The internet's real estate
Musings on digital identity and the billboard-ification of everything
If someone forwarded this to you, you can subscribe here or via the button below.
How much is a URL worth?
I asked myself that question a few months ago when I went about acquiring the learning.media domain and a sales exec at Afternic — a GoDaddy-owned “premiere domain marketplace” — reached out with a $6,000 price tag. I declined, and instead went with the even better understanding.media for 4% of that sum.
Though anecdotal, the process brought to light a larger yet overlooked truth: on the internet, everything is just real estate-in-waiting. Domain names. Usernames. Display names. Profile pictures. Social banners. Eye traffic is the new foot traffic, and any attention-worthy location is an asset that can and will be hoarded, speculated on, rented, and sold.
Individuals and businesses are well aware of the opportunity. On the one hand, netizens are using short bursts of exposure to catch lightning in a bottle by selling their reach for a quick buck. On the other hand, digital businesses are deliberately surfacing their own inventory, using a mix of status and fun to make it desirable — that is, monetizable.
This piece takes a close look at some of the most overt occurrences of this trend. Across all of them, what’s at play is the increasing financialization of our digital surroundings.
A few years ago, creator economy investor Li Jin tweeted something about her own "digital billboard."
The feature in question was powered by Koji, a company building link-in-bio infrastructure that lets creators engage and monetize their following.
Link-in-bio tools aren't new — Linktree, which pioneered this space and has remained one its most prominent players, launched in 2016. Dozens more followed in its footsteps, as the task of managing a social presence across platforms made the need for a centralized repository more pressing for creators. With investor interest growing, many of these ended up attracting substantial funding over the years.
In an increasingly crowded space, Koji stood out. Whereas competitors only offered a handful of features — typically direct links, ecommerce capabilities, and tipping —, Koji took on building a fully-fledged ecosystem, rich with dozens of apps from third-party developers. This offering lets users compose a profile unique to them, using building blocks that couldn't be found elsewhere including video requests, mini-games, or... a billboard.
This particular add-on makes ad units available to be purchased by anyone who wants to display and advertise something on a creator's profile, via their own image or video. Each time the space is purchased, the price of the billboard increases. The creator is free to set their preferred starting price; how long a billboard is owned before the next buyer can come in and pay up; and the percentage increase kicking in with each new purchase.
From one-off branded posts to partner programs on digital platforms like YouTube, ads have long been a pillar of the creator economy. The reason why Koji's digital billboard feature was transformative is that anyone with a big enough audience could now sell their reach to the highest bidder. No tweet, no Instagram post, no hashtag, no tagging any brand: the space was evergreen and readily available for anyone to tap without the owner's involvement, divorcing work from reach. This made it a novel potential revenue stream for millions of people who have amassed substantial reach yet do not consider themselves influencers and would have never thought of openly looking for brand sponsors.
There are other examples. In February last year, Double Down's Magdalena Kala auctioned off her Twitter presence, with the promise that the winner would be able to "pick whatever image they want: a brand logo, favorite NFT, meme, love declaration, job posting, personal ad," and have it displayed on Kala's profile picture and banner for three weeks. The auction resulted in 0.477 ETH (or about $1,550 at the time) being sent to charity. A few months later, Nick Pappageorge sold "exclusive design rights to the shirtspace worn by [him] during the 2022 TCS NYC Marathon."
Dynamic personal billboards, manually traded Twitter banners, and "shirtspace" all represent new inventory that is opening up to monetization at the individual's level. Interestingly, in all these instances, even the buyers were individuals, not brands. I see this as an early signal of a truly peer-to-peer marketplace, one in which individuals can opportunistically tap into one another's reach to promote their skills, sell their products, and advance their careers.
The present and future of social plugs
Since we’re talking about opportunism… Let me tell you the story of social plugs.
Not so long ago, when one of their tweets went viral, people would try to plug their Soundcloud or whatever else they had to promote. In most instances, however, the author proved desperately unprepared to make the most of the opportunity — to the point where "I don't have a Soundcloud but..." became part of the internet lingo.
With time, some started using their precious 15 minutes (or, as a friend put it, “1.5 seconds”) of fame to direct attention and money to the causes dear to their heart, anything from a GoFundMe campaign to a bail fund or educational resources on social or political matters. Already, this was an acknowledgment that the sudden, unexpected attention could be funneled toward something else than the author of the tweet.
We've now entered a third stage of social piggybacking: one where every viral piece of content can be momentarily leveraged as digital inventory for others to tap. Here's what's happening behind the scenes:
A digital-savvy company actively monitors Twitter to pick up tweets that are about to reach escape velocity.
