By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
April 27, 2000. Dateline Dotcompound.
Somewhere in a secluded section of North Dallas, the DotComGuy, a Dallas techno-geek who has cut himself off from the world to live his life online for a year, is holding yet another press conference. About a half dozen local broadcast and print reporters are there to record the moment, drawn to the pseudo-event by a press release that touts the "first-of-its-kind" online mentoring relationship between DotComGuy -- Big Brother -- and his new "Little Brother."
It's a touching photo op for the media-hungry DotComGuy, who says he has always wanted a little brother but has never found the time. It's an important moment for the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dallas, which can garner untold publicity for their good work by associating with a rising new-media star.
As if the Dotcompound held the secrets of the Human Genome Project, the reporters in attendance have all signed confidentiality agreements: Do not reveal the location of the Dotcompound under penalty of law ($500,000 in damages). Do not use the birth name of the DotComGuy more than once in a publication. Do not return to the Dotcompound unless by special invitation. Have a nice day.
Four months have elapsed since the DotComGuy, at age 26, leaped into public consciousness, seizing the national stage by cloistering himself in his digital digs and going global with a live video feed on the Web that captures his every mundane moment. His purpose is to prove that: 1. Man can live by e-commerce alone. 2. Man can make a killing by proving man can live by e-commerce alone.
On January 1, at noon, he began his social experiment, a bizarre marriage of voyeurism and online shopping. Delivered to the Dotcompound by a UPS truck (one of his sponsors), he entered with nothing but the clothes on his back and a laptop computer, courtesy of Gateway Inc. (another sponsor). Sixteen stationary Webcams captured him in every room of his empty two-story townhouse; the cameras mercifully pointed away from his toilet and shower. Within days, he was ordering e-groceries, sleeping on e-furniture, and reading e-mail from the million-plus fans who logged onto his Web site. To reflect his alter e-go (and for security concerns), he had his name legally changed to DotComGuy. He would receive $100,000 from his sponsors if he met the conditions of his confinement: For one year, he was under house arrest, free to roam only in his own back yard. Friends and family, however, could visit without restrictions.
DotComGuy and his real-world business partner Len Critcher had no idea the mainstream media would eat up their story as if it were some kind of millennial meatloaf. DotComGuy has done more than 1,000 interviews. He has become an icon for the Internet, a nobody who rose to virtual celebrity status by starring in his own real-time life story. But like the famous Seinfeld episode, he hosts a show about nothing. He eats. He sleeps. He cooks beef stew. The guy could take charisma lessons from Bill Gates.
That porn-free Webcasting resonates loudly with corporate America is not surprising. Critcher has marketed the hell out of their stunt, raising a million dollars in sponsorship money in just over a month. What better way to bring the Internet to life, says Critcher, than to bring a life to the Internet? But once the gimmick is gone, once the animal has left the zoo, will DotComGuy, Inc. have any staying power? Creative Artists Agency apparently thinks so. The powerful Hollywood talent agency has recently agreed to represent DotComGuy, banking on his celebrity to net major endorsement deals.
That some cyber schlub can become a star has as much to say about the power of the Internet as it does about how technology is changing the mass media. That we continue to watch him has as much to say about who we are as it does about what he's doing.
Right now the DotComGuy is standing in front of a podium set up in his living room. He looks nervous, not the warm glass of milk who always seems so relaxed under surveillance. He sports a thin beard, looks a bit gaunt -- not what you'd expect from someone who works out daily with a personal trainer in his garage gym (courtesy of fitlinxx.com). After he makes the "Big Announcement" about being a big brother, he seems calmer, chatting up a Dallas Morning News columnist and giving her a tour of the Dotcompound. As they walk into his heavily wooded back yard, you can't help but wonder who this guy really is and whether he's been breathing too much ether in cyberspace.
"People still want to know if he has lost his mind," responds one of his full-time staff of 14. "We can certify that he hasn't."
If there is such a thing as "geek chic," the DotComGuy has a corner on the market. "I am proud of the fact that I am a dork," he says. "It's cool to be a computer nerd. I was just ahead of my time."
For someone whose image streams on a computer screen 24/7, it's somewhat ironic that his senior picture doesn't even appear in the 1992 Highland Park High School yearbook. The geek formerly known as Mitch Maddox -- there, I said it -- claims he was just a shy guy, but the missed photo session might have had something to do with the fact that he never graduated. "I was extremely intelligent but very bored," he says. "I just hated the busy work and didn't graduate with my class."