When it comes to self-expression, the Internet seems like a glorious free-for-all. There are endless ways to stake out a free piece of this territory, from getting a WordPress blog to posting pictures on Flickr.
But some people don’t just see the Internet as a playground for creative types. Some people depend on the Internet for their livelihoods.
Student entrepreneurs already know the feeling. If current business trends continue, many of us will work for online businesses after graduation. According to The Wall Street Journal, American e-commerce sales grew about 13 percent in 2010 and growth is expected to continue through 2015.
Those who want to monetize their time online might be coming up against a wall: increased segmentation based on domain names.
A new domain name extension for pornographic websites — predictably, .xxx — will be available to all takers starting early December. Though this development might not seem to affect anyone other than budding pornographers, domain name extensions on the basis of business type is a harmful new trend for online businesses.
Online businesses must resist division into arbitrary neighborhoods. Such divisions help neither consumers nor businesses.
It’s getting more and more difficult to label what a business does. Take Urban Outfitters, a store popular among many college students. Most people would call it a clothing retailer, but it also sells coasters and books with titles like Crafting With Cat Hair.
Some stores completely defy categories. Quaxelrod.com sells merchandise based on jokes from Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s parody Twitter account. How do you put a label on something like that?
Labels in the form of domain names would simply narrow consumers’ perceptions of what they’re buying without providing them the benefit of accurate information.
A business with a specialized domain name extension would find it harder to reach out to new kinds of customers; moreover, businesses choosing to keep .com domains would likely lose out on customers looking for something specific. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Still, many people like the idea of making it harder for pornographic websites to reach customers who aren’t looking for that kind of excitement. But pornography is notoriously hard to define. One person’s smut is another person’s masterpiece. Even nudity isn’t a reliable metric: Many famous paintings depict the naked human body in great detail, whereas some pornographic material includes no nudity at all.
More importantly, pornography is a business just like any other. Though no website is forced to adopt the .xxx domain, pornographic websites will be pressured into changing their addresses.
The responsibility to avoid pornographic material must lie with individuals, not with companies. Tired of running into offensive websites? There is plenty of software designed to find pornographic material so one can block it on a case-by-case basis. The software approach has the benefit of allowing people to define pornography for themselves.
To some extent, the Internet is already divided into neighborhoods. Browsers can reasonably expect a .org site to house a nonprofit, a .edu site to house a college and a .gov site to house a department of the federal government. Many countries even have their own domain name extensions — Brits shopping at Urban Outfitters use the .co.uk version of the site.
But the neighborhoods described above are based on clear, widely recognized categories. Law defines nonprofits and educational institutions; international borders define countries.
Clothing and pornography, though? There are as many definitions as there are people. Online businesses should embrace the variety by sticking to a three-letter domain name that makes no judgments: .com.
Maya Itah is a senior majoring in communication. Her column “From Behind the Screen” runs Thursdays.