Vintage Values

We got some press for our project on vintage shopping. That makes my heart sing!

eBay is a commerce platform that embraces new, old, vintage, consignment….. all kinds of goods are circulated through eBay satisfying instrumental needs, nostalgic revisitations, sentimental acquisitions, aspirations fulfilled. I call our more recent project into this Vintage Values – playing off the idea that vintage items have value beyond monetary, and because people deeply identify as individuals themselves as having a broader sense of values that make them engage with vintage.

My fascination with this area of enquiry has been longstanding – I am distinctly sentimental when it comes to objects and things, and have conducted research into personal archiving and into everyday artifacts and their role in the creation and preservation of cultural heritage. I have an ongoing photography project involving photographing storage spaces.

eBay is a successful marketplace. It is also a treasure trove of memory, a stage for exploring personal sentiment and nostalgia, a place to be fascinated by others’ tastes on a global scale, a curiosity shop for inspiration, a curio cabinet for would-be and active makers, a craft-person’s warehouse of materials, a window onto deals and trends, a marketplace for starting and expanding collections, a front row seat in an auction house….. I could go on and on. eBay is an ecosystem for understanding consumption culture at all levels. Beyond selling and buying, it is the best platform for understanding the circulation of goods as they pass through different owner’s hands and for charting the stories that goods have. Whether an item is new and going to a new home, or used and starting its next journey, or broken and going to become part of a patch or fix, eBay is central to its continuation around the planet, saving it from landfill or the dump. It is good to be reminded that goods have value way beyond a price-point on initial sale.

Not only is this fun for individuals, it is good for the planet, good for community building, and it is also a multi-billion dollar market according to NARTS, the Association of
Resale Professionals, and First Research.

With colleagues I have been researching this space for a while. Hugo Liu has been wrangling data to see what items hold value over time, perhaps unexpectedly so, what items seem to be coming back into vogue and with what subset of users, and what items hold very high value for a very small but very excited contingent of people. Who knew that a ratty 1980’s band T-shirt could command over $300? We are also starting to look at global differences in these patterns.

To complement this data-digging, Anne Bowser, Oliver Haimson, Eddie Melcer and I have been doing field interviews with folks who shop in thrift and consignment stores, online and offline. Some of these folks recirculate the things they buy for a living, others don’t. We are learning a lot! We will be publishing more of these insights soon.

This work is part of the broader project I launched earlier this year with Atish Das Sarma called Putting the Person into Personalization (see also my blog post on the topic and our workshop proposal from earlier this year). Personalization strategies should take into consideration people’s emotional and ethical values, the reasons why they do the things they do, as well as what they do. Right now, most algorithmically based merchandizing strategies are based on methods like collaborative filtering which take into account transactional and behavioral activity data. Some take into account content on profiles also; however, these profiles tend to be either sparsely filled out, deliberately filled with inaccurate information due to low trust, or ask the wrong questions to get at people’s values. And it’s obvious that people’s beliefs and unexpressed preferences are crucial in their decision-making. People are more than what they do that you happen to be able to see. This is very much the case in this world of vintage goods acquisition and recirculation.

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