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<nettime> Do domain names matter?
Francis on Sun, 3 Aug 2003 20:25:07 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Do domain names matter?

Hi all --

Not sure if this essay, which I just put up on my website, will read as 
complete hogwash or blatheringly obvious. At any rate, comments would 
be greatly appreciated.
(Below is the text version of the essay. See 
http://fhwang.net/writing/do_domain_names_matter.html for the HTML 
version, complete with links.)

July 25, 2003

Is it just me, or are we paying less attention to the Domain Name 
System than we used to? Seems like only a few years ago that the 
tech-culture world was attuned to every new angle in the ongoing 
struggle over the DNS' management. You couldn't read the front page of 
Slashdot without catching one heavily commented-upon story on alternate 
registries, trademark disputes, or the latest ICANN board meeting.

But today? Hardly a peep. Not because the problems have magically 
solved themselves: The MPAA, for example, just sent a cease-and-desist 
letter to a blogger with the domain name www.ratednc-17.com. But a 
story like this won't draw the same attention it would have before. And 
by the way, what ever happened to those new top-level domains, like 
.biz, .info, and .name? Some of those are two years old and wide open 
for business—homesteads desperate for homesteaders.

This could be simply a temporary development. If the economy picks up 
we might see an uptick in the number of dot-coms suing hapless 
webmasters, and our outrage might rise accordingly. Or maybe we've just 
been exceptionally distracted of late: ICANN pales in comparison to the 
new crop of acronyms—MPAA, RIAA, DMCA, TIA, USA PATRIOT—menacing us 

But perhaps these trends obscure a deeper shift. At the beginning of 
the boom, the vast quantity of people and organizations online 
outstripped our ability to find them, and we pressed the DNS into 
service to help fill that gap. But this usage of the centralized, 
permanent DNS conflicted with the common-sense methods that people use 
to name things in their everyday lives, and as the internet continues 
to decentralize this dissonance only grows stronger. The conflict is 
being alleviated not by technical or political reform at the center of 
the network, but by innovation at its edges. As end-user applications 
mature, they increasingly allow individuals to develop and share their 
own naming systems—not to destroy the DNS, but to render it irrelevant.

The reasons that the DNS started to crumble under the pressure of 
commercialization have already been well documented. Writing in 1998, 
Ted Byfield noted that the DNS was never designed for that pressure in 
the first place:

    DNS was built around the structurally conservative assumptions of a 
particular social stratum: government agencies, the military, 
universities, and their hybrid organizations—in other words, 
hierarchical institutions subject to little or no competition. These 
assumptions were built into DNS in theory, and they guide domain-name 
policy in practice to this day—even though the commercialization of the 
Net has turned many if not most of these assumptions upside down.

One of the assumptions Byfield is referring to is the notion that name 
collisions could be greatly reduced by dividing the namespace into 
top-level domains and trusting that everybody would calmly accept their 
place in that hierarchy. But as domain names became associated with 
trademarks, common usage flattened these tidy divisions into one 
undifferentiated sprawl. Corporations saw the web as one more front in 
the battle for marketing and public relations—like television, only 
with a keyboard—and accordingly they didn't care much for quaint rules 
written by computer scientists. So when, say, Archie Comics sued a 
California man for registering veronica.org in honor of his daughter, 
arguments that the .org TLD didn't belong to companies fell on deaf 
ears. (Online protest eventually succeeded where quoting RFCs had 
failed, although today veronica.org redirects to SamsDirect.)

Many reformers aimed for a political solution, appealing to ICANN to 
keep the DNS safe for bit players. They felt that in kowtowing to the 
corporations, ICANN was bastardizing the simplicity of the system that 
Jon Postel had managed until handing it off in 1998. (When the final 
draft proposal for ICANN was finished, Wired called Postel "the 
Internet's own Obi-Wan Kenobi"—a phrase that would attain an eerie 
resonance with the Slashdot crowd when Postel passed away a month later 
and ICANN revealed itself to be a bit of an Evil Empire.)

