Emoji Domains Are The Future (Maybe)

There was a time when merely uttering "WWW." caused investor eyeballs to blink dollar signs. Now, that excitement seems long gone. The digital space is near fully colonised. The .coms have been bought. Our grandparents are now on Facebook. If there's a market to monetise, it's been monetized.

Well, not so fast. A small group of professionals are actively working to give the URL business another life with emoji domains. They are inexpensive (starting at $US4.99), catchy, and importantly - still available. Yes, that's right - if you want❤️.ws, it's yours for the taking.

If you want to use that emoji URL, though, there are still a few hurdles to clear. Many browsers don't support emoji, .com, .net, .org and all the other top level domains are legally prohibited from hosting them, and using an emoji keyboard isn't always easy.

Nevertheless, some believe that the market could really take off. "To me, this is truly new," domain name investor Page Howe told Gizmodo. Back in the day, Howe famously sold seniors.com for $US1.7 million. Now he sees new opportunity in emojis, calling them "the world's language." We all use the same emoji keyboard after all.

"From a marketing perspective, there's just so much more you can convey in feelings as opposed to refinanceyourmorgage.com," he added. (So far, from Budweiser's ❤️.ws to Warby Parker's ????.ws, brands' emoji domains are pretty straightforward.)

Howe predicts repeating emoji domains - "doubles and triples" - to do particularly well for their ease and visual impact. "Once you're over your keyboard and hitting it once, it isn't that hard to hit it one, two, three times. 'Clap.Clap.Clap.'," he said, for when "you're really trying to give emphasis." Like with all emoji domains, actually finding them requires a fair amount of dedication from the average user, scrolling through hundreds of other emojis. But Howe may be on to something. As of the date of this publishing, one through seven piles of poop .ws have been purchased. (Eight remains available.)

Origins, trials and errors

Emoji domains haven't always been very accessible, which may explain the slow growth of the industry. The first emoji domains - ♨️.com (xn - j6h.com), ♨️.net (xn - j6h.net), ☮️.com (xn - v4h.com), ♂️.com (xn - g5h.com) - were registered on April 19th, 2001, a purchase that at the time might have resembled conceptual art. Smart phones and their emoji keyboards did not yet exist, and browsers did not support the domains so there was no way to see an actual emoji in a URL bar.

To purchase and use an emoji domain, users had to rely on what's called punycode -- an encoding process that creates the domain and looks like that crazy set of letters and numbers above starting with (xn -- ). The technology and history behind why that weird URL exists gets a little complicated (read about it in detail here), but the short version is that a browser can recognise that this ugly string of numbers correlates to specific emoji domain even if it can't render the emoji.

Fast forward to 2018 and these support issues still hinder emoji URL growth. While it's undoubtedly much easier to use emojis on phones now that they are a default keyboard option (no more downloading special apps to manage special emoji keyboards), most platforms still don't render the URLs. Twitter and iMessage don't recognise the URLs. Facebook and Gmail turn emojis into pictures. HTML5 supports emoji, as does Apple's Safari browser - emoji URLs look like emoji - but Chrome and Firefox only display the punycode. Watching i❤️domains.ws show up as https://xn - i-7iq.ws/ is a bit of a let down.

These issues are part of what prompted the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) - the governing body for top level domains (gTLDs) such as .com, .net, .org (and all other named extensions) - to prohibit the use of about 8,000 characters including emoji URLs back in 2008, and why in 2017 its stance has not changed. (They incorporate the policy into their contracts with TLD registrars to make the recommendation legally binding.)

ICANN's other, larger concern, ties to phishing - the attempt to gain access to user names, passwords and banking information, often for malicious purposes. Emoji can be easily mistaken for one another, which increases the risk to the user of following URLs intended to mislead.

Take, for example, the emoji characters. There are over 1,500 emojis currently available on the iPhone, many of which look similar, and some look screwy when rendered by different platforms. Of those, there are 111 character emojis in various skin tones. The ease in which a user could be mislead is extremely high. The difference between woman and princess, for instance, is only the crown. Worse, though, is the example of the United States Flag emoji and the United States Outlying Islands Flag which are actually identical images, but different emoji. (Each emoji has a unique unicode - a programming standard that gives each character its own ID.) On some platforms, UM will be displayed for the Outlying Islands flag, but on most there's literally no way to visually tell them apart.

While ICANN makes policy for all generic top level domains, it can only recommend policy to the Country Code Name Services Organisation (CCNSO). Ultimately, country domains (known as ccTLDs) set their own policy and though most have adopted ICANN's policies some have not-- leaving the door open for emoji domains. "It's like the difference between network television and cable TV," Howe said referring to the trade off between broad distribution to freedom to experiment. "You can do more on cable than the networks"

Currently, .ws (Western Samoa) is the most established ccTDL supporting emoji, but .LA (Laos), .AI (Anguilla), and .TO (Tonga), also work in the field. On January 24, .FM (the Federated States of Micronesia), which hosts such high profile domains as Southwest.fm and CarrieUnderwood.fm, announced it will enter the emoji market as well. (The domains are now available for purchase.)

