ICANN Destroys Main Street Dot Com

Jul 13, 2011

Can you guess what the most common street name is in the U.S.A.? It’s not main street. It’s Second street. When you think about it, that makes sense. Some towns have a main street, and then the next street over is Second. Some towns have a First street. Some towns have Division street. Park street is the second most popular street name, but Second Street is the most popular. But it is only the most popular because every town also has a main thoroughfare, and the other streets branch off from there. Even though the most popular street in America is Second, that would not be true if there was not some central location toward which all of the other streets pointed.

[Image credit: Kjell Jøran Hansen]

The Internet has its own street names, as well. Dot Com is main street. It’s Madison avenue. At the turn of the millenium, when we all got jobs working at Web sites, we called those companies Dot Coms, even if their real address ended in .net. Dot Net is a fine destination, itself. It’s like the Internet’s Avenue A, or Broadway. Dot Org is like the K Street or Tennessee Avenue of the Internet. Dot Gov, that’s like Pennsylvania Avenue, obviously.

It’s easy to remember, too. Even my parents can do it. I’m not insulting my parents. They are smart, well-educated people. But they don’t have the time or interest to remember even the short list of top-level domain names currently available. If my father wants to shop at Old Navy, that store better be located at Old Navy dot com, or else he won’t find it. And guess what, that’s exactly where it is.

Can you imagine if your town was like this? How much easier it would be to find the things you wanted? If you want to go to the movie theater, you just tell your car to take you to Cinemark street, and you are there. Want to stop at Starbucks? Head to Starbucks Street. Sure, there would also be coffee shops at Starbucks place and Starbucks drive, but those details are minor. The Post Office has never lost my mail because someone accidentally wrote Wildflower Drive, instead of Wildflower Way. Okay, almost never. It’s rare, but it does happen, in the same way that you might occasionally have to use a dot net address, or a dot org, instead of the dot com. But, as large as it seemed, the Internet was still a small town. If you happen to show up at a dot com, but the destination you actually want is a dot net, there will usually be a sign directing you on your way. Thanks for stopping by, dot net visitors, but if you’re looking for Consumer Reports, you’ll find it on dot org row, not here at dot com.

This is why I was in favor of the dot XXX domain. It would be like creating a red light district in town. It would be easier to keep your kids from visiting if you can give them a clear area that is out of bounds. It’s a place that you can easily avoid, if that’s not the sort of thing you are into. Or, if it is, you know where to find it. Take, for example, the infamous case of Whitehouse.com. For years, Whitehouse.com was an adult Web site. Whitehouse.gov was where the President lived. If we had an officially mandated .xxx domain back in the late 90s, that sort of trickery could have been avoided easily. You would know on which street to turn to find the entertainment that suits your taste.

ICANN, the organization that assigns names and numbers on the Internet, recently voted to expand the top-level domain names. Right now, there are only a handful. There are domains for each country, so .us stands for the United States, and .ly stands for Libya. But the most common domain names are the familiar .com, .net, .org, .gov and .edu. Not for long. Soon, for a large chunk of change, anyone can register any top level domain they want. So, Coca Cola’s Web site might soon be parked at Coca.Cola. If I can demonstrate a need that convinces the ICANN overlords, I might possess Philip.Berne. That’s it. No Philip.Berne.Com. Just Philip.Berne.

Will somebody please think of the parents! How am I going to explain this to them. Sorry, Dad. Old Navy is no longer located at OldNavy.com. It’s now Old.Navy. Or, if the actual U.S. Navy takes that domain, it might be OldN.Avy, or something similarly confusing. Amazon.com may become Amaz.on. SlashGear.com could be Slash.Gear.

I understand the need for some flexibility in domain names. We are running out of addresses. It seems wrong that the first people to grab “pets.com” get it as long as they can pay the bills. But, in a big way, this is no different than actual storefronts. As the saying goes, the first rule of sales is location, location, location.

Actually, it turns out that these generic noun.com names are falling out of favor. After all, Amazon did not need books.com to become a huge online book selling presence. That name still holds value, as Barnes and Noble snatched it up from its original owners. But the noun is not the only thing.

At the dawn of the Internet retail age, it seemed as though every store with a good product to sell would be successful. But at its heart, the Internet is still a small town, with a main street, different districts, and seedy back alleys. Sure, there are hundreds of millions of people living in this small town, but since none of us take up any real space, the Internet has never grown beyond its small town roots.

It’s not a city. In New York City, you can stand in a Starbucks in the East Village and see three other Starbucks nearby. On the Internet, that doesn’t happen anymore. You might have one or two strong storefronts, but the duplicates soon find themselves outdone by the competition. A city might be able to sustain four Starbucks within a few blocks of each other, but a small town cannot.

Think about news and gossip, as well. Does information spread around the Internet like it does in a city, or is it more like a small town? Definitely the latter, and that town feels like it’s getting smaller, not larger. When something of great importance or interest happens, it spreads like a flu bug in a town that eats at the same luncheon counter. Even across the world, news spreads quickly. If something important happens in South Korea or Argentina or Finland, there’s a good chance I’ll hear about it in Texas while my friends in New York City, London and Israel here the same news.

This is a good thing, I think. Humans are social creatures, meant to gather and form communities. Most of the harmful prejudices and stereotypes that we espouse can be combated most effectively with proximity. The more I know about you, and the more I feel your presence in my life, the less likely I am to dismiss you and to hate you. It is very easy to hate an idea, but hating an actual person takes more effort. When we all live in the same small town, it’s easier to realize that we all like getting a cup of coffee, shopping at Old Navy, and dodging the seedy characters leaving the .xxx district. Wait a minute, is that my father? Well, at least I know where to find him.

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