'Dot-com,' the Most Ubiquitous Suffix on the Internet, Was Almost ... 'Dot-cor'

How three dozen computer scientists decided the three letters we see every day
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None of it was inevitable. (Shutterstock/Tom Wang)

If things had gone just a little bit differently -- if different people had been in the room, if a conversation had taken a different tangent, if a butterfly had fluttered its wings at just a slightly different rate -- you might be reading this story on TheAtlantic.cor.

Yes, dot-cor. As in "corporate."

In a fantastic piece for the newly dotcom-ified Washington Post, Monica Hesse takes a look at the origins of the top-level domain: .com, .gov, and other URL-appendages that have become so familiar as to be almost invisible. It was 28 years ago that the first .com domain was registered -- by Symbolics, Inc., a computer manufacturer that had spun off from MIT's AI Lab. But in those early days of the World Wide Web, it seems, nobody was quite sure of how far-reaching, and enduring, their decisions would be when it came to the structure that would organize the Internet. Dot-com -- which now appends the names of some 100 million websites -- came about, Hesse writes, "almost by happenstance."

Many of those early discussions of what the web would look like, says Craig Partridge, a scientist involved in the talks, took place "not in formal meetings but in casual memos or hallway conversations." The Internet, of course, was initially used largely by academics -- and, at first, Partridge and his fellow scientists thought that the top-level domains should simply reflect the various academic institutions involved in the network. By that logic, Hesse notes, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology would be found at .mit, Harvard would be found at .harvard, and so on. Eventually, however, a discussion group led by USC's Jon Postel concluded that broad classifications would make more sense than narrower ones. "What mattered about MIT," in other words, "was that it was a university."

Which led to another decision: What do you call the categories? Dot-edu was fairly obvious; but what about, say, commercial interests? What about businesses that might want to sell their wares on the web? 

"Originally it was going to be .cor, for corporate," Partridge, now a chief scientist at Raytheon, tells Hesse. That idea, however, was scrapped for reasons that, nearly three decades later, Partridge can't quite remember. Finally, in the mid-1980s, a meeting was held. The few dozen participants were supposed to decide on the top-level domain names -- and the ones they ultimately established during that confab included a group that you could, quite literally, count on both hands. ("It was definitely no more than 10," Partridge says.) The list included dot-edu, dot-net, dot-org, and -- in a hat-tip to the early Internet -- dot-ARPA. It also included, yep, dot-com. "Commercial," in another win for breadth, had defeated "corporate" as the defining descriptor of the World Wide Web.

Not that it mattered much, at the time, to the guys who made the decision -- guys who weren't sure how much use their long-discussed domain names would get. This group of pioneering information scientists had no idea that, nearly three decades later, their decision would become a daily reality for millions of people around the world, no idea that their little butterfly would result in approximately 100 million flutterings. Because back then, Partridge explains, "it wasn't clear that people were ever going to be on the Internet."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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