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.
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."
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."
Both partners knew they had to work fast. Their clever marketing ploy didn't make sense if it didn't take advantage of all the media hype surrounding the year 2000 and the public's fears of Y2K. Here was a lone man who was willing to bet his virtual survival on the fact that no computer glitches would occur with the dawning of the new millennium. The DotComGuy was technology's hero, its champion, its friend.
He was also a friend to corporate types who seemed to buy off on the concept like nobody's e-business. Where else could the Mr. Rogers of the Internet give them a PG-rated Webcast that would promote their products to the AOL crowd? But Critcher felt that traditional banner advertising on the Web really didn't work. Besides, no one was willing to advertise on a Web site that didn't exist yet.
So through a friend of a friend, Critcher contacted International Promotions, a Los Angeles product placement firm that specializes in convincing producers to put computers in their movies. International agreed to test the corporate waters. The pitch was simple enough: The DotComGuy can demonstrate the benefits of e-commerce by putting your product in action. Once the first sponsor signed on, the thing took on a life of its own. UPS, mall.com, Gateway Inc., peapod.com -- all fell in line. And why not invest in two kids with a goofy idea? Didn't they embody the spirit of the Internet? Aren't they the reason the NASDAQ rose a record 86 percent in 1999?
In six weeks, DotComGuy, Inc. raised nearly $1 million in sponsorships. What the company wasn't prepared for was the onslaught of media attention that would begin in mid-December. It didn't seem to matter that this was a gimmick, a marketing tool, a novel way to make a buck. Here was the Truman Show and EDtv come to life. Here was a how-to program combined with reality television -- former PBS handyman Bob Vila joining the cast of MTV's The Real World. Here was an Everyman who was willing to prove all the e-commerce ad hype that the Internet was a safe, dependable place to shop.
USA Today was the first national publication to bite, says DotComGuy publicist Stephanie Germeraad. "After that, the rest just snowballed." She had 40 to 60 media requests a day. The DotComGuy hadn't even set foot in the Dotcompound, and he was already doing 15 interviews a day. The company never spent a dime on advertising, yet the DotComGuy's name would receive a billion media impressions, says Germeraad, which is the combined potential readership and viewership of all the media that ran stories on him.
On January 1, 2000, at noon, when Broadcast.com began streaming video of the DotComGuy around the globe, all the media hype paid off. According to Critcher, people spent a total of 2,000,000 minutes watching the Webcast in its first four days. And 60 percent of those people returned to see him again. With the speed of the Internet, groups of fans instantly sprung up as far away as Germany, Japan, and Australia. DotComGuy began receiving tens of thousands of e-mails. Both the media and the public couldn't seem to get enough of him.
"We created a star out of somebody who was nothing," Critcher says. "I'm not even certain why people were watching."
Let's face it: DotComGuy is no eye candy. Unlike Jennicam and her ilk, there is no hint of sexuality, no possibility that you are going to catch a glimpse of someone undressing, taking a shower, much less having sex. The DotComGuy hasn't exactly taken a vow of celibacy, but it would cause his corporate sponsorship serious concern if, after he ordered a pizza online, he started banging the delivery girl. There is a much greater likelihood that you will watch him eat some white chili with his friend Twilley, the Krameresque next-door neighbor who has become part of the cast of characters in DotComGuy's reality play about nothing. Or watch him sit at his computer and type, or hype some new Web site he's tried, or scratch his nose, or yawn or sleep or...
There's just one little problem. Staring at someone ordering groceries from peapod.com on a video stream that looks grainy, sounds tinny, and is displayed in a small box on the computer screen doesn't make for compelling programming.
Then why is it that four months after its launch, the DotComGuy Web site still gets 1.5 million hits a day? Why are user sessions in excess of 23 minutes, "which is virtually unheard of in the Internet world," according to publicist Germeraad?
Perhaps it's the surveillance feel to the video that draws in the viewership. Spying on another's private life breeds a sense of the forbidden, a feeling you're somewhere you shouldn't be. Even the most ordinary image becomes highly charged and invested with more urgency than it really has.
Looking without touching (except possibly oneself) has grown into a cultural obsession. But when reality programs like Cops or The Real World or even DotComGuy offer unprecedented access into a person's private life, it can also create a fabricated intimacy. "Most people [in our audience] say he has become their friend," Critcher says. "They want to know what he is going to do next. 'Is he not going to eat breakfast today? No, he's going to cook toast.' Maybe it's about the boredom in their own lives."
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.
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.
But I forget what it is.
"Come on," I beg him. "Don't you want to walk right out that door and just keep on going?"
He will hear none of it. He's got big plans. In a couple hours some folks are coming over to deep-fry a turkey. Courtesy of cajunshoppe.com.