By Monica Hesse
The Washington Post
— Adrienne McAdory, a Washington military contractor, remembers exactly when she learned the Internet was about to get a lot bigger. She was at work, at the Pentagon in 2011, and she saw an article about a nonprofit group called ICANN, which oversees the Internet. She saw that ICANN was going to expand the number of generic top-level domain names from fewer than 20 to what ultimately became nearly 2,000 and that visiting the Web was never going to be the same again.
And she knew she wanted a piece of it.
First, some terminology. A second-level domain name is everything that comes before the dot in the Web address: Facebook. EBay. Google. These are easy to buy — if the address you want is available, you can purchase it for less than $20 with a click online. The top-level domain of a Web address is everything that comes after the dot: the .gov, the .org, the .mil. They are a foundational muscle of the Internet.
What ICANN, the California-headquartered Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, was offering was the chance to create and buy what comes after the dot. All McAdory needed was the $185,000 application fee. Which she had, because, she explains, "I'm old, and I'm frugal" (she's 42). So she worked through the lengthy application process, named her company "Atgron," and, two months ago, learned she'd had won the rights to own a domain: .wed.
McAdory was part of a land grab — something that could fundamentally change the way average users experience the Internet.
Until now, the largest expansion of top domain names occurred in 2001. That was a small endeavor: .biz, .info, .aero, etc. None of them became hugely popular. The current expansion will include about 1,900 new Web names. Over the next few months, users will be able to visit sites at .luxury, .gay, .mom and .bible, to name just a few.
Ask Brad White why this is happening — Is the Internet too crowded? — and he chuckles. "The premise of that question is that need dictates innovation," says White, the director of global media relations for ICANN, which was founded in 1998 in response to a proposal by the federal government's National Telecommunications and Information Administration. But need, White says, doesn't dictate innovation. "No one demanded Facebook" before Mark Zuckerberg introduced it. "No one demanded Twitter." Sometimes the technology is invented, and then users figure out what it's good for.
McAdory's vision: lots of engaged couples want their own wedding sites, but the addresses they want aren't available because other couples are already parked on them. Through the .wed domain, couples could purchase an inexpensive address — MarkandJessica.wed — for two years, long enough to see them married. After that, the site's cost would drastically increase, pricing the couple out, leaving the space open for a new Jessica and Mark.
From a business side, one sees why this is a big deal: competing interests scrabbling to stake out more space in the virtual world. But culturally, it also reflects the fact that the Internet is still relatively new — the equivalent of the party-line era of the telephone. What we have now doesn't begin to look like what we'll have in even 10 years. ICANN is in the final stages of application evaluations. New sites could appear as early as late September. "People," says White, "are going to sit down at their browsers and see a whole new world."
Since the mid-1990s, the experience of visiting the Internet can be encapsulated in three letters and one punctuation mark: .com. When spoken out loud: dot-com. It's the most common suffix on the Internet, representing more than 100 million websites, and it has become a stand-in for the Web as a whole. It came about almost by happenstance.
In the mid-1980s, when even computer scientists had difficulty imagining a broad use for the fledgling Internet, a cluster of information science pioneers began troubleshooting how to categorize everything.
It was a small group of people — just 30 or 40, remembers Craig Partridge, a young scientist at the time who became involved in the discussions. Many of the conversations about the future of the Internet happened not in formal meetings but in casual memos or hallway conversations.
At first, scientists thought top domain names would reflect individual institutions: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology would be found at .mit, for example, rather than at .edu. Eventually, a discussion group, led by the late Jon Postel at the University of Southern California, decided that geographic location was not as important as general classification: What mattered about MIT was that it was a university.
These decisions ultimately defined a major organizing principle of the Internet: Web sites are categorized in the broadest possible terms. If users can remember what comes before the dot, guessing what comes after it is fairly simple: If not .com, then .net; if not .net then .biz.
"Originally it was going to be .cor for corporate," instead of .com, remembers Partridge, now a chief scientist at Raytheon BBN Technologies (he helped design, among other things, how email is routed), but that idea was scrapped for reasons he can't remember. In the mid-1980s, there was a meeting to nail down the final list of top-level domain names. "Dot-com, dot-edu, dot-org," Partridge begins to tick them off. "Dot-net, dot-ARPA — and that may have been the full list. It was definitely no more than 10." It was as though only five or eight area codes were invented for the telephone.
At the time, according to Partridge, the team wasn't even sure how much use these domain names would get because, he says, "it wasn't clear that people were ever going to be on the Internet."
