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Gentrifying the Web

An ad recently appeared on the New York City subway—right in one of those above-the-seat ad spots that turns even public transportation infrastructure into a passive #branding vehicle—for “the domain that never sleeps.” This “exclusively for New Yorkers” deal, as the copy announced, was for websites that end in .nyc rather than .net, .org, .limo, .diamonds, .sex, or a profusion of other possibilities opened up by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) late last year.

It appears that we’re living through the Cambrian Explosion of Internet branding. Prospective buyers can now mark their territory with just about any textual tag their hearts desire, as long as they can afford it. But when it comes to online space, we’re also seeing a remarkable attachment to the identities we’ve already created out in the physical world. The same problematic spatial politics of our urban real estate have followed us on to the Internet.

The .nyc domain is a prime example. Legally, it is only available for New York-based businesses and individuals. The virtual property is supposed to represent an analogue to the actual space of the city—and its theoretical scarcity, limited to New Yorkers even though there’s no particular limit on how tightly Web space can be occupied, is precisely what drives its demand. Buying up a .nyc domain name, the ad suggests, is like renting a Soho storefront: it might be expensive, but the cost is worth the affiliation.

If .Nyc is valuable, it is only because of this symbolism. In that sense, the city domain name is a perfect commodity, particularly because this value is all an illusion. It presents a tiny synecdoche of New York’s hyper-gentrified urban space, but it’s empty enough that a slice of it doesn’t cost too much—yet. ( sold for $35.6 million in 2010, only one of dozens of names valued in the multiple millions of dollars.)

In an earlier era of the Internet, domain names held a kind of mystical power. .Com was the mother domain, home to all things. .Net was its sleazier cousin, hosting sites that often lay dormant for months at a time or maintained Geocities-era layouts. .Org was unimpeachable, keeper of an air of civility so rare online that it inspired implicit trust. As for .Gov, were those actually the government? Did anyone even go to those sites?

That mystical power disappeared when we all discovered that anyone can purchase these domains and appropriate their self-importance for our own dumb blogs. Domain names tell us nothing about the content of sites themselves, it turns out, and everything about their owners. Like condos in Brooklyn or highly branded faux-artisanal clothing brands, they are aspirational. .Nyc is no different.

Each new domain created by ICANN has its own dramatic story, like a native land being conquered by invaders. Last November, Amazon acquired the .book domain in the only move that could have possibly made the publishing industry hate the company even more. While Amazon likely won’t keep the .book domain to itself, it will control who will be able to buy up the virtual real estate and partake of the branded assignations of the word “book.” Want to promote your debut novel? Talk to Jeff Bezos. The domain wars have gone Oedipal. We’re not far from a time when .book purchases outnumber actual new books.

.Art is the subject of similar controversy. E-flux, an arbiter of complex press releases and publisher of a similarly theoretical visual art journal, publicly threw in its lot to obtain the domain, and lobbied the art world for support. But it is only one of ten applicants, and it failed to pass an initial financing screening. Who decides what art is? Not critics, nor curators, nor gallerists. It’s whoever owns the domain name, apparently.

The turf war over domains is an unnecessary but inevitable battle. The narcissism of small differences that each minute variation on the same expensive names inspires is just a consequence of our branding-heavy culture, where identities are valued above all. No doubt,, and will net high prices for their owners at auction. But soon enough, the wide-open plains of .nyc will be filled with towering digital skyscrapers, and we locals will have to pay extravagantly just to claim a piece.

The good news, though, is that this virtual gentrification presents us with alternatives, as well. Once we’re priced out of our home cities, we can move on. .Moscow sounds cold and depressing, though. .London is expensive, too. .Berlin is always an affordable option, but I hear once a site starts up there it just tends to stall.

Sometimes the process of branding certain places has a way of eclipsing the actual places themselves—and this is a trend that localized Web domains will likely only worsen. It’s like buying the clothing label without getting the actual dress. That the domain forms a for-purchase distillation of the brand is inescapable, but it also decouples the identity of the city from its real-life inhabitants.

But then again, perhaps Manhattan is already more of a brand than a place. Personally, I’m betting on .brooklyn. Or maybe .queens, come to think of it.