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Etsy gets made in Berlin

It’s the virtual equivalent of a German flea market – without the hippies and stolen bikes. Etsy, the American social commerce website focused on handmade and vintage goods, is going international this week with a new headquarters in Berlin.

Etsy gets made in Berlin
Photo: Benedikta Karaisl von Karais and Matthew Stinchcomb

Weaving through construction debris and art supplies at the new Etsy office in Berlin’s funky Kreuzberg district, 34-year-old Managing Director Matthew Stinchcomb quickly apologises for the presence of several Ikea boxes.

“Those are for our apartment, we won’t have any mass-produced goods in this office,” he told The Local this week.

When it’s finished, the converted old brick industrial space will serve as Etsy’s international headquarters – plus a gallery, workshop and community centre to further develop the web company’s “Do-it-Yourself” spirit, he said.

Stinchcomb calls the more than 170,000 people worldwide who sell their handmade goods at Etsy’s customised online shops “makers.” Their products include jewellery, photography, original silkscreened t-shirts, stationery, vintage clothing and housewares. But more than being just the eBay of alternative crafters, the site also fosters a community of creative people through technology and business education, emphasising personal contact between buyers and sellers.

The Brooklyn, New York company was founded in 2005 by Stinchomb’s roommate at the time, Robert Kalin. But it has since grown to include buyers and sellers in more than 150 countries with gross merchandise sales totalling $180.6 million in 2009. The fact that an estimated 30 percent of the company’s business is taking place abroad encouraged Etsy to chose Berlin as a base from which to expand its international services.

“To be honest, we didn’t really consider anywhere else,” Stinchcomb told The Local. “What was happening in Brooklyn five years ago is happening here now. The notion of a creative class is taking hold.”

Stinchcomb and his Munich-born wife, Benedikta Karaisl von Karais, also one of the company’s three Berlin-based employees, both said they have been feverishly exploring and collaborating with Berlin’s community of “makers” in preparation for their office launch party this Thursday.

Just outside in the office courtyard, standing in a pile of sawdust, is one of these people, Puerto Rican artist Luis Berríos-Negrón. He is building an impressive modular “mobile curatorial unit” for the Etsy office to display local crafts as part of a series of he calls “The Turtle,” which exhibited in Hamburg, Munich and Berlin in 2009.

“I fully believe in the Etsy project. It represents development and structure for a new labour society of artists,” he told The Local. “In the early 70s this idea of trans-disciplinary freelancers began, but no one stood up to represent that new economy before Etsy.”

Extending this representation to include global users is Etsy’s goal for the Berlin office. While getting to know the European DIY community is part of this, tasks for 2010 include making purchases in euro and other currencies possible, offering support in languages besides English, and creating location software.

“We see Etsy working in these countries where we’re doing nothing, but I really want people not to have to work to use the service,” Stinchcomb said. “English may be the global language, but I still think we need to make an effort.”

While Etsy hopes to see further growth through accommodating international infrastructure, Stinchcomb said the company is adamant about not forcing its US model on the new audience and allowing outside influences to have a hand in the company’s evolution.

By the looks of the overwhelming response to the launch party invitation they sent to Berlin residents registered on the site, meeting creative people to make this happen won’t be a problem.

Stinchcomb said they fielded more than double the expected RSVPs and had to close registration.

The Turtle’s sawdust will be swept up and festivities will include tables for guests to craft small items, the presence of new Munich crafting magazine “Cut,” and an exhibition by a local photographer.

“From the response it looks like we’ll have to pad our budget a bit, but really it’s about getting to know the community,” he said. “I just hope we have enough beer.”

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OPINION & ANALYISIS

What’s behind Germany’s obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

Forget the Bundestag. If you want to understand German politics - and see how lively it can really be - turn on your (almost nightly) talk show.

What's behind Germany's obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

It may well be one of the most German things imaginable – a roundtable discussion designed to give a fair amount of time to a wide range of viewpoints before (maybe) achieving some sort of consensus.

Failing that, viewers – theoretically anyway – walk away better informed and open to changing some of their opinions after a, again theoretically, respectful discussion.

Welcome to the German political talk show circuit – a collection of moderated roundtable discussions.

Whether its Anne Will on Sunday nights, “Hart aber fair” or “tough but fair” on Mondays, or Maybrit Illner on Thursdays and Markus Lanz on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays – you can tune into several political panels a week if you fancy.

If you have politically-minded German friends or co-workers, you might ask: “Did you watch Lanz last night?” Anecdotally, at least as many people who watch will have strong opinions about why they don’t.

Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk makes a video appearance (left video) on the Markus Lanz show on 10 March 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Cornelia Lehmann

“Lanz is a disgrace!” and “I don’t watch Anne Will out of principle!” are both phrases I’ve heard myself more than a few times over the years.

