By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
But only with the Internet can you become a global celebrity in your own home. And rather than proving yourself worthy of notoriety -- through acting, writing, committing a crime -- "you just hook up to the global network and the old media comes to you," says Barry Vacker, professor of media and culture at SMU. "It reverses the process."
When the old media came knocking on the Dotcompound door, many grabbed the hook of what he was doing without questioning its significance. Eric Zorn, a columnist with the Chicago Tribune, was one of the few in the mainstream media who critically examined the DotComGuy. But he did it by staging his own publicity stunt in January when he became the "NotDotComGuy" and decided to forgo technology for a week. "I was spurred into action by the DotComGuy," Zorn says. "He seemed like a shill for online shopping. He could have proved his point in a week. The rest was just flagpole sitting."
Zorn lived without fax, modem, e-mail, cell phone, and computer, a neo-Luddite bent on slowing the rhythm of his life. It wasn't easy, particularly since the computer had become part of his writing process, and he felt incompetent without it. "It did get me in Time magazine," he says, which wrote a full-page story on the battling Dots. Zorn figures he made his point: That the "digital deprivation" of NotDotComGuy was a much harder way to live than the "digital immersion" of DotComGuy.
"It might be interesting following someone's slow psychological transformation about being alone for a year, but he's not even alone," says Zorn. "What forbearance has he shown? What sacrifice is he really making?"
It's Day 118 of the DotComGuy's self-imposed shut-in, and he has consented to yet another media interview. Exuding a nice-guy politeness, he looks slighter than he does on my computer monitor, less grainy too. His flat, nasal voice is just plain irritating; e-acting lessons are a must. The Dotcompound itself looks more like a frat house than anyone's home, and it's easy to forget that the townhouse is actually 1,400 square feet of product placement until you realize that Webcams invade every room.
Although he's deprived himself of the outside world, DotComGuy says his life has never been fuller. To keep the Webcast from being stupefyingly dull, DotComGuy plays talk-show host to an endless stream of visitors and events: Hot local bands play for friends at the Dotcompound during their Saturday Net Live sessions; there's an online wine tasting courtesy of Ernest and Julio Gallo; Len and Twilley come over for a game of virtual golf, courtesy of gameworks.com.
But there must be things the DotComGuy misses. He can't travel, go to the movies, have spontaneous sex. Hasn't that changed him?
He fumbles for an answer. "I am a very opinionated person by nature, but I am now in the role of guiding the discussion rather than finalizing it." He pauses. "I also have totally lost all interest in politics. It has no place in this project."
Or product. It's obvious he's more comfortable when he can stay on-message about e-commerce than when he has to reference other aspects of his existence. This is no great social experiment, he says; he just went to extremes to educate the public about the benefits of online shopping. He had no idea this thing would take off the way it did. He's not just a person anymore, he's a brand name. Creative Artists Agency recognized this when they signed him to their stable of talent. "We are talking about a DotComGuy magazine, a DotComGuy cartoon," Critcher says excitedly. "How about a DotComGuy sitcom about two guys who start an Internet company where one of them is locked up in a house?"
DotComGuy already rates other Web sites as part of his DotComGuy schtick. Critcher envisions a day when other e-companies will beg for the DotComGuy seal of approval. "The legs on this thing are endless," he says.
Critcher already has endorsement deals for DotComGuy with two of their own sponsors. 3Com (a Webcam manufacturer) is about to run an ad with DotComGuy in USA Today. And UPS is preparing a spot in its Olympic advertising package that will include the DotComGuy. "It's reverse marketing," Critcher says. "We are being paid by our sponsors to advertise ourselves."
The DotComGuy may be looking flush financially, but I still worry about him as I prepare to leave the Dotcompound. In eight months he, too, will be gone, but so will his individuality. He has already lost his name. His home is a Web site. He has suppressed so much of himself -- his opinions, his political inclinations, his sex drive. And now he risks losing what little personality he has by becoming a brand, a trademark, a Dotcommodity.
His life is a Webcast, for godsakes, and he is in danger of becoming the technology he so greedily endorses.
As DotComGuy walks me out, I feel the need to save him from his cyber-self. I think about calling him by his given name, figuring that would somehow make him less virtual.