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Links: The World's Longest Abbreviation

Simon Pitt | Internet | Saturday 16th January 2010

At the end of the last part in this series about links, we had just reached the second "forward slash" and were about to move on to "www": everyone's favourite beginning to a website. Only "www" doesn't really mean anything. You don't even need to use it! Try typing imagedissectors.com/article/53 into your address bar and you'll find yourself right back here again. Your browser will automatically add "http://" in front of imagedissectors.com, but it won't have bothered with the www.

I say "www" doesn't mean anything, obviously it does mean something: it's "short for" the "world wide web". Of course, as Douglas Adams once quipped "The World Wide Web is the only thing I know of whose shortened form takes three times longer to say than what it's short for."

Rumour has it that Tim Bernes-Lee stuck with "www" despite opposition because it would be more memorable. Indeed, people still argue about how your meant to say it. Several different ways have been suggested, including "dub dub dub", "wuh wuh wuh" (by Stephen Fry in his Podgrammes), "double-u cubed" and even "wibble". Most creatively of all some wag suggested that if there are "three double u's", you might as well just say "six u's" and get it over with in one go.

The reason we have to say "www" at all is because of the long-standing practice of naming things after what they are. The folder on a web server that holds pages for the world wide web is usually called "www". The one that host that holds File Transfer Protocol data is usually called "ftp" and so on. Technically, there's no need for this. Indeed, the first ever website was called nxoc01.cern.ch, and even now websites sometimes use something different, just to be weird. The webpage for the penguin-dance-fest Happy Feet, for example, is: http://www2.warnerbros.com/happyfeet/. So there we have it, probably the most famous acronym of recent years and it's just an aribitary name for a folder on a webserver somewhere.

This part of the URI is called "the domain". It is the bit used for identifying the actual site. In my original example:

http://www.imagedissectors.com

The domain is:

www.imagedissectors.com

Technically a domain is just an IP address. For example:

http://74.125.43.147/

will load up

http://www.google.co.uk

When you start talking about IP addresses and Domains people tend to get quite confused. "Those are technical words", they wail, covering their ears with their hands, "I don't want to hear about them." Consequently, when trying to explain these to idiots, techie people often say that the system works like a phone book for the Internet. The computer takes the hideous phone-number-like IP addresses (74.125.43.147) and turns it into a memorable word (www.google.co.uk).

Incidentally, you may be wondering why I used Google as the example above and not Image Dissectors, like I did for all the other examples. Image Dissectors is hosted by a company called servage.net (which you'll know if you've ever looked us up on Internet-spy-tool whois.net). Servage (or 77.232.66.126 if you find a string of random numbers easier to remember than a word) host a variety of websites, and use a system called virtual web hosting where one IP address refers to multiple domains. The IP for Image Dissectors is technically 92.61.150.192 but if you go there you'll find an empty pile of nothing.

Technically for all of these examples I should be using www.example.com (or 208.77.188.166 - I'll stop doing this in a minute, I promise). Example.com (and its cousins example.net and example.org) were reserved by the Internet Engineering Task Force when the Internet was made built for use in documentation and examples just like this. But I'm not using them because they're boring.

Now, back to the domain. The domain name is split into several parts, each part divided by a dot. Tim Bernes-Lee has said that he regrets the use of dots to split the address and wishes he had used slashes. Under this scheme, the web address to this page would become:

http://com/imagedissectors/www/article/53

But he didn't, so that address above is just a load of codswallop that won't take you anywhere.

What it does show you, though, is that "com" is the first part of the domain name. It's what's called a top level domain (if you're interested, and there's almost no reason why you should be, Wikipedia has a complete list of top level domains). More specifically "com" is a Generic Top-Level Domain, as opposed to a Country Code Top Level Domain. Com doesn't refer to a particular country and anyone in any country can register a .com address.

The BBC recently had an article looking at countries that had benefited unexpectedly from their country codes. The Pacific Ocean island of Tuvalu, for example, found they were onto a winner when people realised its country level domain was .tv. Since separating from Serbia, Montenegro has done well too with the domain name .me. Perfect for your home page. Elsewhere, some clever spark is offering free ".co.nr" web addresses. He simply bought the Nauruvian address http://co.nr, and then provides free sub domains of that address. Similarly someone in Holland has bought the Tokelauian address .tk and is giving away subdomains for free.

If I wanted to, I could provide subdomains of imagedissectors.com although I'm not sure who would want

http://youraddresshere.imagedissectors.com

(Incidentally, the domain youraddresshere.com belongs to Warwick Winthrop-Atkins, a family owned company that runs www.warwickpublishing.com)

Famously, in Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris's trend-mocking-idiot-bashing-sit-com Nathan Barley, the titular character owned the website trashbat.co.ck. He pronounced this "dot cock" and always explained that he had "registered it in the Cook Islands".

While trasbat.co.ck does exist, the Cook Islands take great care with their domain names. Applications for "naughty" websites (such as mybig.co.ck or suckmy.co.ck) will be rejected and the authorities monitor .co.ck domains on a daily basis to check for rudeness.

The Cook Islands aren't the only country to have a problematic Country Code Top Level Domain. The Niuans have the (slightly less severe) problem that their domain name, .nu means "nude" in French or Portuguese. The blandness of that domain doesn't stop people flocking to it though.

Elsewhere, the Libyans are making a pretty penny by flogging ".ly" to all the people who want adverbs for domain names (such as www.certain.ly or quick.ly).

Again, Wikipedia offers a more complete (but also more boring) list of country code top level domains that people are using to play words games with their web addresses.

Technically, this sort of creative domain name is a domain hack. Perhaps the most famous of these (and also one of the first) was del.icio.us which registered the domain "icio" in America, and then created a subdomain called del to make their web address: del.icio.us

To be continued. In the next part of this series, we take a further look at domain names, and consider how to take advantage of misspellings for profit and pleasure.

SP



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