What’s in an On-Line Name?

(This column first appeared in the July/August 1997 issue of Dive Report)

In my last column, I gave you some tips on getting hooked into the Internet, but cautioned that just picking the first (or largest) Internet Service Provider (ISP) that comes along may not always be the best solution.

One of the most important reasons to carefully consider your choice in ISPs is how it reflects on your image – both as a company and an individual – when communicating with others over the Internet (the main reason for getting on-line in the first place!). It’s likely that at least some, if not most, of the people you’ll be communicating with over the Internet will be quite experienced in Internet usage, and if they think you’re Internet illiterate, you won’t gain their necessary respect.

So, how can the ISP you choose affect your image? It’s all in the name, specifically the “domain” name the ISP uses.

Domains
In pre-Internet times, when someone wanted to contact you remotely, they would either do so via phone, FAX, or regular mail. Your phone and FAX numbers, thanks to the area code, helped identify what part of the country you were, specifically what state (or portion of a state). With a little familiarity, the three digits after the area code could indicate what city, town, or county you were in, with the remaining digits being unique to you. Similarly, with a mailing address, the person communicating with you got a sense of where you were located. Either way, your location presented an image. If you are running a dive shop, and your address indicates you might be in the middle of the desert or on top of a lake-less mountain, there might be some reluctance to deal with you on dive issues, since you don’t appear to understand that diving requires a reasonably accessible body of water nearby. (And before any of you who happen to run dive shops in the desert or on mountain tops jump all over me for my example, think about the scenario from the perspective of a potential customer who’s from out-of-state.)

Likewise, on the Internet, addresses of a specific form are used to contact people and communicate. Your Internet address therefore implies something about you. Note that there are two types of addresses we need to be concerned with here. The first is your e-mail address, and the second is that of your Web site.

We’ll be dealing with e-mail addresses in this issue’s column, and general Web issues in a future issue. In order to understand why your Internet address is important, let’s take a look at how such addresses are structured. A basic e-mail address is structured as follows:

name@organization.something

Much as a country code or area code in a phone number helps route a call to a place where it can be properly handled, an e-mail address uses text for its routing. Unlike a phone number, where the highest level of routing is initiated by the first numbers, in an e-mail address, the stuff at the end is the most important for routing.

In the above example, we have “something” at the end of the address. The something corresponds to what’s called a “top-level domain” or TLD. The most common TLDs are listed in Table 1. Note that all these TLDs are three letters, and indicate nothing about where the address physically terminates (although one might safely guess that a .gov address probably terminates in Washington D.C.).

For people who want their address to indicate where they are in the world there are two-letter TLDs available, keyed to a universal country code. This is shown in Table 2.

So, back to our first sample address. The something is a TLD. The “organization” is what’s called a second level domain, and it usually specifies an actual entity. For example, my e-mail address is jake@strokeofcolor.com. The strokeofcolor implies that my organization is called something similar (in fact, it’s Stroke of Color, Inc.), and the .com implies that Stroke of Color is a company.

That leads us to the final part of the e-mail address. You’ll note that my address and the sample share some punctuation in common, namely the period or “dot” between the second level and top level domains (some folks may even have third level domains in their addresses), and the “at” (“@”) symbol before the domain information and after the “name“. All the stuff before the “@” symbol is a local address (much like the final 4 or 5 digits of your phone number), while all the stuff after the “@” symbol is the information on how to get to the local address (much like the country code, area code, and city prefix in a phone number).

Another example, this one using the country TLDs, would be wrw@ced.nashua.nh.us, which is a guy named Walter Warren at the Center for Economic Development (CED) in Nashua, New Hampshire, in the U.S.

Simple, right?

Natural Selection
There’s a term we use in Internet speak that’s also used in diving, and that’s “newbie” – a new user or diver who doesn’t know his or her way around and either
fosters the desire in you to help or avoid them. Diving newbies can usually be identified by the fact that all their gear is brand new and it all matches – a badge of newbie-ism.

