A poster child for Internet idiocy

Voyeurism! Consumerism! Hype! DotComGuy is a human incarnation of the worst the Net has to offer.

Published August 1, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

4:37 p.m. PDT July 12
DotComGuy is sitting on his couch, watching television. I can hear traffic going by his house, a horn honking. The phone rings, and he jumps up to answer it, pacing back and forth like a trapped man. "Oh yeah. Definitely. Awesome!" he exclaims into the receiver, in elevated tones designed to be picked up by a microphone and beamed to the ears of millions of invisible listeners. He hangs up the phone, sits down, stares blankly at the television.

A few minutes later, two of DotComGuy's friends show up with a bag of food -- although the picture is grainy and dim on my computer monitor, I think I can make out french fries. The three sit in silence. They are watching "Seinfeld" reruns.

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Is there any cause worthy enough that you'd voluntarily commit to house arrest, putting yourself under 24-hour scrutiny by a global audience? What impetus would you require to allow your conversations to be recorded, your activities monitored, to live like a guppy in a fishbowl so that anyone who stumbled onto the Internet could tune in to ogle your every move?

Would you do it, as the contestants on "Big Brother" have, for money? Or as a kind of grand social experiment, a personal-growth process writ large, like Jenni Ringley of JenniCam? Would you do it in pursuit of fame? Or would you submit to this torture in hopes of raising public consciousness about a topic of great importance -- like the late gay activist Pedro Zamora, who several years ago went on MTV's "The Real World" to promote AIDS awareness?

Would you subject yourself to this total invasion of privacy to promote the widespread adoption of e-commerce?

On Jan. 1, amid much fanfare, a 26-year-old systems manager moved into a house in North Dallas, Texas, where he announced that he would spend the next 365 days under total webcam surveillance. In a selfless effort to encourage the use of online shopping, he would subsist entirely on items he could buy on the Web, never leaving his home (although he would be allowed visitors). He lined up a roster of impressive sponsors, hooked up 20 cameras and signed some paperwork officially changing his name to DotComGuy. Visitors to his Web site could tune in and watch him any hour of the day; only the toilet was sacred. If he made it through the year, he'd take home $98,000.

The resulting media frenzy sent hordes to DotComGuy.com, with the site logging 10 million hits on its first day. How very millennial, how very dot-com! the newspapers and radio DJs and TV hosts gushed. Seven months later, he's still getting press. It makes great copy, even if the resulting DotComGuy show, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, is possibly the dullest entertainment ever conceived. It's a PG-rated nightmare of utter mundanity, playing to our collective fascination with all things dot-com. DotComGuy is the conflation of all our most despicable millennial obsessions -- voyeurism, Internet hype and consumerism -- wrapped up neatly and tied with a bow, brought to you by our esteemed new economy sponsors.

We should have expected this. When Jenni of JenniCam turned herself into a public icon by turning a video camera on her bedroom, there was something experimental, Webby, guileless about her decision. When the members of "Big Brother" turned themselves into manipulated guinea pigs for the sake of half a million dollars, the results gave way to drama, greed and the intrigue inherent in frank human relationships.

But DotComGuy was conceived during the year that venture capitalists poured billions into portals hawking pet food, capri pants, customized face lotion; a year when also-ran Web sites with inflated marketing budgets like Epidemic.com and OurBeginning.com coughed up millions for long-forgotten Super Bowl ads. Scroll back to the days before the April mini-crash that soured dot-com mania and you'll find DotComGuy an astute man of the times, hawking himself to the biggest sponsor; offering up his very life as a unique marketing opportunity that no company wanting to rub shoulders with our Internet obsession could refuse. He could give a damn about the cameras robbing him of anything revealing, intimate, human in his life; he has a higher purpose.

"I want to help people realize the possibilities of e-commerce," he says.

All interview requests for DotComGuy are vetted through his handler, Stephanie Germeraad. "We have one rule," she says. "You can't give away his real name." Other unsavory publications have not complied with this rule, she says, which makes DotComGuy very unhappy. Why? I ask. Isn't he eventually going to change his name back? He has no plans to do so, she says. "When people write about John Wayne they don't call him Marion Morrison," she scolds, her tone tinged with indignation. "Same with Nick Cage -- no one refers to him as Nicolas Coppola." Why won't the pesky press just let DotComGuy be DotComGuy?

