Do Dot-Com Stunts Make a Difference?

You have DotComGuy. You also have the e-Cavemen, the MSN Project Four and — better nicknames welcome — Internet Strategist on a Boat.

In the past year, several individuals and groups have taken it upon themselves to show the world they can survive and conquer (that is to say, eat and shop) without any means of communications technology except the online kind.

Essentially, the burgeoning reach of the Internet has generated a slew of unusual experiments designed to illustrate… the burgeoning reach of the Internet. In many cases, it is not enough to simply be a research scientist; you have to be a lab rat as well.

So what have the dot.guinea pigs accomplished? So far, the stunts have had no discernable impact on the way e-commerce is conducted. At best, they have become something of a marketing tool for Internet-related businesses of various sizes.

Nice Work If You Can Get It?

DotComGuy, the now-legal name of a 26-year-old former human resources manager named Mitch Maddox, has received the most attention. DotComGuy moved into a Dallas, Texas house on January 1st, ready to take on life with nothing but a laptop computer. Well, that and about 20 cameras to help provide a streaming feed for the Web.

DotComGuy quickly used the Internet to turn his empty home into a pad so comfortable and gadget-filled that anyone might think twice about leaving.

But to what end?

In June, DotComGuy sponsor U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray, the 11th-largest brokerage firm in the United States, co-hosted an online discussion with E! Entertainment Television and DotComGuy about e-tailing trends. While paying respect to DotComGuy’s online savvy, U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray senior research analyst Jeff Klinefelter told the E-Commerce Times that the conference was viewed more as a novelty.

“It didn’t really impact any of our economic models for any of the companies we follow,” Klinefelter said. “I would say it was more of a special-interest type piece.”

A Limit to the Mission

Media e-commerce analyst Malcolm Maclachlan of International Data Corp., which has no affiliation with DotComGuy, told the E-Commerce Times that online businesses can feel free to ignore DotComGuy.

“He’s not really an e-commerce issue,” Maclachlan said. “He’s just some guy locked in a room.”

DotComGuy himself concedes that his work has essentially highlighted what many people already know: that there is a wealth of living to be done on the Internet.

“I think that we’re not really proving anything,” DotComGuy told the E-Commerce Times. “I’m not trying to tell people to buy everything online. I’m just trying to show them what’s possible.”

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Even that notion of “what’s possible” must come with an asterisk, however. DotComGuy has been funded by a number of sponsors willing to bet that the attention he received would help enhance their own statures.

“We thought there’d be some value in the beginning,” said spokesperson Cheryl Regan of domain-name registrar Network Solutions. “We saw a lot of similarity between the two goals. We’re the dot-com people; he’s the dot-com guy.”

Network Solutions signed up for three months of sponsorship in February. When the term came up, the company did not extend the agreement.

“We thought we achieved what we wanted at the beginning of the year and we just decided to allocate our PR resources elsewhere,” Regan said. “I wouldn’t want to be a detractor to what he’s doing. It was a good test for us.”

Next on DotComGuy

Plenty of others have lined up to take that test. DotComGuy’s daily journal reveals a host of guests and product demonstrations that might inspire jealousy in Oprah Winfrey.

Is there a lesson here after all? That the Internet is a place of wonders — wonders which depend a great deal on the wonders of your bank account?

Yes and no.

“You’ve got to afford the technology,” Canadian Internet entrepreneur Brady Gilchrist said. “But the reality is, everything else is cheaper in many ways.”

Faces in the Crowd

Gilchrist is another Internet stuntman. On April 25th, he began five months of living on a 27-foot boat moored at a Toronto marina without any means of media contact except the Internet. From time to time, however, Gilchrist does leave the boat for business meetings and such on dry land.

“I make my living making recommendations and creating business strategies,” Gilchrist told the E-Commerce Times. “In order to really understand what I’m doing, I had to get in there.”

Other media personalities and intrepid citizens have confined themselves to all-Internet living for shorter periods of time. In November, ABC-TV’s Good Morning America sponsored so-called “e-cavers” Leslie Firtell and Darryl Hollar, locking them in separate New York City apartments for a week with only a bed, a refrigerator, the reaches of the World Wide Web — and a $500 daily stipend.

Even a Microsoft ad campaign used the theme in mockumentary style, bringing four strangers together to show how the Internet can transform their lives.

Has the point been made? Is an end coming to these Internet experiments?

Future Experiments

Not any time soon, it appears. After all, these people have become experienced and respected Internet users. So they do generate devoted Web audiences, audiences which in turn will keep e-commerce marketers alert.

Then, there is always the next frontier. For example, Gilchrist and DotComGuy agreed that it is only natural that someone will conduct a similar experiment, only via wireless.

“We’ll probably see this happening at really far-off places that are so much more remote and rudimentary,” Gilchrist said. “That’s the promise of this whole thing, right?”

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