The company opportunistically reaches out to the author of a viral tweet via DM to ask for a plug. From the quick chats I had on Twitter with two of the lucky participants, these aren't referral deals, where an individual shares a custom link that can be traced back to them, and earns a commission on sales in return. Here, the URL plugged is always the same, meaning there’s no specific tweet tracking. Payment is made upfront through PayPal on a per-tweet basis: plug several products, and you'll be paid for each.
The author posts the link(s) as a follow-up to the initial tweet.
The original poster’s organic and extended audiences are exposed to the tweet and, as they browse the comments, to the follow-up tweet, that is, the ad.
I've been seeing more and more of these. It seems a bunch of companies are seeing an opportunity to acquire customers for cheap, aiming for the same kind of "why not" impulse buy they'd typically get from an Instagram or TikTok ad. As you’d expect, most cases have to do with cheap, gadgety products — vibrators, peel masks, a "chubby seal pillow," or the now infamous "sunset lamp" that once went viral on TikTok. Amazingly, some threads manage to feature them all.
I think the trend speaks to a growing understanding of how much value online visibility, no matter how fleeting, can have — and to everyone's eagerness to milk it while it lasts. In this configuration, brands don't need their own tweets to go viral: they're building off those that already have, leveraging someone else's sudden fame for their own promotional purposes.
Still, trailing even the farthest-reaching piece of content will only give a brand long-tail visibility and adequately low conversion rates and, ultimately, sales. It's also rare that whatever goes viral on Twitter can be considered "brand safe." This limits this kind of inventory to the most daring or opportunistic of companies, those willing to mine virality regardless of its source or destination. Searching for the sunset lamp URL on Twitter will return the most disparate bunch of tweets, a constellation of spicy takes and stupid memes whose only common trait was their ability to draw eyeballs for a moment. Pecunia non olet.
While such transactions today remain informal, it's not hard to imagine a future where these sorts of plugs could be seamlessly traded and monetized. Individuals would be able to auction off the follow-up to their tweets with a single click; meanwhile, brands would be able to dynamically place bids based on a tweet's potential for virality, its current likes/replies/RT ratio, or the sort of communities it's reaching on the network. With Twitter's adoption of views as a guiding metric, the infrastructure is certainly getting there.
In that world, does everything, and everyone, have a price? A Twitter user told me that each product they promoted in their follow-up tweets earned them $60 upfront. That’s certainly better than nothing, considering these payments were unexpected in the first place. At the same time, is $60 worth the reputational risk? The same user declined to promote a vibrator, but clearly not everyone has been so prudent. These offers force participants to new arbitrages between fleeting economical opportunities and their long-term digital presence.
Growing the internet’s real estate
However novel the opportunities they represent, neither Koji’s billboards nor Twitter plugs really put individuals in control. In one case, a billboard’s reach and its appeal to potential advertisers are constrained by a punishing conversion rate, since few among a creator’s total follower base will ever click on that person’s “link in bio.” In the other, a user can predict neither the success of their tweet, nor whether a company will slide into their DMs with an offer. The digital inventory is there, but its value is uncertain at best.
By contrast, businesses are in a position to create new inventory from scratch. Let’s see how.
A few years ago, Mobile Dev Memo's Eric Seufert wrote: "Everything is an ad network." He went on to specify:
Not literally everything. But any company with sufficient supply of or access to consumer data — in a first-party environment! — is now presented with the opportunity to build an advertising network where previously that would have been impractical or even somewhat absurd given the competitive landscape.
We've seen this materialize on virtually every large enough consumer app. In 2021, Seufert could already point to companies like Uber Eats, DoorDash, and Instacart, all of which had launched their own self-serve ad platforms to let brands promote their products. Others have taken that same route ever since. Airbnb's Brian Chesky said in an interview that sponsored listings are "absolutely on the horizon." From marketplaces to navigation apps, no category is immune to The Great Billboard-ification.
The same phenomenon can be observed everywhere in the physical realm. Wrapify, a "performance-driven ad tech platform for brands powered by OOH [Out Of Home] and the gig-economy," has been wrapping delivery cars with all-over advertising for years. Octopus (acquired by T-Mobile last year) feeds on your attention as you ride-share thanks to the "largest national network of interactive video screens inside Uber and Lyft vehicles." GSTV programs content on the screens of gas station pumps, engaging “on-the-go consumers at unique moments of 1:1 attention.” Last year, an academic paper on "Satellite formation flying for space advertising" estimated that a 3-month, 24-display campaign could bring roughly $111 million.
