Even after its record-setting $25 billion IPO on the New York Stock Exchange, Chinese conglomerate Alibaba Group remains something of an enigma to many Americans. With a broad portfolio of online properties that range from eBay-style e-commerce to tech-enabled financial services, it’s hard to define just what Alibaba does, let alone the implications of its immense size and reach.
Sam Lavigne, a Brooklyn-based artist and programmer, was among the curious bystanders. After the September IPO, he found himself poring over page after page of listings on the company’s namesake site, Alibaba.com, which functions as a B2B marketplace. “I found all this weird stuff for sale,” he said. “It’s every single commodity that exists.” On a lark, he decided to visualize it.
The results are completely fascinating, a scroll-through journey into a strange and sometimes troubling layer of global commerce that often hides from view. In the market for riot gear? $19,000 will buy you 1,000 police helmets. Or perhaps your construction site in Dubai needs welders? A seller in Vietnam would love to talk, if the price is right.
“I picked things that you wouldn’t expect to find,” Lavigne says. “The human labor is the creepiest and most disturbing.”
Rather than pull every Alibaba listing–there are hundreds of millions–he chose a handful of minor categories that struck him as interesting, and scraped the data using a Python script. Within each category, he displays results by price. The grab-bag assortment–including products that fall under “quality drugs,” “giant inflatable animal toys,” and “silicon ingots”–highlights the challenges that Alibaba faces as a public company, subject to regulation, operating a wide-open global marketplace.
That said, Lavigne recognizes Alibaba.com’s potential for positive impact, intentional or not. “It gives people more access to the means of production, and it raises awareness around supply chains,” he said.AH