Where's George Is Not Made Of Money

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A little more than five years ago, Pam made the 200-mile train trip north from Springfield, Illinois to Chicago. She packed the normal supplies one would need for an extended multi-day jaunt — a camera, purse, suitcase, blanket, and pillow — as well as more than a few single dollar bills, each marked by her personalized rubber stamp, which she also brought. Once in Chicago she got off the regional train and waited.

Soon enough, she found a few of her friends, and not long after that, a train from San Francisco pulled into Union Station, which carried even more acquaintances. The small entourage quickly transformed into a gaggle of excited people, all of whom were waiting for the Lake Shore Limited to arrive. The train's destination was Boston, but it had dozens of stops in the interim — from Indiana to Ohio all the way through upstate New York. Many more fellow cohorts would be parked at these stations, either to join the trip or just to say hello. All together, in Chicago, these friends boarded the train, about to commence a quasi-convention of interests.

On paper her name is Pam. She lives in southern Illinois, and works in customer service. Those in this group, however, know her as "Wheat Penny," a vociferous and prolific online presence. She is a member of Where's George, a website with the core function of tracking individual dollar bills via their serial numbers. Enter a bill's number, see where it's been — or if you're the first to enter it, eventually see where it pops up next. Repeat.

Pam has spent years finding, tracking and dispersing individual US bills using the website. In fact, she's the second most active member of Illinois' Where's George community and she's consistently listed in the top 40 for the entire United States.

 Phillip DiBello

This trip was organized for Where's George community members by Where's George community members. A meet and greet, if you will. People started in California and made the trek all the way east to Boston, with multiple stops en route. People got on, people got off, some waited in stations to chat with the members on the train. The tying bind was Where's George, and the intention was to get to know people they had before only known through text-filled forums. 

During that weeklong period they would often all go to the dining car, set up a hot spot on someone's cell phone, and then start entering bills together. Whenever the train entered a new zip-code, someone would yell to the others, giving them notice that they have a new submission point on their nationwide Where's George nexus of entries.

You've likely seen Where's George before; Millions of dollar bills currently in circulation wear ink beseeching the finder to go online and log its serial number. From there you can see where this bill once was, and if you sign up for an account, you can track where it goes from there. Though many who discover a stamped bill never make it to the site, others have spent years stalking all of their dollars, tallying how many are found by others and how far they travel. All the while, they've spent this time online talking with each other, making friends, forming a community.

Though a seemingly niche online experience, Where's George's roots run deep, stretching back before the dot com crash. In fact, well before the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and even Myspace, there was Where's George.

At its peak, the site saw hundreds of thousands of hits everyday. That number has decreased a bit, but it continues to garner nationwide interest. To date, there is roughly $1.4 billion logged in Where's George's bill database.

The website's barebones aesthetic — one which looks like it hasn't been updated in nigh 20 years — gives the impression that it's a niche destination for only the most diehard currency fanatics. But before there were platforms, back when the Internet's social culture was a more stratified experience, Where's George was one of the most longstanding online communities that gained real under-the-radar traction.

And then social media came along.

 Phillip DiBello

Where's George began in 1998, the brainchild of a Boston-based systems consultant named Hank Eskin. Eskin got the idea while at lunch when was handed a dollar bill and saw a chain letter-like message scrawled on it. It said something like, "Write this message on ten other dollar bills and good luck will come to you soon," he says.

At first this annoyed him. Chain letters have long ravaged the American psyche. First, in their physical form where people were beseeched to send the same message in a pyramid scheme fashion to others. With the introduction of office technology, chain fax messages entered the fray. Finally, with the advent of easily accessible email web platforms à la Hotmail or Yahoo, chain letters once again flooded in inboxes, promising such awful fates as death and, even worse, a life without sex. This is all to say that when Eskin saw this chain dollar he wasn't entirely amused.

But this sentiment quickly changed when he realized that dollars had something that other chain letters do not: serial numbers. Chain letters exist solely to be passed on — their origin or endpoint nebulous by design. Disseminating something with a serial number is different; It's to understand the scope of where it's been. "You could track this object by serial number much like you do UPS packages," Eskin thought over lunch that day. And so he decided to see if he could actually make this into a thing, a website that would have people enter in dollar bills' serial numbers and then see who else entered in the same bills.

