Social Squatting and the Case for Decentralized Identity

Listening to TWiT yesterday, I started wondering again whether domain names are really the best way to identity resources on the web. Just as I griped that salsita.com is unavailable but totally empty, Leo Laporte complained that leo.com is parked and yet he can't get his hands on it, despite being a tech celebrity with the successful business and consequent cash flow to back him up.

The conversation started when someone commented that Kevin Rose (of Digg fame) couldn't get milk.com for his new company and had to settle for mi.lk instead. (Just my luck that no country has claimed the .ta top-level domain.) The guy who owns milk.com simply isn't interested in selling. Well actually he'd probably sell for $10 million, which would make it the second most valuable domain of all time. Heaven knows, if there's one thing people like almost as much as sex, it's milk.

What struck me about the discussion was that Twitter and Facebook handles are now discussed in the same breath as domain names themselves. Leo is not just bitter that he can't have www.leo.com, he's equally bitter that he can't be twitter.com/leo or facebook.com/leo. In other words, if you're an established company or want to seem like one, you've got to go out and haggle with not one, but three separate parties in order to get all your social naming bases covered. If the future is more diversity of private services for communicating with the greater public, the problem is only going to get worse.

Now if you're Kevin Rose then you can call up your buddy Mark Zuckerberg and your other buddy the-guy-who-runs-Twitter and ask them to kick out those dirty lousy squatters so you can have cool vanity domains on their services. In a way this is a good thing since those squatters really are shockingly dirty and appallingly lousy. On the other hand, it seems a bit unfair that the well-connected would have this recourse when normal folks do not. At least the URL situation applies to everyone equally. (To be clear, this isn't a dig -- no pun intended -- at Kevin Rose, as I'd do the same thing in a heartbeat if I could.)

I still feel the market is the best way to allocate domain names. It may seem unfair that some geeky dude with a strange sense of humor has been sitting on milk.com for so long that he stills declares it a "blink-free zone", while giving the middle finger to people who could put it to much better use. But, as your parents used to tell you, life isn't fair, and it's no less irksome when someone far less intelligent, charming, good-looking and talented than you is worth a fortune because their great uncle bought a brownstone in Manhattan for $400 in the 1920's that's now worth zillions.

On the other hand, a sound principle can be taken too far, and it doesn't seem plausible that successful businesses and well-funded startups will have to engage in negotiations with an increasing number of social service squatters in addition to bidding on the domain name of their dreams. This strengthens the already compelling case for decentralized identity. After all, we never had to worry about getting a cool name for our RSS feed back when people still used RSS. We just tied it to our domain. Hopefully the same will be true of our activity streams in the future.

Matt

Matt