The DotComGuy Case Study: Mitch Maddox and the (Admittedly Cringeworthy) Dawn of an Era

Ah, yes! The glorious Dot-Com Bubble days. Partying like it’s 1999… when you are not relaxing in ultra-expensive Herman Miller chairs that your startup generously bought for everyone after yet another round of funding, that is. From Amazon Dot com to Pets Dot Com. The sweet sound of state-of-the-art dial-up technology. Mark Cuban during the Broadcast.com episode. What’s not to love? 

Let’s face it: few things are more fascinating than human behavior involving “hot” technology. One thing more fascinating would be buying a domain name, of course. Something that became apparent even well before the internet was born. For example, during the United Kingdom’s railway manias (plural) back in the 1800s, when the Kingdom was obsessively covered in railway tracks. Whether they were needed or not. And no matter how much debt was required to do so. Or the many opportunities as well as pitfalls associated with Industrial Revolutions… all 4 of them* (depending on whom you ask). The list could go on and on.

Suffice it to say that whenever promising technology emerges, common sense is thrown out the window.

The Dawn of An Era

With the early days of the internet being yet another case study which confirms an already-robust trend. To revert to the title of this article, the dawn of any era when it comes to technology tends to be remarkably cringeworthy. From tangible technological developments involving the aforementioned railways to the digital landscape.

Why?

Primarily because even more so than on other occasions, it becomes remarkably clear in such instances that markets are manic-depressive beasts. In other words, do market participants slowly and sustainably buy assets pertaining to promising technology? Of course not. Instead, the so-called Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) kicks in and they end up outbidding one another for… well, pretty much any asset with a pulse, and even many without one. From railroad companies with expansion plans that had zero to do with real-world demand, to internet businesses which had zero in the way of business models even moderately conducive to profits. Does this sound familiar? (Crypto coins, NFTs?)

DotComGuy (Mitch Maddox) represents a textbook case study involving just that. The manner in which new technology ends up being embraced and the many excesses thereof.

Who is this (in)famous DotComGuy?

Simply put, a perfectly average 26-year-old called Mitch Maddox who used to work as a computing systems manager. Prior to changing his life by embarking on a now-iconic experiment. Not leaving his Dallas home for an entire year (as of January 1, 2000) and having his necessities met exclusively via internet purchases. To take things to the next level, he agreed to be monitored via 20 cameras 24/7 and essentially turn his life into a Big Brother experiment, but with different rules. He was, as per said rules, not allowed to leave his home but as a (major) perk, visits from friends and various other third parties were allowed.

The prize?

$98,000 if his experiment would end up proving successful, with him managing not to leave his home for a full year.

How was this possible?

By, as many have probably guessed, attracting sponsors such as UPS, Gateway (Are they still in business),  Network Solutions, Travelocity and so on. With many critics voicing concerns which revolved around precisely the fact that DotComGuy was more of a consumerism advocate than an internet one. 

For example, you would see him receive professional golf lessons from a person sent by his Pin-HighGolf.com sponsor. Or receive coffee from Starbucks employees in the morning (remember, visits were allowed!) with the marketing angle one would expect. Personal fitness training from LeisaHart.com? Barbeque from Dickeys.com? Southwestern decorations from TheWest.com to go along with said barbeque? The list of pitches could go on and on.

To put it differently, he was oftentimes accused of embarking on an experiment too commercial. Therefore void of “big picture” meaning that the entire endeavor was not just pointless but downright toxic. Toxic in that it painted the internet in the worst possible light. It reduced it to a commercial money grab which went right alongside market activity pertaining to internet assets… the stock market money grab dimension, if you will.

And, needless to say, as the Dot-Com Bubble eventually burst, so too did interest in DotComGuy.

Did he succeed by reaching his goal of staying put for one year?

Yes.

But by the time he did that, internet-related hype had collapsed. With manifestations ranging from market crashes and ecommerce activity decline to… well, DotComGuy views. More specifically, his website went from roughly 20,000,000 page views daily at the beginning of his experiment, to over ten times less at the end of it all. And, needless to say, sponsors were getting increasingly difficult to come by.

DotComGuy’s popularity declined

Whether we are referring to his career as a proto-influencer or the internet as a whole, it all fizzled out. 

Yet, despite the cringe-worthiness that was oftentimes involved in his experiment, not even his most ardent critics can deny the fact that the DotComGuy was and (even if on a much, much smaller scale) still is a “thing” on the internet. 

Did he keep his DotComGuy legal name?

No, he reverted to Mitch Maddox after his experiment.

Is he still in the spotlight?

Most definitely not. Especially if we compare today’s realities to the height of his experiment. And the over 1,000 interviews he appeared on during his glory days.

Yet despite the fall from glory that was quasi-inevitable, Mitch Maddox is still chugging along as a technology evangelist. One who, no, did not abandon his DotComGuy legacy completely. On the contrary, it has become customary for him to organize an Internet relay chat reunion on a yearly basis. If only to make it clear that he deserves his own little (sub)chapter when it comes to internet history.

Is there a lesson in all of this?

Contrary to what the “pointless experiment” crowd would be quick to answer, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that at the end of the day, DotComGuy represented the ultimate Dot-Com Bubble internet era mirror. Someone who reflected the good, bad as well as cringeworthy associated with that iconic period of internet history.

Furthermore, moving on to even bigger picture conclusions, he also acts as a mirror when it comes to (broadly speaking) the manner in which human beings tend to adopt game-changing technology. Thereby making it clear that no, we are not robots who deploy attitudes conducive to sustainability above all else. On the contrary, we get irrationally exuberant during the height of a bubble and excessively frightened toward the end.

But guess what?

DotComGuy was right.

The internet is very much still here. What initially seemed like nothing more than a corny experiment, now represents something that surprises nobody. The idea of having most or even all necessities met through the internet in one way or another. With exogenous shocks such as, yes, the COVID-19 pandemic acting as factors which exacerbated an already-potent megatrend in the direction of digitalization.

In fact, “DotComGuy on steroids” represents a fairly accurate description of the role the internet ended up playing in our lives. And the same principle is valid for other technology types. Which, after the hype-related and bubble bursting-related dust settled, ended up validating the idea that they are here to stay.

As a conclusion and attempt at articulating the lesson that has been mentioned previously: ignore technology-related game-changers by dismissing them as fads at your own peril. But at the same time, try not to leave common sense at the door once the hype phase (quasi-inevitably) kicks in. 

A fair value proposition, wouldn’t you agree?

About Saw.com

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