Over the course of many months, Eskin built Where's George. Back in 1998, the Internet was just beginning to take hold. A little under half the population was wired into the web, according to the Pew Research Center, and companies like AOL and Yahoo were the ones leading the early Internet brigade. Those who were online, however, sure liked it and had a voracious appetite for new content.

 Phillip DiBello

During the late '90s people were still trying to figure out exactly what the Internet was. Surprisingly, people weren't sure what to make of their computer's sudden ability to connect with millions of other computers. Email was the most obvious application — note the 1997 Seinfeld episode entitled "The Junk Mail" where Newman admits his fear that email could make the the USPS obsolete — but smaller-scale sites were also providing other means for connection. AOL offered a slew of chatrooms and forums; while personal blog platforms like Geocities and Angelfire gave people a platform to express themselves.. All the while, writes Pew, mainstream press about the Internet told of a tale of web users reaching new and new levels of isolation. The early Internet offered much of what we enjoy today — to chat with others, to build an identity, to delve into the unknown — just not necessarily all in the same place.

At the end of 1998 Eskin launched his website and it soon gained a modest following. "I sort of created this hobby of currency tracking online," he says. Its popularity over the first year grew thanks to the grassroots nature of the bills' dissemination. Eskin stamped bills, people saw them and began entering bills too. He also sold stamps so people could mark their own bills to be tracked.

Like most nascent Internet communities at the time, Where's George took two compelling qualities of the web — something to do and a place to talk about it — and put them in the same place. Users could log on to the site and spend hours looking at dollar bills, entering their numbers, and waiting and watching for them to show up elsewhere. And while they waited, Eskin gave them forums to talk about their dollar bills. The users didn't have to be alone.

A year after Eskin launched, news outlets began to pick up on the pastime. Wired News first published a piece1 on Where's George in August. USA Today followed suit, putting it on the front page of its Money section. This, says Eskin, was the Big Bang of Where's George. By October the New York Times reported that already more than $5 million worth of currency had been entered into the website.

This was only the beginning, and Eskin could see the writing on the wall. In 2000 he quit his job as a full-time systems consultant and decided to do this whole Where's George website thing as a profession. As he saw it, the site was gaining in popularity and ad sales were doing quite well. Not only that, but as interest increased so did demand for stamps, which he was selling directly from the site. With those two revenue streams he was able to make a real income — enough to easily justify quitting his job.

Eskin gave his two weeks notice in the spring of 2000. The following week he received a call from the Secret Service asking him to come to their office. It turns out the Federal Reserve was not pleased that Eskin was running a website that actively encouraged and facilitated the physical defacement of dollar bills. Section 475 of the US Code directly prohibits this. The Secret Service asked Eskin to stop selling the stamps immediately, and he had no choice but to do so. With one revenue stream busted he decided to go full speed ahead with web advertisements. Two weeks later, the dot com crash happened, hobbling his ad revenue.

Without a full-time job and only Where's George, Eskin continued. "2000 and 2001 were very lean years," he says.

While Eskin struggled with money, people glommed onto the website, and a unique online culture began to form: the culture of George. People who tracked dollar bills called themselves "Georgers." Trading bills among each other was called "Georging." People celebrated their "Georgeaversary" and labeled the more ambitious Georgers "Georgeaholics." Pretty much any activity involving the website had some word that involved with the site's name.

From 2001 through 2008 Georging's popularity continued to accelerate. In 2001, 15.2 million bills had been added to the website; that rose to 142 million by 2008. Eventually, those not associated with Eskin began selling their own stamps, which meant that users could buy stamps without the fear of legal ramifications on Where's George's end. Eskin maintained an income by using a freemium model, which had power users pay a fee, $8 per month, to become a Friend Of George. Friends of George enjoy an ad-free browsing experience, weekly reports on their bills and expanded bill search features. With the expanded set of capabilities, interest began to swell.