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It is part of the DotComGuy mythology that he is just an average Joe -- like you and me -- and that his utter normalness proves just how easy it is for anyone (you! me!) to buy stuff online. As he likes to say, "I don't want fame. Anyone can do this -- anyone can be DotComGuy, it's easy!" If this normal, boring, 26-year-old guy of medium intelligence and medium tech savvy can figure out how to order a maid service online -- well, gosh, so can you!

By all accounts, DCG really is an average Joe. According to the copious press he's received -- more than 1,000 articles, interviews and profiles -- DotComGuy is a dropout from both high school and the University of North Texas, where he became so absorbed with fraternity-life parties that he didn't bother attending classes. He went to Marine training. He worked at UPS as a human resources manager, and then at Vodafone as a systems analyst, before coming up with his One Big Idea.

He is not attractive, nor is he unattractive. He is nice. Friendly. The kind of guy your mom might like. He shows no signs of angst or paranoia about being locked up and watched all the time. He watches a lot of television, surfs the Net, listens to bland adult contemporary music, wears khakis. He loves his dog, whom he talks to almost incessantly. He has a lot of white male friends in his age bracket who wear T-shirts and jeans and drink a lot of cola. He thinks the band Kansas is legendary.

DotComGuy wanted his project to be "family-safe" entertainment -- the family that e-tails together stays together! -- and apparently it wasn't particularly difficult for him to eliminate all R-rated material from his life, despite the fact that, in his chat room, a number of teenage girls constantly profess that they find him "sexy." He'll have a beer, but only at appropriate times. His life is devoid of drama or intrigue. He's signed up for his local Big Brother program (the mentoring program, not the TV show); he calls his parents DotComDad and DotComMom, his dog is DotComDog.

Of course, under normal circumstances, it would be naive to think an "average anyone" could snooker name sponsors like 3Com, UPS and Gateway into anteing up enough money to support a 15-person staff for DotComGuy Inc. (It takes a village -- of camera operators, Web producers, marketeers and business folks -- to raise a dot-com spectacle.) In general, an average Joe who does "not want fame" doesn't find it so easy to extend his 15 minutes worth into exactly 525,600 minutes or land a representation agreement with Creative Artists Agency, just for sitting around the house all year. (CAA is working on "off-line branding opportunities" for DotComGuy Inc.)

But this man, who proclaimed that he was legally changing his name to DotComGuy in order to take the spotlight off himself and focus it instead on "e-commerce and how it can help families," came of start-up age at an incredibly propitious time. It was a delirious moment, when an "average company" selling drugstore items or what have you, could create a Web site at a generic URL, slap a dot-com on its name, and -- presto! -- secure a hundred million, without ever having to so much as shake the sweaty hand of one new customer.

While Internet funding was still growing on trees, DotComGuy turned himself into a dot-com, literally. And he was first to market! He signed up sponsors, he arranged for every small-business person with a Web site and a service to promote -- from professional organizers to stick-fighting teachers -- to get free publicity in exchange for improving his quality of life. He turned the jaw-droppingly inane details of his uneventful life into media events that have everyone from Ed McMahon to E! Television showing up on his doorstep to gape at this 21st century idiot savant. DotComGuy figured out how to play the system for all it was worth. (Though he agreed to some rather odd salary terms: DotComGuyInc. pays him in monthly installments, which started at $24 and double each week, so that he only gets the $98,280 if he's still in the house come New Year's Day.)

But now the great dot-com hype-out is kaput; quick-spending start-ups are going belly up and bankruptcy courts are sweeping up the smoke and mirrors. Still standing amid the rubble, DotComGuy stands out as a singular example of everything that's wrong with our Internet fixation: There's no there there. Sure, there's a Web site and a guy methodically filling his journal with marketing jibberish, but, like most Net start-ups, DotComGuy reveals no aspirations to make our world a better place. His enterprise is not artistic, inspiring or even useful; it doesn't solve anybody's problems, bring people together in new ways or improve our lives. Like many a dot-com, this guy's entire purpose seems to be confined to making a buck for himself.

Maybe we could forgive him that, if his site was titillating, provocative, funny. But there's no chance of a kid taking a peek at DotComGuy.com and finding a bare breast or a lovers' quarrel rich with insult and foul language, and you'll never hear a product being dissed; there is no behavior that would even mildly piss off a sponsor. But even more unnerving is the fact that DotComGuy seems to have a total lack of self-consciousness about the task at hand; even a complete lack of interest in pondering the deeper meanings of voyeurism, surveillance, the Orwellian fright of having your identity effaced through constant observation. If anything, it seems, he relishes the sublimation of his personality.

