Follow the Money
Watching a dollar bill travel the world isn't quite as much fun as being with it. But for many people, it's awfully close
By JENNIFER SARANOW
Anyone who's ever been fascinated by chain letters can appreciate this: a Web site that makes it possible to track currency as it passes from stranger to stranger, building links that can stretch across the country.
WheresGeorge.com (www.wheresgeorge.com) -- which has inspired other Web sites, tracking other objects -- is simple to use. Tracking enthusiasts register dollar bills on the site and mark them with its address before spending them. The hope is that, as the bills make their rounds, people will go to the Web site and record where they came across them. Those who registered the bills, and anyone who records a find, are notified by e-mail of each new entry, and can see the entire trail by visiting the site.
For some people, it's simply a diversion, like stamp collecting, that gives them the opportunity to travel the world vicariously. For others it's something more -- a chance to connect with people, and not necessarily just in cyberspace; some trackers have taken to socializing with each other.
To observers, though, it can sometimes look downright weird. "It mystifies my wife and kids," says Christopher Koch, a 44-year-old clinical therapist from Reno, Nev., and a regular visitor to Where's George. "I mean, it's quirky to sit there and stamp bills" with the Web address, he says.
For such a quirky pastime, the site draws a remarkably large crowd: There are about 24 million bills in the Where's George database, and the site has about 1.5 million registered users.
Where's George was launched in 1998 by Hank Eskin, a Web consultant from Brookline, Mass. He got the idea after coming across a dollar bill with a chain letter, written around the border, telling him he would get good luck by repeating the message on 10 other bills.
Curious About George
"I looked at it and thought, where did that message come from and how did it get to me?" recalls Mr. Eskin, who is 38. Realizing that the serial numbers on dollar bills make it possible to trace their movements -- and looking for a project to teach him programming skills -- he put together Where's George.
There are two ways to follow the chain of a bill on Where's George, both requiring a free registration. You can dispatch a new bill into the system by marking it with the site's address and entering the bill's serial number, series (year) and denomination on the site, along with details about where you found it and spent it. If you find an already marked bill, you can go to the site and enter its identifying information, along with details about its condition and where you found it.
The site also has spawned a community of "Georgers" who exchange e-mail and have periodic meetings around the country. Angela Ailinger, a 42-year-old waitress from Forest Park, Ga., meets with other Georgers a few times a year at food courts in Atlanta-area malls, "starting off with Where's George-related topics and veering off into normal conversations," she says. Ms. Ailinger, who has registered nearly 60,000 bills on the site since May of 1999, has met more than 40 fellow Georgers in person.
She checked out the Web site when she saw it on a bill that came through her restaurant, and was hooked. She recalls thinking "it was the most wonderful site on the Web." Initially, what attracted her was just getting a "hit" -- having her bill entered by someone else. Then she became fascinated with how fast bills travel.
For others, the bills become surrogate travelers. Giuseppe "Pino" Parascandolo, who has registered nearly 70,000 bills in two years from his home in Bethlehem, Pa., has had his bills found in each of the 50 states; one was found Sept. 30 near a reservoir in Alaska.
"I wish I had been to places my bill ended up sometimes," says Mr. Parascandolo, a 22-year-old co-owner of a pizza restaurant.
The site is supported by advertising and by merchandise including soap designed like a dollar bill, bumper stickers, license-plate frames declaring "So many bills, so little time" and, of course, T-shirts. Mr. Eskin also offers $6-a-month memberships, for which users get such special features as a banner-ad-free version of the Web site and the ability to track their bills on maps.
Where's George has inspired the creation of similar bill-tracking sites, such as Paris-based EuroBillTracker (www.eurobilltracker.com), and the phenomenon has expanded to sites devoted to following the progress of other objects.
Two years ago, Rick Dietz, a free-lance Web-application developer from Bloomington, Ind., set up a site called PhotoTag (www.phototag.com) and started turning disposable cameras loose, after giving them animal names. He gave some to traveling friends, left some himself in places like New York's Times Square and sent others to strangers who contacted the site with creative requests.
Instructions printed on the cameras direct the holders to take one picture, go to PhotoTag.com and enter some observations about the circumstances of the photo, then pass the camera along to a friend or a stranger. After all 24 photos are taken, the cameras, which all travel with return postage, are supposed to be dropped in the mail. The photos will then be posted on the PhotoTag site.
There were 72 journal entries on the site as of this writing, but only three of the 36 cameras "released into the wild," as the site says, had been returned -- from upstate New York, San Francisco and Miami.
First to come home was "zebra" in August 2001. The first picture, Mr. Dietz's favorite so far, depicts the side mirror of a truck. Katey Ratz, a 24-year-old student from Milwaukee, took the photo from the vehicle's front window while traveling through the Midwest with her truck-driver father. She was one of the lucky strangers whose request for a camera was answered by Mr. Dietz.
Ms. Ratz says she left the camera at a truck stop in either Indiana or Ohio, where a waitress hesitantly let her leave it on the counter. From there, the camera somehow ended up in Fultonville, N.Y. -- most people seem to just take pictures without writing journal entries -- where the last person to use the camera wrote, "It's a great idea, much better than chain letters."
For Mr. Dietz, 30, the point of this whole exercise was just "to see what happens," along with the challenge of building and maintaining the site. "I didn't really know quite what to expect," he says. "It's not disheartening that so few [cameras] have come back. I'm just astounded that any have come back at all." Even with the meager return rate, the site's popularity is growing. It averages about 5,000 visits per month, compared with a couple of hundred monthly visits, at most, two years ago, Mr. Dietz says.