The numbers are impressive. According to Eskin, at its peak — between 2007 and 2008 — Where's George saw about 300,000 pageviews every day and over 9 million hits per month. And every month average of 45,000 new users registered accounts on Where's George, although neither of these metrics can properly account for repeat users. Quantcast tells a similar story. According to its historical data, Where's George was seeing upwards of 275,000 pageviews everyday.

 Phillip DiBello

What drew people in, believes Eskin, was how unique the program is — how it created a new hobby, one that's both solitary and social. "You sit at home, you enter bills in the website, you stamp them, and spend them," he says. It differs from solo hobbies like stamp collecting because of its dynamic nature, You wait for strangers in the ether to happen upon your bills and react. Georging is a pastime wrought with anticipation. All the same, the communal aspect is what made many Georgers stay.

Take Jan, a 67-year-old retiree living in St. Louis and an avid Georger. (Georgers know her by birth name thanks to her eponymous username "Jan.") She's the organizer and host for one of the biggest running Where's George events in the country. It's not uncommon for members in close proximity to get together to talk shop. In fact, many regions have annual or semiannual gatherings which consist of getting a meal, trading bills, and then going on your merry way. The St. Louis gathering — which Jan organizes with a cohort of other Georging committee members — is anything but that. "We wanted to offer them more," she says.

It's true, her event is more than just a meet and greet. One year, attendees were welcomed into her house, which was transformed into a Vegas Casino. Another gathering was a carnival. Once she facilitated a lengthy wine and beer tasting menu for all attendees to try. For her, the point of the St. Louis gathering is to bring together Georgers and have a good time. And maybe, if people want, they can talk about Georging too.

The St. Louis gathering sees more than 70 attendees from all over the country each year. The event has been an annual happening for well over ten years now, and takes months of planning. When it first started it was seen as a way to bring together the disparate members of this online community. Now it's become more of a reunion.

Jan remembers looking at her first bill back in 2001. "I didn't really quite understand it," she admits. But something about it intrigued her to pursue it further. Maybe it was the first time another user entered a bill of hers, known as a "hit." Or maybe it was the friendly, welcoming community. Whatever it was led her to a 15-year hobby, and she has never regretted becoming a Georger. Entering her first bill was the beginning of "so many friends and so much fun."

The feeling is mutual for other Georgers, like Gary, who goes by "Wattsburg Gary," an ode to his hometown in Pennsylvania. He is the number one Georger in the history of the website; a known legend to the avid members of the community. He found his first bill in 2002, and a year later was consumed by the hobby. "I have a tendency to get carried away with things I enjoy," he says. And so the pastime of entering a few dollars a day turned into thousands. At his peak, Gary was entering upwards of 35,000 bills a week, thanks to the small business he owned. To date, he's propagated more than $2.2 million worth of US currency. As Jan put it, Gary worked on a different level than pretty much everyone else on the website.

Perhaps the initial allure of Georging came from its solitary, wait-and-see nature, but it likely had to do with a certain kind of unbridled passion. This enthusiasm is certainly intrinsic to Gary's love of the site, Which bordered on addiction. "I had George real bad," he says, "it was not uncommon to spend six, eight hours a day entering bills."

While the actual process of Georging lured people in, it's the community that kept them coming back. As Gary puts it, Where's George is a social pastime "inside the Georging community." That is, if you get the bug and start tracking thousands of bills every month, you're going to find a large online group of other like-minded Georgers excited to share about it too.

In that way, Where's George was a proto-social network. Hundreds of thousands of members would flock to the forums and talk about the bills they found. Often they would discuss things that transcended currency. Members of the forums saw pictures of others' children graduating. They would say happy birthday to each other. The Georgers turned to the website to play out their hobby and then found themselves sharing their lives with fellow Georgers.

 Phillip DiBello

For most, this was their first online social activity of any sort. At the turn of the millennium social media was in its infancy. Facebook and Twitter had yet to launch. Indeed, up until 2005, the most popular ways to connect were through now-defunct or dated sites like Friendster and MySpace, instant messaging services like AIM and individualized forums or chat functions like IRC. Where's George was definitely in the latter category, but maintained impressive momentum long after the Web 1.0 wave crashed.