The first dot-com was registered on March 15, 1985, to a computer manufacturer in Cambridge, Mass. Symbolic Inc. became Symbolics.com.
Twenty-eight years later, Google has applied for dozens of the new top-level domain names — Amazon, too. The $185,000 fee is prohibitively costly for most small-business owners, exceptions such as Adrienne McAdory not withstanding.
Almost as soon as the decision was announced, doubters began to question how this was all going to work. Things like trademark issues: Who can truly own the Bible, for example? (The American Bible Society can — they're priority No. 1,114 in ICANN's randomly drawn list of submissions. In the application for .bible, the stated intention is to "Provide world-wide access to all qualified parties interested in disseminating or seeking information . . . about Bible issues.")
Others worry that the new Web will simply require too much of our brains: If we sometimes screw up whether a site is a .com or a .org, will we truly be able to remember whether it's a .book or a .church or a .music or a .party?
"The changes are going to add specificity and introduce a new search logic," says Jennie-Marie Larsen, who started a consulting firm just to help businesses figure out what to do with their new domains. And, she hopes, it will tie existing communities closer together: A few years from now, all equestrian fans of the world might unite under .horse, which has been purchased by Top Level Domain Holdings, a business created for the new market. From the application: "The purpose of the .HORSE . . . is to offer horse owners, service providers, horse industry employees and volunteers the opportunity to clearly define their presence on the Internet and to help potential customers gain access to content about horses."
One has to scroll down to prioritization No. 1,317 before one even gets to .horse. Many of the new domain names are not even in the Latin characters that make up the Internet today. This expansion represents the first time that characters of other languages will get a chance at domain names: The No. 1 prioritization has been drawn by the Vatican, or rather, by the Pontifical Council for Social Communication. It applied for a domain in Chinese characters that, when translated, mean "Catholic."
Republicans have acquired .gop — but Democrats haven't acquired .dem (it's yet unclaimed), which Larsen finds fascinating. "It was very clear with the 2008 and 2012 elections that the Obama campaign wiped the floor with them, because of his use of social media," she says. The new development "means the Democrats are out of the game; there's no chance to catch up."
This illustrates the land-grab aspect of the Internet, but it also hints at both the bigness and the smallness of online existence: an Internet so big that it takes nearly 2,000 domain names to contain it all, but one small enough that if a Chinese man visiting the Vatican fell in love with a representative from the American Bible Society while pursuing their dressage obsessions on .horse, they could announce their nuptials with a personal site on .wed.
Symbolic, the company that registered the very first .com, doesn't exist anymore. The Web site, Symbolics.com, does.
The site is now owned by a man in Texas named Aron Meystedt. His company, XF Investments, buys and sells a lot of Web addresses; acquiring Symbolics.com four years ago represented a coup — a "legitimacy piece," as he calls it — one that he'd been eyeballing for years before the opportunity arose. (No, he won't say how much it cost — there's a non-disclosure agreement in place, he says.)
"In the car industry, it's like the first Model T Ford that ever rolled off the lot," he explains on the phone. He has big plans for the URL, though he's still figuring out what those plans will be. He might, for example, do something educational with it, transforming it into an online museum honoring the history of the Web.
"It's funny, thinking about dot-com," says Ben Zimmer. Zimmer is a linguist — he's the executive producer of vocabulary.com — and he thinks a lot about the context and meaning of words. "Even though it still gets used, it's most often used to refer to the original dot-coms of the late '90s — the boom and bust. Perhaps for some time, it has had an almost nostalgic quality. It reminds you of that time."
Now, "dot-com" is almost extraneous: Every business is a dot-com because every business has an Internet presence. There is a word for when this happens, for when technology moves forward more quickly than the words used to describe it, e.g., "dialing" a phone or "tuning" a radio. Linguists jokingly call them "anachronyms."
Dot-com, both the address and the phrase, taught us how to use the Web — how to think about the Internet as both a location and a categorized virtual space. It was the training wheels for the bicycle we now comfortably ride. Does this new expansion represent the end of the training wheels? The end of the party line and the invention of . . . call waiting? The time during which the Internet became something beautiful and matrixed, or the time during which it frazzled our brains with confusion?
As for what came before:
For now, Symbolics.com hasn't yet become a museum of Web history. It's a monument to what all of the .coms before it have been: commerce on the Internet. If you go and visit the site, what you'll see is a wall of tiny advertisements (Audi, Atari, eCop), marching in rows under a banner. The banner reads: "Own a true piece of Internet history. Advertise your company on Symbolics.com."