If you’ve ever wondered what the peak of capricious financial speculation looks like, a domain-names auction might be a good guess. Imagine, dear reader, sitting in a darkened Las Vegas hotel conference room with maybe a hundred people, watching numbers flash on a screen as bidders in the room compete with online bidders, whose user handles (such as “crazydot” and “youlosers”) intermittently flash on the screen. The repetitive cadence of the auctioneer’s call makes your heart race as it goes once, twice, and delivers assets like archeology.com (yes, a misspelling of archaeology) to the highest bidder for $23,000. (Someone paid three-fifths of my after-taxes income for a typo!)
That wasn’t even the highest-selling domain in the auction.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been shocked by the cold financial reality I watched unfold at this auction during NamesCon, an annual conference for the domain-names industry. Why would approximately 1,400 people voluntarily come to Las Vegas for four days to talk about domain names if there wasn’t money involved?
Before NamesCon, I thought of myself as a pretty serious domain names enthusiast. But compared to the die-hard “domainers,” I was a dilettante with my measly thirty-some domains, most of which were for one-liner joke sites, art projects, and phrases I just thought would make good domain names.
As a person who grew up online during the heyday of weird domain hacks, I mostly thought of domain names as a very niche genre of experimental poetry, one in which radical constraints (availability, brevity, the cadence of an interrupting “dot”) produce small, densely packed pockets of internet magic. They were part of what made the web weird—and, with the introduction of a range of new top-level domains (TLDs) since 2012, (1,215 and counting), I was excited about how much weirder things might become. Domain names, done right, can be as resonant as a Jenny Holzer truism or an Ed Ruscha painting, giving life and character to one-liner joke websites, standalone artworks, and political campaigns. (For newcomers to domain name poetics: use .horse for anything and it’s immediately funny. That TLD is basically the greatest thing to happen to the internet since HTML5.)