But would even a perfectly managed DNS have functioned in accordance 
with its earlier hierarchical vision? The hierarchy made sense to the 
users of the early internet, but the noisier commercialized internet 
would have fit much less comfortably into such a scheme. Even if you 
could've assigned every person, place, and thing its proper slot, most 
people would not have bothered to learn what went where.

Take, for example, the .museum TLD, which has been open since 2001. 
Most prominent museums have avoided using this TLD; the Whitney, the 
Guggenheim, and the Museum of Modern Art all place their primary domain 
names under .org. Conceptually, .museum muddies the waters because it's 
not mutually exclusive with .org. And when it comes to marketing, 
.museum is a disaster since it only serves to distract the user—who 
ever heard of a six-letter TLD?—without making her life any easier.

Or to take a more high-profile example, look at the recent lawsuit that 
forced the World Wrestling Federation to change its name to World 
Wrestling Entertainment. The World Wildlife Fund had sued the 
Federation for breaking the terms of a 1994 contract dictating who 
could use the initials WWF, in what media, and how prominently. Now, 
strictly speaking this wasn't solely an issue of domain names. The 
Fund's spokeswoman attributed the suit to an "explosion" of the 
acronym's use in three media: online, satellite TV, and cable TV. But 
one of the major grievances in the Fund's suit was the Federation's 
registration of the domain name www.wwf.com in 1997.

According to the neighborly rules of the pre-boom internet, this should 
not have been a problem: The Federation got wwf.com and the Fund got 
wwf.org. This solution works if you care about those tidy hierarchical 
divisions. Most people don't. This is one of the reasons that the new 
TLDs have been so underwhelming: People don't see the world as cleanly 
divided into discrete categories, with the corporations in this corner 
and the non-profits in that corner. It's all one namespace to them.

Mutually exclusive hierarchies are convenient, but they only work on a 
small group of items. Once that group gets too big and diverse—a comic 
book artist here, an airplane-parts manufacturer there—any hierarchy 
that might reasonably hold that group becomes too cumbersome for people 
to use. When people want to organize large groups of items they often 
find it easier to use overlapping sets instead. That's why filesystems 
have symlinks. That's why many of Apple's OS X programs, such as iTunes 
and Address Book, let you drag-and-drop your MP3s or contacts into as 
many groups as you want. Why bother fretting over whether you should 
put Christine from work in your Friends group or your Coworkers group? 
Put her in both and get on with your life.

A hierarchical, precise DNS is a perfect system for computers. Human 
beings, however, prefer to rely on systems that make use of their own 
technical strengths, such as the ability to adapt their language to the 
preconceptions of your audience, and the ability to adapt their own 
conception of the world to accommodate new knowledge. Common sense, in 
other words. If, in the days when World Wrestling Entertainment was 
still a federation, you used the initials WWF in a conversation, 
chances are your listener would be able to figure out which one you 
were referring to. Humans do this by drawing on the context of the 
conversation to make the correct match. Are you talking about panda 
bears, or Stone Cold Steve Austin?

In real life, people have almost no problem resolving name collisions—a 
good thing, considering how often they happen. There are two types of 
Dove bars you can buy in a supermarket: One is chocolate and the other 
is soap. There are three famous Dres in hip-hop: Dr. Dre of NWA, Dre of 
Outkast, and Dre of Dre and Ed Lover. Hip-hop fans know how to tell 
them apart.

It happens on a personal level, too. In my freshman year of college, my 
dorm floor had four Mikes and four Daves. We resolved these name 
collisions by settling on nicknames for everybody: Big Dave, Sophomore 
Dave, Asshole Dave, etc. People who lived outside our floor didn't know 
who was who, but they didn't need that system anyway. We did, and it 
worked fine for us.

