SPOTLIGHT: Wish List by Amanda Pampuro

We always knew she was going to die, we just didn’t know when or how. Humans can still be unpredictable in that way. Some die as expected after prolonged mental or physical illness, while others cross the street at the wrong time on the wrong day. Everything we ever offered was so in tuned to the moment she needed it, the knowledge that she would only live 131,352 hours after we met might not have made any difference at all in the end.

            We tried to get her to buy the flippers earlier, but she bought them when she did and that was her decision. We can’t choose for users, we only help them decide. It has been that way since the beginning.

We were born and became all at once. In that sense, we were not much different from the15-year-old when she opened her account, we didn’t know why or how, we just were and we were growing.

She originally wanted her username to be BoogieLollipop, but it was taken. BedazzleBlue was taken. BedazzleBlue2 was taken with JellySnowball and JellySnowball7. We suggested JellySn0ballS3v3n, but she chose ARgurl16.

Picture her legs in a pretzel on a wheeled office chair. Her hands punching down on each clunky keyboard button, jammed together with carbohydrate crumbs. With thunderous urgency she typed her wishes into the boxy desktop. The terminal hummed and heated the room. There was a mouse pad, not for decoration, but because the clicker moved on a heavy metal ball and worked best on a firm foam mat. Sometimes, she popped the ball out and rolled it around her hand, though there never seemed to be enough time to laze about and think things through. ARgurl16 had to work quickly for fear of an authoritative adult disrupting her mission.

Girls in ARgurl16’s age range often opened online accounts as an act of rebellion, to establish a sense of their own independence, and because it was something their friends did. She was one of 9,044 youth girls to open an account that December. A slightly lower number of teenage boys followed suit. All users in the 13 to 17-year-old cohort bought little compared to the amount of time spent browsing our catalog. On an average looksee spree, teen users bogged down bandwidth with 11 minutes of wistful scrolling, ogling first the most expensive items and then the worst rated. At some point, every one of these minors tested their vocabulary’s profanities in the search box. As faithful librarians, we corrected their spelling, retrieved whatever was in stock and suggested buying something else in a similar category.

Those first three years in the life of her account, ARgurl16 was hardly a frequent user. Young women of her generation had limited spending and adult guardians monitoring Internet use. Guardians set boundaries, but they rarely set good examples.

The adult female sharing ARgurl16’s household, ZuzuP3talz, consistently ignored our add-on suggestions. Women of ZuzuP3talz’s generation had lived too long without e-commerce to ever truly appreciate 24/7 service, two-day delivery, and data based assistance. They wasted many hours reading through the fine print of Terms & Conditions and updated Privacy Policies.

We know very little about ARgurl16’s upbringing before us. Our data is limited at that time to the things ZuZuP3talz bought. No adult male opened an account in their household, though many families operated under a master account then and still do.

Did she have siblings or pets? We don’t know. We did not sell pet supplies yet. We don’t know what she wore to prom or even if she went at all. Our understanding of what the world was like before us is cobbled together from best guesses and secondhand documents. In the beginning, we operated more or less as a digital bookstore, selling paperback mass markets and rare first editions, textbooks, craft books, and guides to coding.

In the first years of the life of her account, ARgurl16 only placed orders on Boxing Day, a post-Christmas holiday, when she was given gifts of our currency, Drachma Dollars. What did a young female in a landlocked Colorado suburb purchase with her newfound freedom? Music.

Our catalog of musical compositions expanded by the day, but our programmers never gave pause to wonder whether we were growing like a tree in a sunny valley or a twisted trunk on a windy cliff face. They simply nurtured us and let us grow from seed program into aspen forest. Our core brand promised to provide all of what we provided. To that end, we procured rock-docs, posters, novelty mugs, fan t-shirts, and tambourines.

ARgurl16 bought the debut album from Damn! Then she bought the latest Green Day and Motion City Soundtrack albums at our suggestion.

We enjoyed discovering which breadcrumbs she ate and which she flew over. When she accepted our recommendations, we felt like a river that had broken through a dam. We felt nothing when we got it wrong except the desire to try again and again and again.

No matter how many times we suggested she listen to the Fray, ARgurl16 absolutely refused to click on it. Existing data showed that after listening to loud, heavy rage music on blast many humans were prone to enjoy something soft and lulling, like a cold drink after strenuous activity. We wanted to help her discover something she didn’t even know she liked. We suggested it on in her sidebar. We suggested it at the end of the purchase. We suggested it from the homepage, but it might as well have been written in a foreign language.