You get the gist: aggregating demand (i.e., eyeballs), whether on- or offline, enables companies to build networks that can be monetized at scale with ads. Interestingly, only some of the examples above are first-party initiatives, meaning they were launched as an incremental line of business by the company that had built the inventory in the first place. The rest came from third-parties savvy enough to identify underutilized real estate and wedge themselves in as new stakeholders in the value chain.
While there is still plenty of untapped inventory in the physical world, I'm most interested in its digital equivalent. A well-known trait of digital is that it removes the constraints that inevitably cap businesses in the physical realm: unlike Barnes & Noble, Amazon, as an ecommerce business, has unlimited shelf space. Similarly, where Wrapify’s and Octopus’s reach is proportional to (and constrained by) the size of the physical car network, Instacart and Airbnb can, and will, always come up with new ad formats, essentially turning more of their own inventory into sponsored content.
Here, I want to take a look at three companies that, each in its own way, surfaced new, desirable digital inventory to build a business around it: Hey, Toucan, and Yat.
Hey is a premium email service launched by Basecamp (now 37signals) in June 2020. After debuting to mostly positive reviews, it found itself at the center of a stand-off between Basecamp and Apple over the App Store policy regarding in-app purchases. The service still exists today, though the hype has largely waned.
But the most striking aspect of Hey wasn't what it did with email. It was what it did with email addresses.
With every new social app or service that pops up, the same thing always happens. As people rush to snatch "their" username before somebody else does, it's the Wild West all over again: a digital land grab, taking place on a first come, first serve basis. And while betas and TestFlights can give a happy few early access to their dream handles, most of us are left scrabbling for second best — settling for unwanted hyphens, periods, and underscores.
Why is it that we care so much about social handles anyway? There's two main reasons for that.
First, it's a matter of status: owning a short, recognizable username is, quite simply, proof that you got in early. In a world where digital savviness goes hand in hand with social and cultural recognition, the "early adopter" stamp has value in and of itself.
Second, username consistency helps with visibility. Maintained across platforms, it enables anyone to find and browse through your work and thoughts from a single search term. This has value for individuals and companies alike. On the one hand, it greatly improves discoverability for the growing numbers of individuals looking to build a personal brand online. On the other hand, it helps brands protect their prized IP, at a time when cybersquatting has become a worthwhile endeavor.
Hey saw this potential — and made the most of it, with a tiered pricing model that was based on an address's length. A two-letter address was $999 a year; a three-letter one, $375 a year. Every other email address from four letters on was $99 a year.
According to Hey's cofounder David Heinemeier Hansson, the velvet rope approach proved successful. In any case, it was a clever way to monetize an asset that usually doesn't allow for price discrimination. That anyone would agree to pay up to $900 more (per year!) just for a shorter email address with the exact same utility as a four-letter one — the digital equivalent to a vanity plate — goes to show how lucrative status can be for the companies that build around it.
In the early days, growth came, in large part, from the company's marketing savvy. In September 2020, Toucan launched Own The Word, a feature that let users "own" a word so that their name (along with an optional link or/and picture) appeared anytime that word was translated by Toucan on a user's screen. For $1 a week, anyone could claim a word of their choice and have their details automatically show up alongside it.
The campaign took off, as individuals and brands alike seized the opportunity to claim the words they wanted to be associated with in the public's mind. Bill Nye owned the word "science", while Morning Brew owned "coffee;" Monthly claimed "learn," and FaZe Clan had "video game." Toucan had made sure to add built-in virality, by letting buyers show off their ownership on social media with a nifty visual. This mechanism and the novelty effect helped spread the word.
As both a campaign and a business, Own The Word is long gone — Toucan's revenues came solely from its premium plan after that. But it offers a valuable lesson when it comes to creating and monetizing digital real estate.
With Own the Word, Toucan had figured out a way to monetize words. At first sight, this may look similar to the Google Ads platform, which lets businesses bid against specific keywords to display ads or service offerings to web browsers. The difference is, Google Ads monetizes intent, enabling companies to reach people that they know are interested in a specific keyword.
By contrast, Toucan didn't place ads but replaced words in real time with their translation in a user's target language, turning static text everywhere on the web into a custom, dynamic inventory. This made every webpage a place for ambient learning (Toucan's actual promise) or, when it came to Own The Word, ambient advertising — a way of serendipitously using word association to direct a reader's attention. Although Toucan has ceased activities, it's interesting to think of what could have been. As the company kept adding new languages and language pairs to its offering, brands on Own The Word would have benefitted from ever more pathways pointing their way.
