By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Though he had few friends in high school, he did manage to strike up a close relationship with the new kid on the block, Len Critcher, who moved to Dallas from Shreveport. "Highland Park was pretty exclusive, and DotComGuy was one of the few people who extended himself to me," recalls Critcher. But Critcher, who looks like a cross between Andy Kaufman and Nicolas Cage, also split time in Hollywood, pursuing a career as a child actor on sitcoms such as Evening Shade. After graduating from SMU, he returned to Los Angeles, where he worked for three years, he says, as a "development executive creating TV shows."
DotComGuy, on the other hand, remained in Dallas, passing his GED and attending Richland College before enlisting in the Marine Reserve. "I always go to extremes. It's the way I do my life," he explains.
After boot camp ("It was hell, but looking back it was the greatest three months of my life"), he enrolled at the University of North Texas, where he became so focused on fraternity life, he flunked out of school again. "I devoted all my energies to the fraternity," he says. I only went to class maybe five times the whole semester."
Before returning to community college, he took a semester off to work for "Victory 94," the statewide campaign to help George W. Bush and other Republicans get elected to office. And oddly, the man who would be touted as "the future of technology" was wedded to the past as a history buff and card-carrying member of the Children of the American Revolution.
DotComGuy spent the next five years toiling away anonymously, honing his skills as a computer nerd, working as a systems analyst in the Dallas branches of two large companies. "I am a technology hound," he says. "I was the person who had all the gadgets. I wanted everyone to have all the neat toys I did."
He has told the story about the origins of DotComGuy to so many reporters, it sounds scripted and phony. He became frustrated, he says, when he and his parents went furniture shopping for his new apartment. "I told them, 'This is how we spend our time together. It's a waste of time. I could have bought all this online.' I said, 'Maybe if I go into an empty apartment, I could show people you can buy everything online.'"
Mesmerized by the idea, he began to flesh it out with friends. What if he locked himself in a house and survived solely off the Internet for 30 days, 90 days, a year? What if he could demonstrate online shopping by setting up a Webcam so viewers could see him in the act?
On October 9, 1999, he met with Critcher, who had returned to Dallas to work for his father after a slow burn-out in Hollywood. "As a filmmaker, I was intrigued by the idea. It was a way to bypass the networks and the film studios and broadcast directly to the world. I wanted that audience."
The idea of attaching a Webcam to your computer and going public with your private life is nothing new. Jennifer Ringley, a sweet-faced co-ed, was the first to turn the camera on herself in 1996, allowing the world into her bedroom as she went about her days, and more frequently her nights. If you tuned in at the just the right time, the Webcam offered fleeting glimpses of Ringley dressing, undressing, and rolling around in bed. She began the site as a project for a computer class after she'd seen another Webcam, The Amazing Fish Cam, pointed at an aquarium in the offices of Netscape. For Jennicam, or the original Trojan Room Coffee Cam, or one of the thousands of Webcam pages that turn out to be porn sites, the technology is fairly simple and cheap. A frame from a video camera is captured at a fixed rate -- as fast as once every 15 seconds -- and then posted on a server so anyone browsing the Internet can cop a look.
But the typical Webcam wasn't quick enough to stream live video, something Critcher needed to do if they were to produce a nonstop online TV show. With the technology that is now available, the image could be pushed to 30 frames per second, something approaching regular TV.
"I wanted to do a Truman Show," says Critcher. "I knew we needed audio and video that would enable you to peer into a person's life to create that voyeuristic one-on-one exchange that you only get from the solitary medium of a computer. Of course, neither of us had any idea what it would cost."
The cost of the name DotComGuy turned out to be their least prohibitive expense. A man in New Jersey owned the domain and had no intention of putting it to use on the Internet. He sold it to them for $250. Oddly enough, the name seemed to fit the regular-guy persona of its new user. "The DotComGuy is not so good-looking and doesn't have a strong personality," Critcher says. "He is pretty much your average Joe."