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Previously in Web Citations:


Wen Stephenson on why new commercial efforts to bridge the "digital divide" may only make it wider.

Shake Your Musicmaker

Are the days of the album format numbered? Ben Auburn looks at Musicmaker.com and other sites that let you build your own CD compilations.


Nicholas Confessore on Vote.com, Dick Morris's foray into online democracy.

Revenge of the Wizards

Harvey Blume looks at Neal Stephenson's "In the Beginning Was the Command Line," and wonders if a Linux triumph is really what we want.

Hey Ho, GIFs Must Go!

Charles C. Mann contemplates Burn All GIFs Day, perhaps the first political protest ever staged because of an algorithm.

A Penny for Your 'pinion

Ben Auburn on what Epinions.com learned from the Weblog, and what Webloggers may be learning about the Web. (Hint: it has something to do with money.)

Heard It Through the Grapevine

Forget Windows, or even Linux. The defining artifact of the Information Age may be the chain e-mail. A testimonial by Nicholas Confessore.

The Addiction Addiction

The perennial hoo-ha over "Internet addiction." By Howard Rheingold

Mirror, Mirror

The Blair Witch Project and the Net's latest exercise in self-flattery. By Josh Ozersky

The Net's Next Vice

Online gambling is set to take off. Enter (who else?) the United States government. By Katie Bacon

More Web Citations in Atlantic Unbound.

Get a Life
February 16, 2000

Dotcomguy.com Few people who watch TV, read magazines, or glance at passing billboards could have failed to notice the holiday-season advertising blitz promoting e-commerce, as men lauded Amazon.com in song and parents were exhorted to search eToys for the perfect gift for their children. By all accounts, those who are comfortable with computers and the Internet are taking readily to online shopping, and indeed, more and more e-commerce sites are popping up that promise to do everything for you but make dinner and do the laundry. Why, then, are we witnessing a rash of online experiments -- or publicity stunts -- designed to show that it's possible to subsist entirely by means of the Internet, something that many have basically figured out for themselves?

The experiments -- a strange combination of MTV's The Real World and a how-to program -- work like this: a person or group of people is confined to an empty house for a week or more with nothing but a computer, an Internet connection, and cameras set up to record every move. Everything -- food, clothes, furniture, entertainment, basic supplies -- must be ordered off the Web. Last week, Good Morning America hosted its second "e-cave" experiment, in which people in two different apartments in Houston, Texas, lived for a week on a $500-a-day budget. They were creative with their funds, taking Web swing-dance lessons and ordering facials -- perhaps too creative, since both groups went about $1000 dollars over budget.

In Los Angeles, the television station KTLA has gotten in on the act as well. Today is the last day of Kurt the Cyberguy's week-long stretch living in a KTLA-sponsored "Cyberbus." Kurt has appeared on the station's local news twice a day, and the rest of the time his image has been broadcast via a Webcam. According to Kurt's journal, his week in what he's termed the "goldfish bowl" hasn't gone all that smoothly -- he has forever struck Bananarepublic.com off his list of Web destinations after poor service left him without clean clothes or towels for the first few days, and he was visited by KTLA's staff psychologist, who came to "check on his level of sanity." Despite his troubles, the Cyberguy appears to have attracted quite an audience -- at last count he'd received more than 8,000 e-mails.

Playing off of this theme, on February 13 Microsoft's MSN.com began a multimedia ad campaign that will follow the lives of four fictitious (and hopelessly ill-matched) strangers, who are living in a house devoid of everything save a computer signed on to the MSN network. In TV and print ads and on MSN, people will be able to follow the characters' experiences as they do things like shop for furniture and manage their finances using an online bank.

But the king of all such experiments in online living, real or imaginary, is surely Mitch Maddox, who has legally changed his name to DotComGuy. He is a month and a half into a year-long stint during which he cannot pass beyond the boundaries of his yard, in Dallas, Texas. Every room in his house is wired with cameras, so you can watch DotComGuy at all hours of the day. (Apparently, some people really do. In a live chat, val_in_aspen commented, "My boyfriend thinks I am obsessed with you because you are always on in the background." CardShark asked, "Can we view archived clips of your broadcast? For example, I watch at work, and lose out on Saturday and Sunday.") To fend off cabin fever, DotComGuy organizes activities like pajama parties, visits from local bands, a Valentine's Day date contest (no, there's not yet a DotComGal), and meetings with a design firm he found online that will help him furnish his "DotCompound." In between all these activities he concentrates on the main purpose of the site: teaching people about the endless possibilities of e-commerce. Plenty of viewers are tuning in: DotComGuy.com receives an estimated 150,000 visitors a day.

DotComGuy takes his mission quite seriously. In a live chat on February 7 he was asked whether he was surprised that an experiment like the one he's conducting hadn't been tried before. He responded, "I think like many successful ideas that are so simple by nature, everyone wondered, 'Why didn't I think of that?' or if they did think of it 'Why didn't I do it?'" (Not everyone, of course, thinks that what DotComGuy and others are doing is such a great idea. Eric Zorn, a columnist for The Chicago Tribune, was so annoyed by the publicity DotComGuy was receiving -- just for getting paid to live "more or less the life that fully interconnected, digitally dependent people everywhere are already leading" -- that he decided to forgo all voice mail, computers, e-mail, beepers, etc., and become NotComGuy for a week.)

The question that comes to my mind, however, is not "Why didn't I think of that?" but, "So what?" Of course these e-cavers and cyberguys, who live in cities and have large budgets, sponsorships from e-commerce companies, and the best computers and Internet access that money can buy, are able to "survive" on the Web. (If DotComGuy were to move from Dallas to rural Texas -- far from the reach of grocery or take-out delivery -- you can bet his experiment would fail.) Similarly, it's not surprising that urban professionals with disposable income are flocking to things like Peapod and Kozmo in order to carve a little more time out of their busy schedules for family or work. At one time, "on line commerce" meant ordering by phone from a catalogue. Was there ever a "CatalogueGuy" who started off in an empty house and waited for things to arrive by mail while keeping a journal of his experiences? If so, the spectacle would have been about as exciting as watching someone buy things off the Internet.

--Katie Bacon

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Katie Bacon is the executive editor of Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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