Yat Labs is an internet registrar that manages the y.at domain. The company lets users buy unique emoji-based URLs, named Yats, that can serve as a "universal emoji username, website URL, payment address, and more" — in short, a unique internet identity system. Every Yat is one-of-a-kind and owned forever after the initial payment.
URLs have always been big business. Like social media aliases, they convey seriousness and are key to ensuring consistency throughout the consumer journey. Last year, Teachable founder Ankur Nagpal recommended buying a premium domain name upfront, sharing that Teachable "saw [its] conversion rate dramatically jump when [it] rebranded from http://usefedora.com to http://teachable.com." In October, Mario Gabriele's The Generalist dropped the "the" for the cleaner generalist.com, a move he saw as "important for the business."
As the marketplace got saturated and premium domains became too expensive to buy, businesses had to look for workarounds. One popular option has been domain hacking, which combines the second level domain and top level domain (respectively the parts to the left and to the right of the dot) to compose a recognizable word or a brand’s name — think youtu.be or spoti.fi. Another has been to go for newer, more singular domain extensions that carry signaling power. For example, the .io domain is commonly used for browser games, whereas XYZ has been a web3 favorite. Still, the good old .com remains the Holy Grail of the internet — if only because many of the more original extensions will be automatically sent to spam. Clip-sharing platform Medal, which already owned medal.gg and medal.tv, shelled out a little more than $185,000 to acquire medal.com in an auction last year. Call it business sense or vanity, companies across industries continue to jump at the opportunity to upgrade to a shorter and/or .com domain as soon as it presents itself.
Like Hey had done with the email address, Yat entered the URL game with a twist. On its own, the y.at domain arguably had little appeal: it had neither the prestige of a .com domain, the flair of a .xyz one, or the specificity of a .tech or .media one. What set Yat apart, however, was its focus on emojis, "a universal language" that could be used for effects that evaded the traditional alphanumerical system — from wordplays to rebuses to aesthetics.
Along with that premise came two unique "scoring elements" that together could make Yats more or less rare. The first one was a Yat's Generation, an indication of the time period in which the Yat was created. The second one was the Rhythm Score, a number between 1 and 100 determined by three factors: a Yat's length; the average popularity of the emojis used in the Yat "based on current worldwide usage;" and the Yat's pattern (i.e. repeating emojis or "bookend" emojis).
These variables enabled Yat to both formalize and gamify rarity, sparking speculation around the most interesting combinations. In April 2021, the company ran its first live auction, selling 18 Yats from its vault to the highest bidders. The highest-selling item, the key emoji, sold for $425K; the lowest-selling one, "cat in the hat," sold for $30K. In July 2021, Yat claimed to have sold "almost $20 million worth of emoji identities" in its "Generation zero," or open beta, phase. Since then, the company has continued to release subdomains via multiple drops that each made new emojis available to play with.
Over time, the company started leaning more and more on web3 capabilities, stating in April 2021 that it was “working on developing an oracle service so that Yats can be issued as NFTs on EVM compatible chains.” A few months later, it started selling rare emoji strings as NFTs on OpenSea. At the time of writing, over 12,600 yats have collectively generated a volume of 447 ETH on the marketplace. Other experiments followed, from limited-edition NFT (“Gems”) to the ability to associate crypto addresses with one’s Yat (“Pay with Yat”), to “Yat Fantasy,” a free-to-play NFT collecting game.
A digital Times Square
While internet registrars can be highly profitable businesses, they leave little room for continuous engagement. This was doubly true of Yat, whose consumer-friendly “pay once, own forever” policy prevented it from enjoying the kind of recurring revenue that competitors like GoDaddy normally get from domain renewals. Web3 enabled the company to overcome these limitations and use its identity system as the foundation for gamification.
There couldn’t have been a better match. On the one hand, digital identity has been at the core of web3’s promise. With the wallet acting as both a passport and an inventory, an individual’s on-chain history is a tell-all, real-time log of their assets, credentials, and affiliations. Monetization has received similar interest. From crowdfunding to auctions, from royalty splits to fractionalization, from flash loans to payroll streaming, tokens have unlocked tremendous financial creativity and allowed liquidity to circulate at the internet’s speed.
Assetization was the logical outcome. In web3, everything from a tweet to an article to a music stem can be turned into its own distinct digital product, enriched with perks, and used to access exclusive content and experiences. NFTs can be fractionalized, collateralized, sponsored, licensed and delegated, or even own on-chain assets themselves. Wherever you look, it’s assets all the way down.
