I Got Lumberrolled

What an Amazon prank can teach us about delight in the Internet age

Ian Bogost

Yesterday was a strange day full of surprises. The fencing contractor I’d spoken to last week about a site visit for an estimate didn’t show up. Later, when I tried to attend a local community meeting in my neighborhood, I discovered that the indicated room was totally empty at the appointed time—apparently the meeting had been moved without my knowledge.

Oh yeah, and Amazon sent me unsolicited lumber.

The latter point requires a bit of explanation. A while back, my eyes fell upon the name of a new service on social media: Amazon Lumberyard. My heart skipped a beat: Was Amazon providing a delivery service for woodworkers and contractors? As someone who keeps a woodshop at home and often does home-improvement projects, the idea of getting lumber, whether specialty hardwood for craft projects or larger boards for construction, seemed like a dream come true. It’s a pain to find and buy and load and haul and unload lumber. Imagine being able to Prime it instead!

Except, that wasn’t the case at all. Amazon Lumberyard was the name of a new game engine developed by Amazon Game Studios. The name, I surmised, was the latest in the ongoing trend to style novel, immaterial, digital goods and services after established, material ones. Online marketing firms that call themselves “distilleries” or app developers that insist that they are really “forges.” Atoms are aspirational now.

Anyway, I lamented this fact on Twitter, as one does these days. I was serious: I really did want a lumber delivery service! But it’s impossible to distinguish an idea from a sneer online.

And so, Amazon sent me lumber. Sort of, anyway. They Primed me some small (but quality!) maple craft boards from a vendor that has elected to distribute such wares via Amazon.

In case you can’t read the note above, it reads: “Hi Ian, We take customer feedback seriously. Please enjoy your lumber. From: Amazon Lumberyard.”

I got lumberrolled.

Among the deluge of unexpected outcomes that graced my Tuesday, Amazon Lumberyard’s was both the most and the least delightful. The most for obvious reasons: They trolled me good, and I was startled and amused, and so was everyone who encountered Amazon’s joke. The company earned whatever discarnate branding boon might have accrued to them as a result of my tweet of their gag (including this very article). And in an environment where corporate personhood has validated itself thanks to social media, it was nice to see the real, actual people involved in the gag reveal themselves. Inadvertently, I made their week better in a tiny way by letting them make mine better in a tiny way too. Much more delightful than being stood up for a community meeting.

But it was the least delightful because I still can’t get lumber delivered on-demand. Which isn’t to say that I deserve such a service! But rather, that the idea of such a service became transformed into the currency for branding and social capital online before it even had a chance to become anything else. And weirder (and worse), that I myself was complicit in such fungibility by my original “lamentation,” which took the ironic form so common online today—impossible to tell if it was the kernel of a real idea or just a sneer to get attention on the Internet. On the one hand, obviously Amazon isn’t going to launch a lumber delivery service, not in an era of 3-D-printing and drones and whatnot. But on the other hand, Amazon delivers everything, including an improbably-heavy 13” wood planer, which its agents hand-delivered to my workshop garage last year.

Even this very article is subsumed into the Internet’s insatiable appetite. It must either become a thankless, humorless gripe that ruins a serendipitous pleasure, or else the conceited fortification for my own preposterous sense of unearned self-importance. Who is this guy, even, writing at The Atlantic about his tweet about getting lumberrolled by Amazon? And even on that front I’m behind the times, as another outlet even scooped me on my own trolling.

We’ve reached the point that delights are more ambiguous than disappointments. At least the fencing contractor unambiguously didn’t show up. Even the community meeting was grounded in some actual confusion, one I could investigate and reconcile by asking my neighbors. But the lumberrolling didn’t really manage to address either my hope for a better way to get actual wood for home projects nor Amazon’s rationale for naming their freeware cross-platform, 3-D game engine after a venue that mills and sells building materials. Instead, here we are, suffering a thinkpiece about the space in-between, and one that nobody could possibly ever enjoy as much as the gag that inspired it.

The Internet’s delights are many. Cats and memes, concepts and catchphrases. Microfame that burns hot and fast like fireworks. In two more days, we’ll be subject to dozens more of them in the form of April Fool’s jokes, for a day that my colleague Megan Garber convincingly argued the Internet ruined. After the spectacle, what’s left behind? Partly memory, for sure, the charm and curiosity of an earnest surprise. But then, and soon, the fading specter of that charm as a thousand million others nudge and elbow it out of the way to take their place on stage. Surprise is no longer surprising when it tries so hard to surprise.

The Internet has become its own kind of lumberyard. Instead of wood, it doles out a different kind of raw material, the raw material of anything-whatsoever, having been digitized and transformed into the raw materials for meta-discourse. And that’s not a bad thing, not exactly. It too delights and surprises. It has form and aesthetics and culture. But it also strives to act like a trump card, to replace all other materials thanks to the litheness and pliability of Internet posts. Who needs [whatever] when we’ve got the Internet instead?

But the truth is, we can have both. We need both. And that’s the lesson of Amazon’s lumberrolling. We can have affected, hipster game engines and we can also have tweets about them and we can also have hard maple cut and joined into boxes or sculptures—or bespoke housings for artisanal handheld game systems running Amazon Lumberyard titles. The world has never been stranger and more promising and more threatening. But not because of technology, or the digital economy, or disruption, or drones. It is such because it always has been. Full of all the things we can imagine, and all the ones we cannot.