What we didn't do, however, was make use of last names, even though 
they offer a more global, permanent method of differentiation. Last 
names were less memorable to us than the jokey, college-guy 
associations we could invent on our own. Clay Shirky wrote that the 
aims of the DNS are to be memorable, global, and non-political. "Pick 
two", he said, but in fact most of the time people only care about the 
first: As long as names are memorable, people don't mind that they're 
local and highly subjective. Techies are an exception, since they spend 
much of their time crafting language for machines, and as such are 
accustomed to treating language as a brittle, precise tool. But most 
people like their language loose and contextual, thank you very much, 
and the hierarchies of the DNS demanded a rigor that never seemed worth 
the trouble to them.

Another source of pressure on the DNS was the system's shifting role 
from one that was primarily mnemonic to one that was meaningful as 
well. The difference is subtle, but important. Consider the phrase 
"Every good boy deserves fudge", which music students sometimes learn 
to help them memorize what notes correspond to the lines of the treble 
clef. The phrase is helpful, but its content—boys deserving fudge—has 
nothing to do with music. It's mnemonic, but not meaningful.

The two can co-exist, and originally the DNS was a mix of both. A 
domain name like gandalf.cs.columbia.edu could give you important 
information—namely, that this domain is administered by somebody in 
Columbia's computer science department—but then, what does this domain 
do? Is it a mail server? A MUD? Knowing that somebody in Columbia's CS 
department likes Lord of the Rings is almost redundant.

Originally the purpose of a domain name was to be an address that was 
easier to remember than an IP address. This changed during the boom, as 
users and companies developed the notion that the function of a domain 
names was to serve as a self-explanatory pointer to a discrete 
real-life entity—a writer, perhaps, or a corporation or a museum or a 
hacker's collective. Of course, this was never fully realized, and it 
made little sense if you weren't swinging for the big leagues of global 
name recognition. If your site was niche enough that you could make use 
of an odd URL like http://c2.com/cgi/wiki (the first wiki, hosted on 
Ward Cunningham's web server), then those awful domain name disputes 
were somebody else's problem.

Today, internet services are becoming cheaper, more specialized, and 
easier to use, with the result that every day more people and 
organizations create a persistent online presence. And as the internet 
takes shape as—to borrow David Weinberger's phrase—small pieces loosely 
joined, the use of the DNS as a meaningful system is in further decline.

In the commercial world, companies ranging from small retailers to 
leading credit card providers use third-party services to manage online 
bill payment or e-commerce checkout. In doing so, they happily give up 
part or all of their domain-name branding in exchange for technical 

Among individuals, of course, the most significant relevant trend is 
blogging. By some estimates there are already more than a million 
bloggers, and Lord only knows what those numbers will be like after AOL 
rolls out its blogging product later this year. Many of these bloggers 
don't have their own domain names. Instead, they're contained in 
subdomains (http://jwz.livejournal.com/), directories 
(http://weblogs.mozillazine.org/hyatt/), and CGI arguments 

The meaningful DNS simply can't cope with a world of, say, 10 million 
bloggers, but luckily we have other ways to make sense of the internet. 
In the last five years, we've gained a number of powerful navigational 
tools, and these allow the DNS to pull back to a less high-profile 
role. The most obvious example is Google, which has done more than any 
other dot-com to make it easy to find your way around the internet.

But Google is still a centralized service, and as such there are limits 
to how much it can help. There is more promise at the edges of the 
network, where end-user software makes it easier for individuals to 
name, remember, and share URLs. Some preliminary examples:

     * Subscribe to a blog's feed in your RSS aggregator and you might 
never have to type that blog's URL again.
     * Blogging tools decrease the amount of manual work that bloggers 
have to do to pass links along. The beta version of Google's browser 
toolbar even has a BlogThis button.
     * Apple's web browser Safari integrates with its Address Book to 
automatically bookmark the websites of your contacts.
* Almost all email clients and chat clients will automatically turn 
URLs into clickable links, relieving you of the need to even 

None of these innovations are groundbreaking. But taken together they 
add up to an environment where users delegate to computers the dirty 
work of handling URLs. Consider, for perspective, this 1999 article by 
usability author Joe Clark:

    A long URL works poorly in stationery, in articles in the print 
medium, and in advertising (e.g., on TV, with its low resolution and 
the short time a URL can be shown, or on radio, where it must be read 
out loud), and is a usability disaster in one-to-one conversations. 
(That's conversations, as in voice, as in getting together or talking 
on the phone.)