But if you are a fan and you miss an episode, don’t worry – many news outlets will run summaries of what happened during said roundtable the next morning.

“Newspapers regularly publish these recaps almost as if they were relevant parliamentary meetings,” says Peter Littger, a columnist on language and culture in Germany. “It’s super relevant politically. It can increase your voting base and certainly your book sales if you appear there.”

READ ALSO: Tatort to Temptation Island: What do Germans like to watch on TV?

‘Consensus-oriented political culture’

If the nationally-focused ones aren’t enough for you, there’s a good chance you can find a show on a regional broadcaster focusing on issues in your federal state, again in – you guessed it – roundtable format.

As you might have gathered, the show’s name is often the same as its host, who functions first and foremost as a moderator there to facilitate and mediate a discussion between guests who are chosen specifically to balance a panel.

For a discussion on Ukraine, for example, you’ll regularly have people from every political party, from ministers and high-ranking parliamentarians who chair important Bundestag committees to pro-Russian voices from the German Left Party and far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

And no one is too high-ranking not to make at least the occasional appearance. Chancellor Olaf Scholz himself joined a Maybrit Illner roundtable on July 7th this year.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appears on the Maybrit Illner show on 7 July 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Svea Pietschmann

Both European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba have also made appearances on Anne Will this year.

In characteristically German fashion, state broadcasters have extensive written regulations to ensure a panel also has a balance of people from relevant expert disciplines. For instance, a coronavirus panel may well feature a notable doctor alongside a civil liberties lawyer.

“Germany has a more consensus-oriented political culture than you might see in a country like the UK, for example, which is more confrontational and even adversarial,” says Sebastian Ludwicki-Ziegler a PhD researcher at the University of Stirling’s Department of Communications, Media, and Culture.

“You’ll still get some invited guests who are very contrarian and even aggressive – like Thilo Sarrazin (a former politician who wrote a controversial book in 2010 about Muslim immigration to Germany) for example. But even then, the moderator often tries to maintain a softer, more civil tone.”

Ludwicki-Ziegler says that while the roundtable format reflects German political culture, it also reflects its institutional setup. A show producer can simply get more obvious ranges of political opinion in a country with Germany’s proportional representation, which has seven parties in parliament.

Historic roundtables

Unlike the often subdued German Bundestag though, German talk shows can certainly get lively, or even historic.

Perhaps the most notable TV roundtable happened right after the 2005 federal election. With then incumbent Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder having finished only one percent behind Christian Democrat Angela Merkel when all the votes were counted, party leaders gathered in the traditional “Elefantenrunde,” or yes, the “Elephant’s round,” to discuss the results.

READ ALSO: Talking elephants and grumpy politicians: Four things that will happen after the German elections

With the final election result having been so close, observers still discuss whether Schröder lost his chancellorship at the ballot box or during the 2005 Elefantenrunde. In contrast to a calm Merkel, Schröder insisted he would stay on as Chancellor.

Brash and arrogant, some observers have asked whether he was drunk at the time. German media outlets ran anniversary pieces looking back at his disastrous roundtable performance 5, 10, and 15 years later. One such anniversary piece from 2020 called the roundtable “Schröder’s embarrassing end.”

The 2005 post-election roundtable, or “Elefantenrunde,” is considered by many German political observers to be the disastrous end to former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder;s political career. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | ZDF/Jürgen_Detmers

Mastering the roundtable appearance is a big plus for a German politician, or anyone else looking to move the needle of German public opinion.

Satisfying a particularly German impulse, you can certainly also walk away feeling like you’ve considered all sides. But are there drawbacks?

On 8 May 2022’s edition of Anne Will, social psychologist Harald Welzer appeared to lecture Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk that 45 percent of Germans were against delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine because of German war history. Many observers criticised Welzer for patronising the Ambassador of a country at war about the need to have weapons for its own self-defense.

The exchange, and a fair few others, lead some experts to wonder whether the roundtable format so many German political talk shows seem to love gives too big a platform to pro-Russian voices or to controversial writers like the aforementioned Thilo Sarrazin.

“If we take Germany and Ukraine as one example, you can get some great guests who come on and really set things straight with facts, data, and plain talk,” says Benjamin Tallis, a Fellow in German Security Policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“But you can get false balance. You’ll get people on with rather fringe opinions given a platform against people who have a lot more experience and evidence. That’s true in a lot of places now, sure, but this talk show format really lends itself to that because of the amount of guests you need on a nightly basis,” says Tallis.

“Unfortunately in Germany, many guests are invited on based on their opinions about an issue rather than the level of their expertise, in order to try and achieve balance,” says Minna Alander, a specialist in German foreign policy who recently joined the Finnish Institute of International Affairs after more than a decade working in Berlin.

“When you start equating opinion with knowledge, it makes it way more difficult to have a fact-based debate. On matters of life and death, like in Ukraine, that can have a polarising effect.”

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