Growing pains

The reason emoji domains have a life beyond niche domain nerdery of the past has to do with the URL ecosystem and the work of one man, Jon Roig. Roig is a GoDaddy developer, who for a GoDaddy hackathon in October 2016 developed the first emoji search engine, i❤️domains.ws. No more dealing with punycode - this engine recognises the actual emoji. "Emoji domains existed. Ways to register them existed. I was the first one to marry them together in this overnight hackathon project," he told Gizmodo. (Earlier this year, he released a second search engine, Weird One Character Domain Superstore, a collection of aftermarket domains which he claims are "is deepest level you can go" with emoji.)

Since that time, Roig claims his site has sold 25,000 emoji domains, a number he believes many of the newer generic name registrars (introduced in 2015) would find enviable. Naturally, those selling emoji domains see a lot of potential. George Bundy, CEO of BRS Media (the .FM registry), cited consumer adoption as the number one reason for the company to enter the field. "Even my mother (78) is using emojis," he said. Roig echoed Bundy's statement over the phone, rattling off the statistic that in 2017 2.3 trillion messages contained emoji. When reached for comment, Imad Kawar, President of Global Domains International (the .ws registry) reported more than 20,000 emoji domains sold in a little over a year - a number he attributes almost solely to Roig.

In fact, the growth of emoji domains has been so substantial that on May 26, 2017, the ICANN Security and Stability Advisory Committee (SSAC) produced a detailed report on emoji domains outlining their specific security concerns. When I spoke to ICANN's VP of DNS Industry Engagement Cyrus Namazi to see if anything had changed since then, though, he was blunt: "I don't foresee the use of emoji becoming mainstream any time in the near future."

Neither Namazi nor the SSAC have a specific answer to Roig and his wife Jill's response to the SSAC's paper, which discusses the possibility of whitelisting certain emojis, though he did suggest that the mainstreaming of emoji URLs was not going to happen without an agreed upon list of accepted emoji. "These things take time," he said.

Big dreams and dead links

Fred Benenson, weird domain collector and author of the books Emoji Dick [for which I wrote the introduction, full disclosure] and How to Speak Emoji, wasn't optimistic about the future market for emoji domains. "They're funny jokes if you're doing something creative with them, but when was the last time you actually had to remember a domain name? You can just google." In addition to http://⛄️.tk/, and ❤️️.ws, Benenson owns catastrophic.furniture, Flaccid.pink, and human.engineering - mostly, he says, for his own amusement. "My personal theory is that domains are like a proto-cryptocurrency," Benenson explained. As he sees it, the URL gold rush of the '90s occurred because there was a perceived scarcity of good URLs. "There was a lot of money to be made in speculation of that digital asset in the late '90s when everyone thought that was the only thing that mattered. There is a long tail of people who still believe that."

Howe would be in that long tail, but there's no shortage of emoji URL sceptics either. Timo Reitnauer, a self-described domain nerd and co-founder of iwantmyname.com, seemed similarly sceptical, and told Gizmodo that the lack of stability in operating systems made emoji domains a gamble in expensive marketing campaigns. "Nothing says 'buy this product' like a string of characters that make no sense."

Solving the stability issues Reitnauer and others have cited may be complicated. "It's a bit of a chicken and egg problem," said Mark Davis, the co-founder and president of the Unicode consortium. According to Davis, those that have the power to narrow the set of accepted emoji characters - browsers, cc registries and ICANN -- would do so if emoji URLs became popular, but it's the need for those conditions that prevents going mainstream in the first place. "I suspect the key is browser vendors and cc registries: if people were able to sway them to improve emoji support - and those URLs proved popular (a necessary condition) - the rest would follow."

Even early adopters like Howe acknowledge we're not at that point yet. When asked whether emoji search engine optimization (SEO) could be achieved, he explained that typing an emoji URL into Google doesn't always bring back the website. "Every emoji has a code [unicode] but it also has a short name. So, if you typed a pizza in the search box, it's just like you're searching for pizza." (He predicted that spending $US100 in Google AdWords on footballpizza.ws and $US100 on the emoji equivalent for the purposes of assessing emoji URL appeal would still bring back better results for footballpizza.ws.)

A more straightforward means of evaluating the market, according to Howe, would be if current holders of emoji domains were declining offers in the tens of thousands of dollars because they were so associated with their brand. But if the linked domains on Roig's site are any indication, that's not happening. Many lead to dead or changed links.

When asked what conclusions could be drawn from these dead links, Howe's explanation was simple: "We imagine potential success happening much faster than it actually does." We're all guilty of that, he says, himself included, so it's important to keep expectations in check. "People inside the industry are still having this 'oh wow' moment," he said, "so I think we'll still have that [high turnover] for another couple of years."

Paddy Johnson is the founding editor Art F City and a writer based in New York.

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