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Musings 28 June 1999
George Chen, the hip poster child of dot-com era, was everywhere and is now nowhere to be found. Was he a victim of over-exposure or was he part of the Internet fad?

by George Mannes TheStreet.com


Who in America best typifies the Internet? America Online (AOL:NYSE) Chairman Steve Case? eBay (EBAY:Nasdaq) CEO Meg Whitman? What about Al Gore? No, no and no. The answer is The Internet Guy.

You've never heard of The Internet Guy, but chances are you've seen him. Out of the millions of people in the U.S., it's The Internet Guy (let's call him TIG) whom many online companies have chosen when they want to put a human face on their Internet businesses. With an amiable mug accented by thick-rimmed glasses and spiky hair, TIG has graced magazine ads, billboards and Web sites for everything from online music store EveryCD to comparison-shopping service CompareNet to online guide About.com (BOUT:Nasdaq) in the days after the company changed its name from MiningCo.com.

It doesn't stop there. There's TIG lounging in a chair on the Herman Miller (MLHR:NYSE) office furniture Web site. And he's holding a mike and pulling out the finger guns like a Vegas lounge singer on the Domino's Pizza site.

"He symbolizes the Internet," says Naveen Jain, CEO of InfoSpace.com (INSP:Nasdaq), the Internet content syndication company that put TIG on the cover of its recently published annual report. "He's your next-door neighbor, a young kid who's having fun with life, somebody who's comfortable with himself," Jain says. "He looks like a guy who would be surfing the Net."

And yet Jain, who personally approved TIG's picture for the annual report, has no idea that TIG is. Nor does EveryCD co-founder Pierce Ledbetter, who put TIG's image in a ubiquitous magazine ad campaign.

So who is The Internet Guy? How did his picture end up blanketing the Internet? And, ironically, why have all these disparate companies fixated on him as the one perfect example of every consumer?

Well, the art imitates the life of 26-year-old George Chen, who actually lives up to the Internet-savvy image that Jain and others attach to him. The Silicon Valley Web designer works at Third Voice Software, a cutting-edge start-up that's created technology to let people post comments on other people's Web sites. (Check out Chen's own Web site.) The Clark Kent glasses -- de rigeur eyewear for the hipster set -- paired with the scrub-brush 'do was the style he favored at the time the photos were taken. (Now his hair's still short, but he's adopted a less electrified style.)

The story of how a star was born began in the fall of 1997. Clement Mok, president of the media publishing company CMCD as well as a founder of Web software company NetObjects (NETO:Nasdaq), was the art director on a collection of stock photography called the Object Series. (Stock photos are shot to be resold to a variety of customers, not just for a single usage.) Mok was putting together a group of distinctive-looking people to photograph for the collection, like a female bodybuilder and a dreadlocked man, and he decided to include Chen, who was then a designer at NetObjects. "He looked interesting," Mok says.

A few months after the pictures were taken, they started showing up on the Web.

One explanation of Chen's popularity is not so mysterious: The price is right. A CD-ROM containing 16 different photos of Chen, as well as 104 photos of other models from the series, sells for $149 from PhotoDisc. A downloadable photo of Chen is available from the PhotoDisc site for a smaller fee (image number LSO18457). Either way, companies don't have to pay royalties for using the snaps, no matter where and how often they run. But there are plenty of other people to choose from in the Object Series. "It's certainly a surprise that he is the sole one out of the group that gets used quite a bit," says Mok.

He chalks up Chen's appeal to his funky style. "It's a little geeky, but at the same time you're not sure if it's really hip," Mok says. "It's that strange line in between."

Chen crosses other lines. Chen looks like he could listen to classical music or techno, EveryCD's Ledbetter says, which is why that company put pictures of the beatific Chen wearing headphones in ads that ran in both Rolling Stone and Opera News. Chen's Asian-ness helps convey the international flavor of the music at EveryCD and the worldwide nature of the Web. And, speaking in terms only a marketer could love, Ledbetter says Chen's relatively clean-cut but offbeat hair builds trust in online commerce. "You're not going to buy from somebody who looks too rough, but you want it to have an edge."

Chen himself is not quite sure why his image is so popular. Maybe it's his attitude. Or maybe it's his ethnicity. "It's hip to be Asian right now," he jokes.

There could be something to that, say Hemant Shah, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin and director of the school's Asian-American Studies Program. The American culture has fostered two stereotypes for Asian males: one, a person who excels in school, particularly mathematics, and two, someone who is confident and facile with technology, he says. The people who selected Chen's picture to represent their Internet companies may have had perfectly good business reasons to do it, he says, and they may not have been conscious of these stereotypes. But, he says, "this kind of image is bound to perpetuate this kind of understanding that Asians are nerds or techies."

Whatever the implications of Chen's popularity, his Web mini-celebrity hasn't changed his life, he says. He certainly isn't richer for all his newfound fame. He got a flat fee of about $500 for posing.

But maybe that will change. After getting a call from a reporter about Chen and his presence on the Web, EveryCD's Ledbetter wants to know only one thing: Chen's phone number. He doesn't care that other companies are also using Chen's image -- he's still interested. "I guarantee this call will get him some more work for us," Ledbetter says.

The rise of George Chen, just like the Internet he represents, is just beginning.



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