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2:31 p.m. PDT, July 13

DCG is getting his weekly golf lesson in his living room, from an expert who comes courtesy of Pin-Highgolf.com (a DotComGuy sponsor). The logo for the Web site is splashed across the bottom of the video feed. "If you go to Pin-Highgolf.com ... check out these shoes," explains DotComGuy, pointing to the golf cleats on his feet. "You can buy these shoes. Look how unique these are ... cuz they are extra wide!"

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Everything DotComGuy does is sponsored. He recently held a party for his six-month anniversary in the DotCompound, with entertainment by local bands; the diary entry for that day gushed about the "much anticipated and awaited plate of BBQ, served by Dickey's Barbecue," which, he points out, you can find at http://www.dickeys.com. TheWest.com provided Southwestern-style decorative furnishings for the event.

He wakes up in the morning courtesy of Starbucks, when staffers brings him tea and coffee (http://www.starbucks.com) and politely stand around chatting about the merits of different frappuccino flavors. He gets golf lessons from an expert from Pin-HighGolf.com; he gets his abs toned by a woman who is promoting her new workout series at LeisaHart.com ("HartFit is incredibly relaxing and yet it is still a great workout," DotComGuy dutifully enthuses in his diary).

He spends his days doing media interviews, hanging out online, lining up sponsors and trying to think up commerce-related entertainment. His Web diary skips briefly over issues like Internet taxation and Napster and chirps brightly about each day's visitors and the always-useful sites and services that they offer. He will give your company accolades in front of a global audience if you'll just show up at his house to hawk your Web site. (It probably saves him from boredom.) He may be intelligent, but he is as deep as a plastic kiddie pool.

He is QVC for the Internet set.

12:57 p.m. PDT, July 17

DotComGuy has visitors. They are two clean-cut white boys in matching T-shirts, who call themselves the Road Scholars -- Cal Poly students who are documenting their summer road trip across the United States. They are, according to their Web site, "a virtual office on wheels, equipped with the latest technology to keep the Scholars connected, well-navigated and far from scholarly boredom." Of course, they are sponsored: Crazy-Call.com, SocalMove.com, U-turnsignal.com.

Yes, it's two guys who are on a road trip to prove the power of wireless technology meeting with one guy who is locked in a house to prove the power of e-commerce. (Jack Kerouac and Dean Moriarty are surely spinning now.)

The three slump on the coach in front of DotComGuy's computer, staring at each other.

"What have you seen that's cool?" asks DotComGuy.

"We saw CDNow by the side of the freeway somewhere. The headquarters, just by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. That was kind of cool," replies one Road Scholar.

They sit in silence for a minute.

"You should be sponsored by AutoWraps.com," comments DotComGuy.

"We tried; they don't do national advertising," replies a Road Scholar.

"I'm in the same boat as you. I understand," says DotComGuy. "But I've been very fortunate."

This is the sponsored life.

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Moore's law and cheap technology have turned the old phenomenon of webcams into a genuine craze. SpotLife.com, a site that lets its members stream live webcams, boasts 70,000 members; this number will probably soon rocket higher, since the company just inked a deal with Compaq that will provide all new Presario owners with SpotLife-enabled cameras. Yahoo also lists more than 500 live webcams, including the TaxiCam and Boring Guys Cam ("displays the adventures of some post-college guys in a college town").

Although webcams have been around since the first CUseeMe fans streamed murky videos of themselves (mostly naked, often masturbating) across the Web -- the days when the FishCam and the CoffeeCam still got people in a tizzy, it was Jennifer Ringley who really popularized the notion of turning a live camera on yourself. JenniCam was (and still is) a live, 24/7 documentary of a normal college girl going about her business. She worked at her computer, she slept, she hung out with her friends; occasionally, you'd even get a glimpse of her naked. She kept a painfully frank diary about the experience, and invited people to respond; her fan club exploded. She became famous, quoted in Entertainment Weekly and featured on television. These days, you have to become a paying subscriber to get full access to her videos; the cam was so popular that she couldn't afford the bandwidth anymore.

DotComGuy falls right into the tradition of webcams; yet he seems utterly uninterested in his place there. He has never tuned into anyone else's webcast; never checked out JenniCam, never gotten in touch with anyone else who has chosen to live their life in the camera's eye. How can someone be so completely blasi about his fellow DotCammers? For someone who seems to be capitalizing so greatly on the fad for voyeurism, he seems to think of his own cam existing in a kind of historical vacuum.