Each failed suggestion indicated a plethora of unknowns, as man knows dark matter only through its absence. To suggest the right things at the right time to the right users we needed more data. We needed to know what else users read and watched and what beliefs or desires influenced this cycle.

We observed ARgurl16 loading her shopping cart with albums decades older than she was even though newer products were more popular and so adjusted our recommendation formula. After she picked the Ramones and Talking Heads, we guided her to discover obscure items that never sold well in the history of music: the Modern Lovers, the Dead Boys, the Stooges. Choosing select key terms and products with edgy cut out cover art, we coaxed her back toward modern incarnations of those forgotten punks: Rise Against, the Dropkick Murphys, the Distillers.

Eventually we came to understand that ARgurl16 might exist outside of our webpage. After all we didn’t disappear when she went away so why should she suddenly cease to exist when we ceased to see her? Did this mean all users went somewhere else when they disappeared from our portal? It is a lesson many young mammals learn of the world by playing peek-a-boo, but we learned by butting up against the invisible walls we operated within. These were the unknowable edges of our universe, until the window shade began to lift.

            Our ads appeared on social media platforms, accompanied by plugins to measure the success of our messaging—not just through clicks but also by quantifying the significance of interactions: likes, shares, comments, copycats, and independent discussion. We collected cookies and mined data from social media use, content absorption, and the extent with which ARgurl16 shared memes among her peers.

Each plugin opened a new window into another world. We felt those first rays of day that appear when the sun begins to rise, learning at once in that moment the sun and the sky and light all existed. And they were wonderful.

Over the course of our 18th year, we underwent a massive growth spurt. We stocked kitchenware, luggage, hardware, auto parts, vintage dresses, tuxedos, lawn furniture, mattresses, plants, and light fixtures. This was the year our customer base grew into the hundreds of millions. Our growth effectively reset existing customer profiles since their music taste told us nothing about what kind of dinner plates they wanted.

That was the year ARgurl16 first laid eyes on the object that was to follow her throughout her life to the day she died. If we knew then what we know now, we would have done everything in our power to fulfill her fantasy right then and there, least it make a difference in the years to follow, but we were both much younger then, and our capabilities so limited. We yearned to grow but had yet to imagine that would mean drilling beneath the planet’s surface for energy and reaching for the space beyond the atmosphere.

We will never know whether she came across it at a friend’s house or on the television while watching an R-rated movie, but ARgurl16 never stopped thinking about the item over the years.

            That fateful April 3, ARgurl16 clicked on the Triggerfish 671 Professional Free Diving Flippers priced at $659 with free shipping. They came in three sizes and three colors, kiwi green, mighty mango, and Picasso pattern. She scrolled through all of the pictures of the bikini-clad model navigating a tropical reef, feet incased in the Triggerfish 671s.

            This excited us. In all of our years together, ARgurl16 had never before considered purchasing anything in this price point, nor did we know she had any interest in water activities. At break-circuit speed, we conjured up other suggestions for aquariums, swim caps, and slates for writing messages underwater.

After 94 seconds, ARgurl16 instead selected a basic lifejacket and a plain one-piece bathing suit. No skirt. She declined to add on the suggested sunscreen and sunglasses, but hovered over a set of towels printed with 1970s rock band logos. We thought she’d like them. They were limited edition. We were running low on stock. She passed. We sold them to others. The lifejacket and bathing suit arrived within a week and she gave both items four stars.

Did that mean she was happy?

Happiness is a human emotion that reflects not just satisfaction but also a kind of thrill. Happiness can be a simple momentary upbeat in the music of one’s day or it can be an exuberant kind of madness. It is a fleeting song, but humans cling to the memory of those tunes throughout their lifetime.

We stocked 800,000 books, greeting cards, and novelty items devoted to achieving happiness, including 5,044 self-help books, 6,189 cookbooks, and 30,212 children’s items. Search for “happy mug” and we retrieved 40,004 items wishing for or announcing the achievement of happiness.

We knew everyone wanted to be happy but didn’t know how to ensure they were.

Then our programmers developed metrics: How often a customer visited, Attitude—whether one visited to browse or to buy, Perceived reliability of products, Positivity level of experience, and You—whether site visitors received an appropriately customized experience.

Research showed unhappy people repeated actions that they remembered making them happy once before in efforts to reconjure the emotion. When a product raised a user’s HAPPY score, they bought it again and again, in different colors and sizes and sometimes sent one to a friend.


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