Where's George attracted a certain demographic of early Internet adopters who didn't quite know what to do with this new technology. Many of the most prolific Georgers are now in their 50s or 60s and have been using the site for more than a decade. For some, this was the first time they used the Internet for a non-email function. "Mainly, I used [The Internet] for email," Pam, known as Wheat Penny, wrote in a follow-up email. "The new realm of the 'Internet' was a bit scary."

And then came the new era of social networking. The rise of social media as we know it today took its toll on the old web. Microblogging platforms, like Twitter, became more commonplace, and web users were more frequently turning to platforms like Facebook to connect with others. But in 2008, Where's George was at its peak, bringing in millions of pageviews every month and thousands of signups every day. For an independent website run by one man on his lonesome, this made it more than a full-time job.

2008 was also the year Facebook began to really extend its reach. In 2005 — when the site catered solely to college students — it boasted 5.5 million monthly active users. While it's truly impossible to make accurate user comparisons between Facebook and Where's George, here are some helpful figures: According to the Wayback Machine, in 2005 Where's George reported 2.8 million registered users who had entered more than one bill, and 10.2 million non-users who had done the same. In 2006, those numbers rose to 3.1 million and 12.1 million, respectively. In one year alone Where's George had gained more than 2.4 million new users who came to the site and entered a bill.

That growth, however, pales in comparison to the Facebook behemoth. By 2008, the Zuckerberg-founded platform had eclipsed the money tracking site more than tenfold, reporting 100 million reported monthly active users by year's end. This, says Eskin, was the start of the Where's George decline. Beginning at the end of 2009, growth began to taper off. And the culprit, in his eyes, seemed pretty obvious; "If you look at a graph of social media and smartphone apps, it's inverse to my growth since then," he says.

Over the last five years, Where's George participation has gone down — as much as 20 percent Eskin says. Fewer people are going to the website, the forums have seen a decrease in involvement, and fewer George'd bills are found in the wild.

The reasons are myriad, and perhaps obvious. While those inside the community have made it into a robust destination of like minds, Where's George's intent was never to be a main Internet hotspot. From its inception the point was to create a new hobby and the quiet popularity was a pleasant after-effect.

In 2007 Facebook opened its API, transforming it from a standalone social website to a platform. Developers were able to feed their products directly into the Facebook ecosystem, which allowed for huge Facebook app hits like Farmville and Words With Friends — the beginning of a tectonic shift in online social media structures. Digital properties now wanted to provide an encompassing online experience that melded both real and digital. And people took to these changes, using products like Facebook and Twitter as not only a way to communicate but also share and play and do just about everything online.

Eskin, meanwhile, was putting one foot in front of the other just to keep Where's George afloat. He maintained its nearly dozen servers, kept the code up to date, moderated all of the forums, and anything else that was flung his way. He didn't have a grand plan for an illustrious web-changing future; he just wanted to sustain a healthy nation of Georgers. With every technological advance that arose, Eskin was constrained within the parameters of his day-to-day; "I'm a one man show… I can't just say to my staff, figure out this Facebook thing."

The Georgers have noticed the decline. Though they have a myriad of theories as to why their community is getting a little quieter. There are forum threads on the site wondering if truckers using EZPass has anything to do with the lack of stamped circulation. There are other potential culprits too. Most obvious is that physical cash is being used less and less frequently. "People are using more plastic," says Gary. "They're using their phone now… You can have your phone and just wave it in front of the screen, and it automatically deducts from your PayPal or any of those other money sites." It's true that quite a few studies show that fewer people nowadays are carrying cash. Gary goes on, "I don't know if the site as a whole is entering as many bills as it used, but I don't think it is."

This observation could be a self-fulling prophecy. If people are entering fewer bills, it may not necessarily be because the rise of plastic but the decrease in user activity. According to data from the Federal Reserve, a dollar bill generally stays in circulation around five years. Where's George's decline began about seven years ago, thus the amount of marked bills in the wild is likely seeing a steep decline. In short, be it Facebook, credit cards, or currency circulation, the problem is undeniably dynamic.