The only webcam DotComGuy has checked out is that of "Big Brother," the CBS television show that has locked 10 people in a house, and asked them to kick one person out every two weeks until the survivor takes home half a million dollars. On its Web site, "Big Brother" lets you peep through four different streams; after seeing the TV hype, DotComGuy tuned in for a few moments. Says he: "We watched it, and we were bored to tears. We've got more exciting stuff to show!"

I'd disagree. At least the people on "Big Brother" engage in some kind of self-reflection that goes beyond the difficulties of finding a good shopping user interface. They talk deeply about their lives, they reflect on the people on the Internet who might be watching them and they have a witty repartee with the cameras that are documenting their every foible. There is drama: Sure, it's contrived by the mechanistic invisible hands that direct them, but it's there. Despite the dullish television broadcasts, the "Big Brother" cameras are drawing a crowd, and on bulletin boards across the Web, you can read the posts of fans who are meticulously recording their every move.

DotComGuy, on the other hand, considers himself a 24/7 "show." He keeps up a running patter all the time -- talking to himself, to his dog, to his computer screen or to staffers in other rooms via a complicated intercom system -- so that no one will get bored. Everything is said for the edification of those who might be watching, and there is nothing that might be disturbingly reflective or personal, only things that are cheerful or "educational." DotComGuy has managed to achieve the unthinkable: He has taken the thrill out of the peep show.

His relationship with the camera is that of a benevolent promotional tool; the "Big Brother" participants see it as a malevolent agent of their own demise. Is it any surprise that there are no discernible online fan clubs for DotComGuy?

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From the DotComGuy chat room:
alibee: "what's this guys' real name"
Mr_tentacle: "he legally changed his named to DotComGuy"
rvmj: "that's his real name"
alibee: "oh my god. that is very very scary"
masafumi: "i think so too alibee"
alibee: "he actually get women?"
Flirtyblues: "women love DCG :)

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DotComGuy does have his fans, even if they are there mostly to self-promote. Brides-to-be e-mail him, hoping to plan their nuptials -- using online services! -- for a global audience, at the DotCompound. He throws parties every Saturday ("Saturday Net Live" -- DCG is just a font of puns) and people actually show up. There are often around 20 people in the DotComGuy chat room, mostly making small talk, flirting, occasionally responding to a guest or issue that he raises. (He seems to be popular with teenage girls.) And he says he is so swamped with requests from media entities who want to visit and start-ups that want to promote themselves, that he doesn't even answer his own e-mail!

Why does anyone care?

If the "Survivor"-"Real World"-"Making the Band"-"Big Brother"-JenniCam voyeurism explosion has taught us anything, it's that real life (granted, a contrived and manipulated real life) is often more interesting than the canned plots, narratives and characters that we have been spoon-fed by television producers and Hollywood screenwriters. And despite the current downturn, it seems that good marketing of the "dot-com" buzzword still draws a certain audience that finds this Net stuff so new and interesting.

DotComGuy is the nadir of this trend -- he's the first person who has recognized that there are dullards out there who will relish the opportunity to peep at anyone, including a personality-free someone whose sole purpose in life is to promote an industry that needs no extra promotion. A true child of the Net revolution, DotComGuy has capitalized on every buzzword that could possibly be exploited -- Voyeurism! E-commerce! Dot-com! Webcam! That he couldn't find anything interesting to produce out of that mix just goes to show how shallow these media hypes truly are.

"At some point in our society we get to a point where everything is OK to talk about," he says, when asked why he keeps all personal issues out of his webcast. "Maybe there are some things that are better not discussed." It seems to go against everything America's craze for voyeurism seems to stand for. Think of it this way: This is someone who doesn't believe in opening himself up to the world, going live 24/7 just for the sake of better shopping for everyone and $100,000 in his back pocket.

At one point, five years ago, the idea of being able to buy any CD you had ever dreamed of online was still kind of exciting. We were thrilled at the idea that there might be streaming live video, online chats with remote new friends, buccaneering e-companies that would take on the Kmarts of the world and prevail. Well, that future is now here and look what it produced: Anyone who believes that the commercial adaptation of the Net has turned it into a medium that is empty and shallow now has a poster child for their argument. Congratulations, DotComGuy: You win.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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