Face it, none of us wants to be a designated as a newbie, even though we might be. And, while being a newbie implies inexperience, it’s a lot easier to disguise newbie-ism on the Internet than when diving. That’s because communicating on the Internet, especially via e-mail, is just a natural extension of something we (hopefully) have been doing for some time, which is communicating via the written word, as in letters, ad copy, etc.

So, if the content of e-mail is a natural extension of what we’ve been doing all along on type writers and word processors, then all that’s left to identify us as newbies on the Internet is our e-mail address, hence all the things I’ve written about in this column so far.

Since we now understand how to break down an e-mail address, let’s look at what some sample addresses tell us:

xyz12312@aol.com This person is on America On-Line (a newbie magnet). The fact that his or her name came out as a few letters followed by a number means that the person was unable to come up with a good e-mail name for themselves, another newbie trait.
ImaDiver@compuserve.com Uses CompuServe. Implies a little more experience than an AOL user, and possibly someone who’s had an CompuServe account for a while. Could be a newbie, but may well not be.
DivingParadise@ix.netcom.com A Netcom subscriber. Since Netcom’s a real ISP, implies user is more sophisticated, but still a small shop because he doesn’t have his own domain. Also it implies a small operation, because the name refers to a company instead of an individual at a company.
FredB@divingparadise.com This person works for (or owns) a company that’s Internet-savvy, because it has its own domain name, and the e-mail address identifies an individual at that domain, meaning the company probably has more than one employee.

Okay, I’ll admit I’m biased towards the last option (even though I actually have active AOL, CompuServe, and regular ISP accounts) because it presents well  and provides immediate respect and credibility. Much as a cutsy 800 number (800-DIVERJOE, etc.) implies a commitment to toll-free service, a personalized domain implies a commitment to Internet support by your company.

Getting a domain assigned to you is something you need to work out with your ISP, since they will have to arrange to route messages addressed to your domain. Getting one of the current three letter TLDs requires a $50 annual fee payable to the InterNIC – the agency responsible for domain registrations, with the first two years paid up front. An ISP may also charge you a service fee for setting this up.

Note that proprietary ISPs, like CompuServe, AOL, Prodigy, and the Microsoft Network (MSN) can’t offer you your own domain name.

Next Issue
Since I’ve just about run out of space again, I’ll close this issue’s column with some basic rules for proper self-promotion via an e-mail address:

  • Image and perception count for an awful lot. Avoid AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy, and MSN.
  • If you aren’t quite up to getting your own domain yet, at least pick a user name that indicates who you are and who your company is (i.e. DivingParadise-John@…).
  • If you’re serious about using the Internet for communication and promotion, do it right from the start. Pick a good ISP (local is usually most responsive) and get your company’s name registered as a domain. If the domain name you chose is already in use (check at http://rs.internic.net/cgi-bin/whois, try a country domain (if you provide local service) or modifying your chosen name a little to find a unique domain name. Either way, your own domain name is great for e-mail and for the Web.

In my next column, I’ll cover using e-mail to communicate and promote, and show you some basics about using the World Wide Web. Until then, happy surfing and diving.


Top Level Domain

Use

.com For for commercial, for-profit organizations.
.edu For is for 4-year, degree granting colleges/universities (schools, libraries, and museums should register under country domains, like .us)
.gov For is for United States federal government agencies (state and local governments register should register under country domains).
.mil Reserved for the U.S. military
.net For ISPs (i.e. for network infrastructure machines and organizations).
.org For miscellaneous, usually non-profit, organizations (for use by organizations and individuals that do not clearly fit in any of the above)

Table 1. Current three letter top level domain names. Most descriptions courtesy of the InterNIC.


Country domain Country
.an Netherlands Antilles (Bonaire, Curacao, etc.)
.ca Canada
.de Germany
.it Italy
.ky Cayman Islands
.mx Mexico
.pg Papua New Guinea
.uk or .gb United Kingdom/Great Britain
.us United States

Table 2. A sample of some of the various two-letter country top level domains from around the world.