Stirred by the examples of Where's George and PhotoTag, Ron Hornbaker, the president of a Kansas City, Mo., software company, created BookCrossing.com (www.bookcrossing.com) in April 2001, so people could share books with strangers while following their progress from reader to reader.
It works like this: A user selects a book and registers it at the site, which issues a special identification number. After writing brief comments about the book on the site, the user leaves it -- with a label directing finders to the BookCrossing site -- for a new reader to find, or passes it on directly.
The most popular release as of this writing was Anita Diamant's "The Red Tent" -- 116 copies of it had been put in circulation. John Grisham's "A Painted House" wasn't far behind, at 113.
One of the top travelers -- the books with the most journal entries -- is aptly titled "Live and Learn and Pass It On," H. Jackson Brown Jr.'s little compilation of feel-good quotes from people of all ages. An autographed copy was mailed in July from Calgary, Alberta, to a fellow BookCrossing reader in Singapore. Next, it was left in the seat pocket on a plane to Australia. A couple from England picked it up on the plane.
"We discovered the book as we left an aircraft at London Heathrow," says the journal entry from the couple, Eddie and Debbie, who found it atop a seat headrest. "It looked like it had been left accidentally, but further inspection revealed its true journey!" Later entries attest that the book was still circling around England, primarily among the couple's family and friends.
BookCrossing.com counts more than 60,000 members, who have registered more than 150,000 books on the site. But only about a quarter of the books registered are reported as found, Mr. Hornbaker says. And at this writing it took only six journal entries to rank as second-most-traveled book -- one more than Mr. Brown's little book of wisdom had inspired. The leading traveler, an Italian book, had produced 16 entries.
That hasn't dimmed the enthusiasm of Nancy Duncan, a 58-year-old retiree from Bellingham, Wash. Her daughter calls her the "Good Book Fairy," because Ms. Duncan leaves books in places where they're most likely to be found by someone interested in the subject. For example, she left "Murder at Manassas: A Harrison Raines Civil War Mystery," at a park where re-enactments of Civil War battles are held.
"Some of the BookCrossers are much more interested in getting a response, while some of us just enjoy the process of labeling and releasing books, and imagining the little moments of pleasure that come to people randomly when they find a book," Ms. Duncan says.
For others, the process makes the world seem smaller. "I get a kick out of seeing one of my books traveling to some far-off country and being enjoyed by somebody I would never have met in a million years," says Steven Lenoff, a 45-year-old computer-security specialist from Huntington Beach, Calif.
And, like the Georgers, the BookCrossers are meeting each other in person. On the first Tuesday of every month, BookCrossing members hold meetings in 30 cities world-wide, with the largest gatherings in Milan, where about 60 people usually attend.
--Ms. Saranow is an editor for The Wall Street Journal Online in New York.
Write to Jennifer Saranow at email@example.com
A number of sites have sprung up that let you track an object as it makes its way around the country -- or the world. Most work off the same principle: If you want to begin tracking an object, you give it a code number (or use an existing code, like a serial number), enter that code on the site, then pass the object off to somebody else. With any luck, that person will go to the Web site and enter the code, along with his or her location, so you can track the object's progress. The drawback, of course, is that there's no obligation for anybody to go to the sites, so you won't necessarily get a complete travelogue for your item. Where's George (www.wheresgeorge.com)
How it works: Subtitled "The Great American Dollar Bill Locator," this site lets you enter the denomination, series and serial number of any U.S. bill and see who else has held it. You can then add your own comments before passing the bill along. Sometimes, users of this site write its URL on the back of bills as a prompt.
How it works: If you have a book you want to share with the world, you can register it at this site, entering your comments and getting an ID number and label. You write the ID on the label, which tells readers to visit the site, and post it on the book. Then you release the book into the world, giving it to a stranger or friend, and see where it ends up. PhotoTag (www.phototag.com)
How it works: Founder Rick Dietz released more than 30 disposable cameras into the world in September 2000, marked with instructions to take one picture and pass the camera along. Shutterbugs can go to the Web site and post comments about what they snapped. All but three cameras are still traveling around, and each comes with a unique name that can be used to track it on the site. The cameras come with return postage, so when the rolls are done, they can be sent back to Mr. Dietz, who will post the pictures on the site. He's also willing to send cameras to people interested in starting a photo chain. Geocaching (www.geocaching.com)
How it works: A high-tech treasure hunt. Little treasure boxes (called caches) containing anything from trinkets to books to DVDs are put somewhere in the world and the latitude and longitude figures are entered on the Geocaching site. People use their global-positioning system (GPS) units to find the caches, take some treasure and put in some of their own for the next person to find. For those interested in tracking the goodies they leave behind, "travel bugs," or electronic dog tags, can be purchased at the site for around $6 and attached to an object in a cache. If you don't have a GPS unit, you can try a non-tech version of the game that just relies on clues and navigational skills, Letterboxing North America (located at www.letterboxing.org). The1000journalproject (www.1000journals.com)
How it works: The project is a social experiment that follows 1,000 journals on their travels and tracks what people do with them and where they go. If you come across one of the journals in the real world, you can enter your thoughts, feelings, pictures, observations and so forth in the book, then add a sighting on the site and pass the journal along. After that, you can track the journal's movement at the site by entering the journal's ID number. Founder Brian Singer plans to scan the journals' pages online when they come back to him-only one has so far since he started the project in 2000. If you want to participate, you can join a waiting list and get one of the journals sent to you.
Updated December 9, 2002
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