Word shopping

Posted on 12/11/2011

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I’m reading “The cult of information: A neo Luddite treatise on the history of information” by Theodore Roszak. Given that it’s the first time I’ve been properly intellectually challenged since university, it’s taking me a while to get through it. It’s the book equivalent wholemeal bread – chewy but filling.

The other night I came across this passage. Speaking about the 20th Century as an “Age of information”, Roszak refers to the power of advertising and commerce in how we understand words:

In contemporary America, even a god-word does not enter the popular consciousness in a decisive way until it can somehow be bought and sold in the marketplace. Only then can it be coveted as a possession, paid for, taken home, and owned. More importantly, only then does it qualify to receive the attention of the advertisers who have the power to turn it from an interest into a want, from a want into a need. In the course of the 1950s, information had come to be identified with the secret of life. By the 1970s, it had achieved an even more exalted status. It had become a commodity—and indeed, as we have seen, “the most valuable commodity in business. Any business.

Did he not just describe Google Adwords? The mechanic described here is identical to how search advertising works- turning “interest into a want and a want into a need”. If so, that is some foresight.

In practice, words can’t really be owned. Dictionaries might regulate and define an official language, but the people who use it are the ones with the final say. Words grow and change rapidly; where as big business relies on copyright and intellectual property. It needs some clear way of distinguishing company or product X with company or product Y. When commerce meets language, things can get ugly.

The last 15 years have seen massive changes in how we buy, sell and use language. Search advertising has allowed companies to bid for specific phrases and put their stamp on them through search engines. There are some limits (another company’s trademark, for example link), but more or less anything goes.

Domain names are also a battleground. In the early days of the internet, you’d find organisations fighting against squatters who’d purchased trade names (e.g. PETA vs. Doughney),whether by accident, as a joke or to sell it on at a higher price to the licensed trademark owner. Following the initial land grab of the 90s, this has more or less stopped.

Now it looks set to start all over again with the release of new top-level domains. What’s a top-level domain? Let’s run through the different parts of a URL (or you can continue reading below). Our example domain is:

www.example.net

URL: http://www.example.net/index.html
Top-level domain name: “.net”
Second-level domain name: “example”
Host name: “www.”

So what is a domain? It’s a lot like a telephone number for business, organization, or project.

In fact, the way it works is extremely similar to how telephone numbers work. Each website has its own unique IP address. Domain names act like forwarding addresses and connect (or in geek-speak “resolve”) to the correct IP address. Words are a lot easier to remember than a string of numbers.

The best way to explain the structure of a URL (aka domain) is backwards. Firstly, on the right hand side of the domain name, you have the domain level extension or “top-level domain” (the letter combination directly after the “dot”.) Our domain name has what we call a “dot-com extension”.

There are essentially 20 of these. (http://blog.icann.org/2009/03/tld-census/) Originally, .com extensions were for commercial ventures, while .net’s were intended for Internet Service Providers and so on. Not any more – anyone can now register a domain name with these extensions.

You will also have seen country code top-level domains (ccTLDs). Again, these were originally meant for websites from these countries (.us for the US, .br for Brazil, .it for Italy, and so on). Many still are but some countries (such as Tuvalu where their ccTLD is .tv) have made a success out of selling their country code TLD.

To the left of the top-level domain are the second-level and third-level domain names. In fact, there is no limit to the number of sub domains a URL can have. In our case the second level domain name is “example”.

Additional third or fourth level domains (also called sub domains) are typically  used for admin (e.g. example.xxxx.com) or for personalization (english.example.com), such a language version of a website or your personal profile.

Finally, the www. preceding the domains is called the host name. This instructs the computer to look for this domain on the world-wide web, and not on your computer. (Try copying and pasting file:///C:/ into your internet browser – your computer will display what’s on your computer’s C:\ drive). Most web browsers are sophisticated enough to save you having to type this.

Back to top-level domains. So instead of just owning a mid level domain (your company name) you can also give yourself a category affiliation. Instead of .com or .co.uk (businesses), .gov (governmental) or .org (organisation, sometimes an NGO or charity), you can file yourself under .books or .petfood.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I’m struggling to see how it benefits the average internet user. It generates (someone) a lot of money, and it opens up new opportunities to companies who can afford to pay the $180,000 annual licence fee. About the only thing it does achieve is allowing someone to “own” a topic online like never before.

One TLD that’s continually used as an example is .books. Books are familiar little things and taken as a whole they’re generally pretty neutral. Should someone really be given complete online jurisdiction over such a word?

Words are the real estate of the internet. By selling top-level domains, they’re not just selling a small plot of online land to a company, as you would with a regular mid level domain. .books is a whole country unto itself that could be populated by millions of websites, as opposed to just one.

This is not just a label – it’s a category, a huge chunk of the internet. They own this TLD and every imaginable sub-domain (thousands if not millions of URLs).

If any one thing will save us it will be language’s tendency to change. The spoken, written and typed word is a complicated, fluid thing. Spam is far more than a tinned meat product, a domain doesn’t just mean “habitat” and tweeting is no longer restricted to birds. Google and other search operators know this and they’re the only ones that stand to benefit. Tapping into advertising by creating a market for words was a smart move.

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