One project at the forefront of this paradigm has been ENS (short for Ethereum Name Service), which allows users to register .eth domains compatible with the Ethereum network.
To anyone who believed in a web3 future, the value of ENS was obvious. Like normal Ethereum addresses, ENS domains could be used to receive tokens and launch and access distributed websites. But unlike the 42-long character strings that normally represent these addresses, the short, text-based nature of these domains made them easy to use, share, and remember. In the team’s own nomenclature, this made them akin to “names,” and the whole project, to “the blockchain-based Internet naming infrastructure of the future.”
This also fostered speculation from day 1.
Originally, ENS allocated available names (7 characters and up) through Vickrey auctions, a type of sealed-bid auction where buyers would lock up Ether to bid on a name, then either reveal their bid or lose the locked amount. If they relinquished ownership of a name at any point, the deposit would also be returned to them. This was meant to “let people test out ENS with low risk” at a time when its value proposition was still unproven.
Unfortunately, it also made it riskless to squat domains indefinitely, since a user could always get their Ether back; as the team noted, “the only losses [for squatters were] transaction fees and opportunity cost.” The secondary market took off, thanks to specialized marketplaces that made domains more liquid and speculation more integral to the system. Two years after inception, in April 2019, an estimated “80% of all .eth names [were] held by squatters.”
Changes were made. In May 2019, the team transitioned “from an auction and deposit system to an instant registration and annual fee one.” An initial reservation period allowed people and brands with an established internet presence to claim a 3-6 character.eth name before it would be put on auction. The team also implemented a decaying price premium, with the goal to “prevent all but a few names from being sniped via high gas prices the moment they expire.”
But speculation was well entrenched, and it never left. In 2020, another gold rush took place as buyers got an opportunity to snatch the domains that hadn’t been renewed (i.e., paid for) by their previous owners. A third one debuted in April 2022 when ENS made all 3- and 4-digit domains available for registration. Over the years, new social-cultural layers added to the appeal of these assets for collectors, as groups like the 10kClub and the Three Letters Club formed around specific domain attributes.
Today, ENS claims to have 697,000 owners who have collectively registered 2.73 million names, an average of 3.9 names per owner. Even if we assume that each person needs two names — one for themselves, the other one for an existing or prospective business — that’s still 1.9 names per person that can be attributed to speculation. About 40% of ENS domains visible on OpenSea “are for sale or have been sold on that platform alone.” Premium .eth domains, and Ether itself, have appreciated so much that containing name sniping required the team to raise the starting price of the temporary premium from $2000 originally to a whopping… $100 million.
Should we marvel, or despair, at the state of affairs?
ENS’s history is certainly a testament to web3’s creativity when it comes to making money. At the same time, there is something depressing in thinking that “the internet naming infrastructure of the future” is so conspicuously, and irrevocably, subject to financialization.
Back in 2019, the team stated: “The more likely that .eth names are operated by the person or organization you’d expect (e.g. brands using their brand’s .eth name), the more useful ENS is and therefore the more likely ENS will be a success.” Four years later, web3-native identity is just a digital Times Square.
After ad blindness
The financialization of the internet is well underway. In every digital nook and cranny, someone is vying for your attention and money.
Not everyone will make a living off it. Follow-up tweets rely on unpredictable traffic spikes, Koji’s personal billboards have more to do with patronage than with any serious ROI, and who knows how much longer people will shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for funny strings of emojis. Still, what matters is not how much money any one of these examples brings in at the individual level, but what kind of digital landscape they weave on the aggregate.
As internet users, we’ve grown adept at adjusting to our surroundings. On the technical side, we shielded ourselves with ad blockers. On the cognitive side, we found salvation in ad blindness, a phenomenon where we consciously or unconsciously ignore what we identify as ads on a webpage. So-called “native advertising,” which matches the form and function of its surrounding content, was the industry’s response to our growing indifference. And it worked: in 2019, a researcher at Boston University found that fewer than 1 in 10 individuals were able to tell sponsored content from its surroundings. Preserving our attention online continues to feel like a cat-and-mouse game.
The current financialization feels like a continuation of this trend — only more insidious. In a world where every above-average tweet is a potential sales channel, every pixel the object of speculation, and brands can now effectively inject themselves into AI responses, can we still come up with new defense mechanisms to make the digital minefield navigable again?
Many thanks to Devon and Vinay for reviewing drafts of this piece and sharing their insights with me.
Thank you for reading. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts! You can find me on Twitter, or just reply to this email.
If you’ve enjoyed this essay, please take a minute to like it/restack here on Substack and share it with others.