Brooklyn and build community and education programs. I stayed for 5 years––it was a wild ride.

In this space, magical technology and connections were built. And my very favorite tool was a digital world were Etsy sellers gathered.

The Virtual Labs (built in 2009)

I put a call out on Twitter to see if anyone else missed the Virtual Labs and here’s how a few early community and team members joyfully responded. I really loved what Vanessa Bertozzi, a founding Etsy team member, shared with me:

The Virtual Labs were so before its time in that it allowed a group of people to be online in the same space and talk to each other with chat and video streaming simultaneously — all the features we see now. AND... it was artfully made and gorgeous to look at and each action felt playful. That’s the thing that is missing from the other tools. There’s no joy in them, and that’s what I miss about the more creative days of online experience design. Jared Tarbell is a genius!

Jared was the Etsy co-founder that built the Virtual Labs (among many other incredible digital shopping experiences!). I reached out to Jared to chat about the products he created for Etsy.

Note: If you comb the internet, you’ll notice Jared focuses on creating and not speaking too much about Etsy. I am thrilled to share his thoughts on the early days here!

I started by asking him for his general mindset and vision for what he was building.

Jared: There was no master plan, but we did have a vision. It was an amazing time because the work was so fun. I was working with an engineering team (Haim and Chris) that could deliver to me almost anything I wanted, and a 'boss' (Rob) who encouraged open exploration of new ideas. There were also some concrete objectives, like 'present items for sale to the buyers' and 'allow searching across multi-variate attributes'. And then there was the data, the most beautiful data - our sellers and their handcrafted items. I spent every day just trying to come up with ways to show the items on the site and visualize the way we were all connected, all while trying to keep the design of the interface out of the way.

Jared built the Virtual Labs first as a space for the Etsy team to talk to the community (initially called the Town Hall). But it quickly evolved past that.

Jared: The first Town Hall meeting was a pretty memorable event.  I was so nervous! It felt like a critical moment and the preparation and tension leading up to it was deep. It was also a pivotal time for the company itself. We had only had a few days of training on the software, this crazy thing I had built (and was continuing to build right up to the event). I wasn't sure my colleagues were going to know how to use it. Of course, it was a huge success! We were able to communicate a lot of important information, answer questions, get feedback, and then at the end, there was just this huge party - in a chat room. I wish more of the work had been documented. At the time it seemed like it would last forever.

Let me take you on a tour, so you can experience the joy and connection yourself.

The Etsy Labs were made up of open and locked rooms. Any Etsy seller could jump into an unlocked room to gather with a group of like-minded folks. My tiny team ran multiple events daily –– holding recurring events that the community could count on was powerful. Events allowed us to onboard new members, provide real human support to sellers that might be struggling, and tell the stories of our most successful and helpful community members.

Here’s a look at the inside…

When you ‘entered’ a room your avatar would stack up in the doorway. From here you instinctually ‘grabbed a seat’ by clicking an empty blank square. Some members grabbed a ‘front-row seat’ and some hung back. I noticed friends or Etsy Teammates would sit next to each other.

In the photo above, you’ll see I’m streaming my video feed. The little cookies around me are one of dozens of icons that any attendee could toss around. The icons started to take on meanings of their own.

My favorite thing was that after a chat we could throw virtual objects at each other - way better than the obligatory ending Zoom wave. -Sarah Feingold (Etsy’s first lawyer)

Members avatars could also spin, bounce, beat, or glow. A member could also raise a digital hand or wave. All these levers for micro self-expression made these events dynamic. The exchange of energy was real!

Jared: The Virtual Labs was a kind of psychedelic expansion on the traditional chat room. I had played around with virtual meeting spaces for a few years before Etsy. I was using an existing server model and where rooms and lobbies already existed. Seats came naturally once I realized I wanted the avatars of the users to actually come alive and move around. Different seating configurations were created to set the tone of the event, and there were all kinds of events we used the Virtual Labs for. It's always interesting when you walk into a room and everyone is sitting in a circle. Some immediate questions come to mind 'Who is that in the center?' , 'This group of people are singularly focused, on what?'  The graphic design of the site was a natural extension of the general site aesthetic, which mainly came from Rob.

At the end of every session, the room exploded with activity. Members would make their avatars spin or bounce around the room. The loved to throw icons at each other (and at us). Seemingly meaningless bells and whistles allow for the community to create their own rituals.

As Casper ter Kuile says, “Rituals make the invisible connections that make life meaningful, visible.”

When you give people the choice to express themselves in micro ways in flexible spaces, you create a world, not just a webinar. I asked Jared what surprised him about the world he designed and built.

Jared: Almost everything surprised me about the way the Virtual Labs were used. This was one of the reasons it was so fun for me to create. It was great to see some of the features being adopted and imbued with meaning. For example, throwing cookies to a workshop artisan at the end of the presentation. That became a powerful and meaningful tradition that really confused a lot of new people. The voting feature was surprisingly super effective at quickly gathering consensus, even though it was originally designed to be more of a fun gimmick.  The quiet times when Etsians would meet and dive into deep discussions from across the world, which sometimes led to unexpected collaborations.

Members connected in this space. They could click on any avatar to learn more about the seller and be sent to their Etsy Shop. Members could post ‘items’ in the room to share individual pieces they were selling on Etsy.

“My friends that I made then, these friends saw my kid grow, we gave each other on-the-spot advice and opinions about things we were working on. Heck, we even collaborated on projects!” -Stacey Delafuente, Early Etsy seller, and EPIC puppeteer

The Virtual Labs even shaped identities. People who attended events multiple times a week called themselves ‘Lab Rats’. They even set up and created events unprompted by the Etsy Team. See the 2010 tweet below

After months of Zoom calls, I yearn for this type of playful experience and connection. I asked Jared what he thought of Zoom, and if he had any advice for people building products for communities.

Jared: I was as horrified as most people by my first Zoom meeting. Subsequent meetings only seem to get worse. Zoom is giving us the bare minimum. With any new medium, there's an attempt to replicate the previous medium. Radio copied theater. Television copied radio. Web pages copied television, on and on. In reality, the new medium has been created to allow a totally new way of communicating and presenting information. Try to tap into that.

I asked for any final advice for people building products for communities. “Free your mind of the constructs of man,” was what he left me with. ✨

This was such an inspiring walk down memory lane for me! I hope you enjoyed the tour and chat with Jared.

I’ll leave you with these prompts for creating digital community spaces…

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