By Nacho Amadoz, Chair of ECLID – European Cultural and Linguistic Internet Domains
This past May 19th, 5 years after its sunrise, puntCAT arrived at the 50,000 domain names landmark. We know that, nowadays, 50,000 domain names may hardly be described as shocking news, and, certainly, this is not our limit, and we believe there’s still plenty of room for .cat to grow. Then, who and why should care about this number ?
Well, we do. And we think that this does not come as a surprise to anyone. Precisely so, there’s reason to look back and reflect upon our experience as a way to a different definition of success than those purely based on figures. A way that may not mean much to others, but that has plenty of meaning for the different communities that await the end of the process that has to conclude when ICANN opens the window for new applications. And, consequently, to those who believe that ICANN should care about these communities. As, fingers crossed, we are finally approaching this moment, ECLID, the European Cultural and Linguistic Top-Level Domain (TLD) working group, believes this 50,000 landmark is an opportunity to share some thoughts about .cat evolution in these 5 years, why it got here this way, and why should it matter to anyone outside .cat community. These thoughts could be useful to all those who have already announced or, will in the following months, their intention to apply for a TLD for linguistic and/or cultural communities.
Again, why care? These fifty thousand domain names do not mean a big difference to the generic Top-Level Domain (gTLD) community worldwide (understandably, given that its counts usually use millions) and although it does mean something to the communities we represent, and to all those that may be looking at us to replicate our model, why should others be interested? They do matter to .cat, as they are useful to understand what has taken to get here in order to know how to go even further. It matters to those seeking to replicate a similar model, because learning from other’s previous experiences is more helpful to reach a good performance than to go solo. And, yes, we believe it should also matter to those interested in ICANN, new actors on the Internet governance, and the DNS community in general. Because, to our understanding, the applications that want to create a cultural and linguistic TLD are of significant relevance. They are not going to make millions in profit, they will not reach every corner of the globe, and they will not bring the next billion users. But they will represent a real benefit to certain communities, helping to close the gap between their off-line reality, and its representation online. We defend the idea that, by allowing and easing the burdens on the applicants through the copy-cat basis, we enable other cultural and linguistic communities access to its own TLD, facilitating their growth on the Internet. To defend that idea, we must take a look back at the factors that have been important during .cat’s life, and even earlier, when the planning had to be done.
To do so, we have to look aside the number. A round number helps drawing attention to .cat success, but one of our mantras whenever we are asked to explain our projects is that the number of registrations is just one approach to describe a successful performance. We believe there are many other factors that help understand what does a linguistic TLD mean to its sponsoring community, and that may also help both ourselves and others understand how we got here, where are our values, and, furthermore, what could others use from our experience. Of course numbers are important. It is one of the best indicators to know how the community has responded to the idea that a cultural TLD could serve its community as a catalyst for its self-image on the Internet. But there are others that may be even more important, something we’ve increasingly realized throughout this 5-year experience. We can identify the following traits as key to understand a linguistic and cultural TLD:
Identity. Being a latecomer, usually with a more expensive wholesale price than the already established TLDs, and with more limited funds than a purely commercial enterprise, there must be a plus to motivate users to enter the TLD, or to shift from those they already have. And that can only happen when you become a closer token of their identity. .cat has become one, as those of you who have been to Barcelona in the many events that have been held there have been able to see. The use of the domain name is very present in the social life, many companies use it for advertising purposes, and its role in the public sphere has gone much further than being another TLD, becoming a symbol of this identity, making it easier to portray it online.
Consistent growth ratio. The linguistic TLDs will probably go through what .cat has experienced in these 5 years. Early one, .cat had a base of early adopters out of the supporters of the bid (businesses, civil society and individuals alike) and did only gradually reach to the rest of the community, that happened to be more reluctant to the change it means, due to its novelty. Focusing on reaching every sector of the community is more important than getting big numbers just after the sunrise, as Fundació puntCAT immediately noticed. A growth ratio that keeps its consistency after 5 years.
Balance provided by policy. These two previous aims would have not been achieved at the same time without a strong focus on policy design and enforcement. As has been said many times, the level of controversy inside the .cat space has been one of the lowest, gaining praise from its community and trademark holders alike. This balance comes from initial thorough policy provisions, that provided an excellent framework to avoid conflicts between both interests, that need not be opposed.
Presence in the limelight. Fortunately, and due to the great expectation with which the TLD was awaited, the media coverage and the attention from the trend setters was huge. The understanding that .cat was not only another TLD, but this token of identity, as we’ve said before, helped gain a space in the public sphere that projected the endeavour far beyond its reduced capacity to fund marketing campaigns. The marketing efforts, so to speak, were carried by the media, by its users, and by the buzz created by its mere existence.
Now, this is what we have seen after 5 years. And we think all the above mentioned does only come if there’s a strong willingness to engage with the community. All the groundwork the bid team has to undertake will only be successful if there is a real interest of its community, if there is an education process on why it has taken so long to get here, and what the community can do to make the future TLD a success. This constant reference to the community may appear quite obvious, if the TLD has to be created to serve specifically to serve its needs, but shouldn’t be taken for granted. The team that manages the bid has to put a vast proportion of the initial effort in engaging with the community. Much more than meets the eye. As .cat soon noticed, this is no easy task. It was not that people did not recognize the symbolic relevance of the new domain name, or couldn’t identify what it referred to (‘cat’ is the usual abbreviation in services and products to refer to Catalan). Nor was there controversy around its adoption. The problem was that it meant change. Material change, in the stationery materials, commercial image, logos, and many other branding tokens, understanding branding in a wide definition. But, above all, a psychological change that comes with the sign chosen to communicate its user’s identity to the marketplace. This change is yet another step forward towards a more truthful description of the user’s background, and a compromise with a project that they feel like his or her own. This extra mile in the engagement with the community meant the difference between an isolated experiment that may enroll circles of enthusiasts, and a success that, we can now say without a doubt, belongs to a society as a whole. Management of that engagement had to oversee many different aspects of the process. Relationships with the media, education to businesses’ associations, collaboration with the public administrations, activities to foster individuals’ participation on the bid, and afterwards, and so on. These, as well as many others, activities of engagement with the community are the only way to understand and reflect its needs in a linguistic and cultural TLD, and only if that is done appropriately, may that TLD have some reason to exist at all, not to mention be successful. If we accept the premise that success does not only come with big numbers.
By Nacho Amadoz, Chair of ECLID – European Cultural and Linguistic Internet Domains