A couple of people are all over it, it turns out — just no one you’ve heard of. That’s because registering an emoji domain name is actually sort of tricky. And not to get too serious here (we are, after all, talking about smilies), but it also gets at some of the little-discussed diversity and inclusion problems at the core of the Internet.
See, in ye earlie days of the Internet, URLs — the things you type into an address bar to navigate to a Web site — could only be written in Latin characters without diacritics, like the ones I’m currently typing in. Latin characters correspond, more or less, to the letters, numbers and symbols on your standard American keyboard. Which made sense, since ICANN, the body that oversees domains, grew in part out of ARPANET and in part out of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and didn’t necessarily take the needs of far-flung countries into consideration as it trundled toward a standard Web infrastructure.
By the early aughts, however, people were beginning to realize that maybe, possibly, people in China or India or Russia would like to navigate the Internet in their own language. So ICANN set about finding a standard way to make it possible for non-Latin characters to appear in domain names: things like Kanji, for instance, or Arabic script, or our friend the emoji.
Alas, by the time ICANN started thinking about this in any kind of systematic way, the basic infrastructure of the Internet and the way we navigate it was already really well established. So while ICANN did come up with a type of encoding that could map non-Latin characters in URLs to their computer-readable counterparts, and while it did eventually begin issuing top-level domains in non-Latin characters, the Latin standard was pretty entrenched. All the big players — think .com or .org — had used Latin characters forever. Introducing new stuff just opened them up to a world of difficulty and drama.
Consider two entirely different URLs, like washingtonpost.com and washingtonpost.com. See the difference? (Don’t worry, this is a trick question.)
The first URL uses the Latin character for “a.” The second URL uses the Cyrillic character. The fact that this “new” character conflicted with an old one raised some important questions for domain administrators and Web site owners: Like, how do you prevent a malicious party from pretending to be The Washington Post? How do you keep the domain system clear and intuitive for users?
The solution, in most cases, was that top-level domains refused to accept URLs with non-Latin characters, even when it became technically possible to do so. So I can’t register crying-emoji-dot-com, or divided-sign-dot-org, or any-word-in-Arabic-or-Chinese-or-what-have-you-dot-net. Those non-Latin, non-Western URLs have to be registered on the lesser known domains that are willing to accept them, like those designed for specific countries or subject matter. And each of those domains can, in turn, choose what characters it will accept: .рф is intended for URLs written in Cyrillic, for instance.
When Cabel Sasser registered what he claims was the world’s first emoji domain in 2011, he did it in Laos: poop-emoji-dot-la. (Laos is not, alas, taking emoji URLs anymore.) Subsequent emoji-ers have turned to Samoa (.ws), as the Coke campaign did, and Tokelau (.tk), a territory of New Zealand. Needless to say, there’s limited real estate on those country-level domains, and little indication that the original top-level domains, the big guys like .edu and .com and .org, are interested in taking emoji on. So, oddly, the Internet — this amazing, globalizing resource that brought us things like the emoji, to begin with — is kind of the same thing keeping us from mainstreaming them entirely.
“The Internet has given us instant access to both information and mutual communication across large distances,” the Kenyan academic Ali A. Mazrui wrote in 2009. “… However, the nerve center of the global Internet system is still located in the United States.”
And that’s too bad, especially where emoji are concerned. As a Coke executive told AdWeek, in reference to the company’s recent campaign, emoji “have become a kind of second language” to young people. Not only in Japan or Puerto Rico or the United States — but everywhere.
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