DotCom freedom

Hadn't proven much, perhaps, but the DotComGuy's one year sojourn into Internet living makes a significant footnote on the evolution of online purchasing.

It was the wee hours of the morning when Mitch Maddox made his first appearance in public since 1999. He showed up at a party at the Studio Movie Grill in Plano, Texas, to celebrate his release. He didn't just get out of prison, unless you consider his vocation of the past year to be the commercial equivalent of a self-imposed house arrest. You see he actually could be called the Electronic Shopper Formerly Known as Mitch Maddox.

If you know him at all, you know him as DotComGuy, now his legal name. DotComguy stayed indoors for a year, to prove to the world that every necessity in life could be ordered from the Internet, from toilet paper to furniture to food. Not only has he survived; he's thrived.

"It hasn't been a sacrifice," he says. "It's been a blast."

Local rock and country bands, at the rate of about one a week, came to perform. Ed McMahon dropped by. DotComGuy learned how to handle the best questions People, USA Today and the Washington Post could throw at him. He raised money for charities.

His year of being cooped up in a rented townhouse around-the-clock is over. He's now about to re-enter the normal business world. His biggest worry: He's a Lotus Notes and Oracle database programmer. He's now a year behind his peers in keeping up with the technology. "I might as well start over," he says.

The real question though: What has he accomplished with his year in confinement? Did it really take a closed-door policy to prove the Internet could be used to buy anything or everything? And what kind of person takes that upon himself, as a cause?

DotComGuy says he only tried to show people they didn't have to drive around and stand in lines to get things done. He's also not saying everything that can be bought on line should be bought online. Case in point: furniture, which you can't evaluate very well online and be sure that you are making an intelligent purchase. No wonder pure Internet furniture retailers such as, fail, he says. The real point for most retailers and manufacturers is to regard the Internet as an additional means of selling goods, not the primary means.

It can simplify your life, though, giving you more time to go out to dinner with your folks or friends. Or to spend on recreation. Or to dote on kids. Or to deal with real work.

Electronic shopping hardly seems a life calling. But it's not hard to imagine DotComGuy being syndicated as an e-commerce critic. After all, if you've made your name buying things over the Net, if you've had your life scrutinized for a year while doing so, and if you've already played before an audience of millions, what's left but to be some sort of Rush Limbaugh for those who are either, a.) passionate about, or b) learning about online purchasing?

As dot-com merchants have learned, fame and success can be fleeting. DotComGuy himself acknowledges, "Anybody could do this; it doesn't take a rocket scientist."

There's also not a lot of spade work left to be done.

It's pretty safe to say he raised the consciousness of tens of thousands of Americans about the benefits and travails of buying stuff in cyberspace. His benchmark on impact: "If even five people have gotten the message, then it's been worth it."

Not a very high standard perhaps. But, think back to just over a year ago. A lot more attention, time and money was spent on whether cyberspace might be shut down altogether, because of — dig deep into your memory — the pending impact of Y2K bugs on computer networks.

January 1, 2000 came and went without a real hitch. So did Jan. 1, 2001. The fact that the DotComGuy can go out, party and become a footnote in the growth of electronic shopping is a welcome sign of the maturity of the Internet as a commercial medium.

Tom Steinert-Threlkeld is chief content officer at Ziff Davis Media and a former editor-in-chief of Interactive Week. He can be reached at