Quick: guess where I am right now?
There’s a constant throng milling about the shuttle buses ferrying an assortment of geeks from hotel to hotel. You can’t get a cab during peak periods. You can barely squeeze your way into the hottest panels and meetings. The real dirt -- and real business -- is happening over drinks at the Spanish-themed bars which seem to blossom like weeds everywhere.
Go to your room if you guessed Austin and SXSW Interactive. Free ice cream on me if you guessed ICANN 43 -- the not-for-geeks-only-anymore-confab in the excruciatingly perfect weather of San Jose, Costa Rica.
There’s a solid argument to be made that this was the conference to be at this Spring as the sun poises to rise on what could be the most fundamental remaking of the interwebs since, well, the birth of the commercial Web in the early 90s.
I’m talking about the coming new gTLDs. It might not roll trippingly off our tongues yet, but my guess is you will get used to thinking about them, talking about them, and sooner or later, doing something about them for your brand or your business. Or your organization or your product, or your passion or your profession, or your hobby or even your city or town.
The reason this ICANN conference was a must attend for anyone with a stake in the future shape of the connected world is that ICANN is currently accepting applications from a mix of global stakeholders who want to own a little string of very powerful characters to the right of the dot –- the place where we currently expect to see “.com” much of the time.
When the application window closes on April 12, ICANN will batch, log and then -– on May 1 –- announce and publish the submitted applications for a global audience to puzzle over and parse. May 1 is already circled in bold red for many brands, organizations, VC guys, government officials -- and of course, all manner of players from the deeply arcane, sometimes opaque, but massively critical world of domain registries, registrars and registrants.
As I walk the halls here at the bustling, week-long ICANN geek cum entrepreneur fete I am struck by the intensity of the buzz and conjecture, the degree and type of increasingly creative and desperate deal-making and partnering going on here amongst the dazzling palms and insanely friendly Costa Ricans.
What’s at stake is a very simple but profound thing: names.
The names of spaces -- very particular and potentially important spaces. Spaces which, in our utterly connected world, could end up becoming the glue which connects us to the things, people and stuff that matter and have meaning in our lives -– both virtual and real, as though there remains any true remaining difference.
The potential impact of this restructuring of digital domains could become one of the essential new organizing principles for our connected lives. It could likely change the way we discover and find things when using search. It might alter the expectation we have for what we will find and where we will go after the click -– or more likely, the tap or the swipe. It has the potential to enhance the ultimate architectures of our connected experiences, whether we enter into those experiences through our laptops, our TVs, our tablets, our smartphones or the increasing number of connected devices across the Internet that is now truly everywhere.
The names we give the spaces we care about spending time are important. These new spaces and the names we give them are likely to become like our social flags planted and waving back at us and those like us across the great amorphous Web. Flags which signal where we are and who were are with and what we do.
As I navigate the sea of surprisingly hipster-ish ICANN conferees I am picking up incessant chatter about which “strings” (that’s the magical names to the right of the dot) have the best chance of first making it through to winning ICANN approval of their application and then, more intriguingly, which have the best shot at becoming the first blockbuster gTLD .
The buzz seems to be tipping things like .Apple (“no-brainer, 10 million names, automatic”), .Law (“picture it, all the lawyers, in one place, just in case we ever want to …” you complete the thought), and many people’s early favorite .Music -- whose backers suggest “if you’re serious about music, we’ve got your new home address”.
Home. That’s a special name for a space in any language. I begin to imagine the evolving world of our connected lives becoming more organically organized around these “homes” –- with all the promise of safety, familiarity, comfort and control we associate with spaces called “home”.
Might we begin to organize out affinities and our lives around these new names to the right of the dot which label and group the things that matter to us -- our businesses, our charities, our brands, our churches, our music and our art, our families and our cultural clans?
If the energy and critical mass gathering here in Costa Rica this week is an accurate harbinger, here’s the wakeup call to all of us in the business of brand building and storytelling: what we call things matters.
It’s been almost five years since brands spent a lot of time, effort and money trying to get consumers to visit our “home pages.” Mercifully we finally realized that people don’t want to visit or spend time hanging out at a brand’s home. But they do like to spend time in connected places that do feel like a sort of “home” for them. Show of hands: how many reading this have their Facebook tab open and have checked it for a little jolt of comfort and familiarity at least once in the past 15 minutes?
So here’s the puzzle for us to solve for, my fellow brand owners and marketers -- where is the proper space for a brand in this emerging world of connected places?... Places and spaces connected, identified, organized, and managed within the simplest and most powerful of things: a name.
One industry heavyweight here told me "we expect 1,800 total applications, of which 1,200 would be unique strings, and 75% or 900 of them, would be brand TLDs.” And that’s just round one. Once the dust settles and we witness what changes are wrought by this first tranche, sometime in the next 3 or 4 years we can expect another wave –- generation –- of new names for connected spaces on the Web.
The great experiment with this restructuring of the Web will commence sometime around this time next year. When that starts to unfold I will think back to the geeks, entrepreneurs and technocrats rubbing shoulders and losing tablets down here in Costa Rica in this spring of 2012. Perhaps too cockily, I will wonder why so many of us chose instead rainy Austin with its tired parade of social mobile apps, when the world of spaces and the names we call them was wending on its unstoppable course here in Cost Rica -- toward, just maybe, changing things forever.