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Do Domain Names Matter? - Part II

This is the second part of a 2-part series article arguing that the decentralization of the Internet will allow the DNS to recede to its earlier, uncontroversial role, before all the lawsuits and screaming matches at ICANN board meetings. To read the first part click here.

The mnemonic and the meaningful

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 convenience.

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 (http://www.xanga.com/home.aspx?user=sweetly_forgotten).

If you can click on it, it’s software

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 cut-and-paste.

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 it.

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.

Mere user customization is loosed upon the world

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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Colin Sutton  –  Aug 13, 2003 1:01 PM

Domain names don’t have to be unique. For example, if a name mapped to two different IP addresses, the DNS servers could pass a “more details” string to be used by the client to a) ask the user to choose which one and b) to compare with a cookie holding the selected choice.

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