 Phillip DiBello

Everyone generally seems to be in agreement, however, about the overall phenomenon that's at work. "Now it's all kind of ramped down since Facebook took over," says Pam. Jan adds to this: "When Where's George [first begun] there wasn't any Facebook, Twitter, blah blah blah… We used 'the forums' as how we now use Facebook."

This is to say, that the website provided a social outlet similar to writing a status update. Georgers were parallel to Facebook friends. But once these new programs took hold, Georging's social aspect became redundant.

To add to this, many of the most die-hard Georgers around are no longer actively Georging. Gary, for instance, hasn't entered a bill in three years. In 2002 he set out to be number one and spent thousands of hours making that so. He's now at a comfortable place on the leaderboard where it's doubtful anyone will ever be able to eclipse his dollar-entering triumphs. And he's subsequently found another hobby: Xbox. Now a retiree in his late 60s, he spends upwards of 8 hours a day playing video games, much to his wife's chagrin.

Jan hasn't entered as many bills as she did in her heyday. "She does a little bit," says Eskin, "but she's not really into it like some people are really into it." Georging for a lot of these people has become more of a social thing than an everyday hobby. Jan and her committee still meet to set up the gathering, and they are still expecting the attendance they had years past, but it nowadays functions more as a reunion rather than a convention.

Eskin quit his job due to the needs of the site; he built everything and watched the site flourish. But it only grew at the scale a one-person company could and the Where's George project never broadened its scope. Eskin didn't have a crack team of developers to build new products. And as web cultures evolved, he had trouble adapting.

Perhaps Eskin could have used the Facebook API to design a site-specific Where's George app. Or maybe he could have rethought the forums to make for a more immersive experience that transcended the 'forum' experience. Jan recounts finding the website confusing from the get-go and yearning for an easier navigability, but the site's interface has largely remained unchanged. Part of Where's George charm is its HTML simplicity. Eskin did make an iPhone app at the dawn of the App Store, as well as an Android one a few years later. Hindsight is always 20/20, but it's not even clear what changes would have made for a better future. "It probably wouldn't have made much of a difference in the long run," admits Eskin.

All the same, Where's George is anything but dead. Gary may be on his Xbox but he is still keeping a watchful eye over his traveling currency. Jan and Pam are still actively planning the next St. Louis gathering in August. And Eskin still keeps it going, attending some gatherings. He has other unrelated business ventures in which he's also involved, and he has a few ideas about how to reinvigorate the Where's George ferver, though it likely won't reach its previous heights.

While it's unlikely that Pam will go on another Amtrak trip — there were quite a few in the late '00s, but there hasn't been one for years — she still loves the Where's George community. There she met her best friends and to this day will drive hundreds of miles to see them.

When you talk to Eskin you can sense a tinge of sadness when you bring up the current state of Where's George. He started the project on a whim and it dominoed into a full-blown digital pastime. He has spent 17 years trying to keep his George life separate from his personal life, yet when he goes to a gathering he's seen by many as an almost holy figure. Imagine meeting the person responsible for not only founding your hobby's online community, but also inventing the very hobby itself. When Eskin first came to the St. Louis gathering some 12 years ago, Georgers were abuzz of his arrival. "They thought he was God," says Jan. "They had to come to meet the almighty Hank."

This isn't how he views himself. Eskin is an East Coast man who started a fun website, and now, almost a decade later, is figuring out his next project. "I'm not quite like an Elon Musk or a Jeff Bezos," he jokes.

Where's George is still fully functional. You can still enter a bill. But the chances of it popping up again? Well, maybe don't put money on it.

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Unlike Where's George, the original story has been lost to the entropy of the Internet.

<p>Cale Guthrie Weissman is a Brooklyn-based reporter. He writes about technology, culture, and anything else that strikes his fancy. Other areas of interest include coffee, seltzer, pretzels, and banh mi (not necessarily in that order). You can find his work in <a href="http://www.atlasobscura.com/" target="_blank">Atlas Obscura</a>, <a href="http://thesweethome.com/" target="_blank">The Sweethome</a>, <a href="http://www.dailydot.com/" target="_blank">The Daily Dot</a>, <a href="http://www.businessinsider.com/" target="_blank">Business Insider</a>, and other places too.</p>

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