Today, this is still sensible advice if you're the webmaster for a 
Fortune 500 company or a popular dot-com. But for an increasing number 
of people, keeping URLs short isn't as important as it used to be. To 
take myself as an example: I'm relatively tech-savvy, and I create some 
sort of online content for a small, tech-savvy audience, so a short URL 
is much less important to me than it was only four years ago.

Stationery? I write in my Handspring Visor more than I write on paper. 
Print articles? My site isn't mass-market enough, and my target 
audience probably reads most of its news online anyhow. Television 
advertising? I'd love to have that problem.

And what about communicating a URL through speech? Personally, I find 
that this happens much less often than it used to. Maybe somebody will 
speak a URL out loud if she's referring to an easy domain name like 
half.com. But just as often she'll offer to email you that link, or IM 

A URL can be both text and a software component. You can write it out 
longhand, but if you put it in an email client or a chat client, it's 
as much a software function as the Undo command: Click on it, and your 
computer responds. It's functionality that can be serialized into text 
if that makes it easier to transmit. And if you and your social circle 
are never far from computers with persistent broadband connections, 
then it's simpler to treat that URL as functionality rather than text: 
Rather than spell it out over the phone, email it or IM it.

Not that you should go making your URLs 400 characters long now. 
Shorter URLs are still better, or else why would we have those services 
that let you create a short URL to redirect to a longer URL of your 
choice? Notice, however, that the main purpose of these services is to 
facilitate the machine transfer of URLs, since some email clients get 
confused when handling a long URL.

In fact, many of these services making the URL itself less meaningful, 
since they don't let you choose which key to assign to your long URL. 
Is http://tinyurl.com/6a2 a map to your friend's party? That PDA your 
girlfriend is considering buying? The CIA World Factbook's entry on 
Afghanistan? These short URLs—and, of course, the domain names they 
contain—tell you absolutely nothing about what they point to. You'll 
have to rely on context to figure that out. Your friend writes you an 
email, says "Here's that restaurant where we're meeting for dinner on 
Thursday," and includes a short URL below. The URL itself means 
nothing. It takes its entire meaning from the conversation it's 
imbedded in.

If the DNS is fading in importance, it won't be a surprise to 
everybody. Byfield, for one, wrote that "DNS's level of abstraction is 
sinking relative to its surroundings." A year later, in 1999, Jakob 
Nielsen predicted the same, and with pretty good timing to boot.

    It is likely that domain names only have 3-5 years left as a major 
way of finding sites on the Web. In the long term, it is not 
appropriate to require unique words to identify every single entity in 
the world. That's not how human language works.

Today, in 2003, this is what the future of the domain name looks like: 
For the major players, the system will remain more or less unchanged. 
There will always be a small cast of large organizations and companies 
who will have domain names with household recognition: ebay.com, 
fbi.gov, etc.

But for the rest of us, we can increasingly rely on the fact that 
software is allowing users to build their own naming systems around 
their desktops, and then sharing and cross-pollinating those systems 
within their social circle. If you use the OS X Address Book, you can 
browse through your Safari bookmarks to find the link to, say, David 
Johnson's website. Which David Johnson? The one you care about.

So as decentralization continues, we can largely ignore the frustrating 
world of the DNS and focus our efforts on other ways to make 
connections. We can work on establishing our own roles in communities 
that are intimate and deep, not broad and shallow. And we can think 
less about marketing, and get back to just communicating. 

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