On Accidental status symbols, and designing new ones

On Accidental status symbols, and designing new ones

.com matters, only if you think it matters.

“And I’m not proud of my address. In a torn-up town, no postcode envy.”
Lorde, Royals

The first status symbol I recognized as a child was license plates.

For license plates, where I lived, revealed your country, and your county conveyed your proximity to the city, with its associations of power and wealth (or, at least as a child, the nicer libraries and parks and ice cream shops that the city brought to mind).

It’s not like your county should mean that much, especially to a child. And yet, growing up a few traffic lights away from the next county, it symbolized something. That tiny bit of text let you feel like you were part of something bigger, that you weren’t from the middle of nowhere. It let you establish your identity on location, that you’re from here, that your here was something to be proud of. It conferred a bit of status, a more public version of what a postal code can infer.

Accidental status symbols surround us, nearly invisibly, defined by our culture and context more than any inherent value in the item itself. The best are unintentional, tiny indicators that were likely added with little thought to the status they’d convey.

License plates are a common one. In many US states, you can buy vanity plates—so there’s little interest in randomly unique number or letter combinations. Delaware turned plates into an accidental asset, however, with plates that feature only a number. The older the plate, the shorter the number—and you’re allowed to trade plates, so #6 sold in 2008 for $670,000 at auction. Delaware’s not alone. Thailand recently saw plate #9999 sell for around $1.3 million, while Dubai’s plate AA 8 sold for a staggering $9.5 million.

A Lamborghini's a status symbol; it proves you have money, at least. A low-digit license plate is an accidental status symbol, one that's potentially more valuable—and harder to acquire—than the Lambo.

That intoxicating combination of scarcity and status turned a number on a piece of metal into an appreciating asset.

Or into a traffic crime. Temporary plates for new vehicles—paper in much of the US, yellow in the EU, red in Thailand—are tempting to display longer than allowed by law, if only to keep a visual parallel to the “new car smell” lingering around your vehicle.

The recipe behind accidental status symbol

Accidental status symbols start out innocuous. A rule starts the process by saying you need an identifier, and here’s how they’re given out. The first wave of people receive that new item—a plot of land in a postal code, a license plate number, an area code or prefix on their phone number—with little thought to their eventual scarcity. It’s hardly a status symbol at all to be the first or thirtieth person to stake out a claim in a newly incorporated jurisdiction.

Then comes everybody, and the old-timers gain status simply by being their first. The low digits have run out, which suddenly makes them cool. New land is scarce, driving the prices through the roof. What was a random allocation to citizen 1 looks highly appealing to citizen 1001.

Time in the game—of being their first—now has value. Soon enough, a newcomer with less status and more money will offer to trade their money with an old-timer for their status-conferring code. Overnight, you’ve created a new currency of sorts around what should have merely been a number.

Which is what we did on the internet. Long before crypto, a half decade before Tim Bernes-Lee published the first page on the world wide web, .com was launched in 1985 along with the first DNS system to let commercial entities join the internet that, until then, had been reserved for research, government, and academia. That first year, six companies claimed their .com: defense contractors Northrop and Raytheon and now-defunct computer companies DEC and Symbolics, among others. The next year saw 700% growth, as GE, HP, Intel, AT&T, Adobe, and more joined the fray with 43 new .com’s.

It wasn’t so hard to get the name you wanted, at first, when few were on the internet and fewer saw it as a future goldmine. But by 1995, when anyone with $100 in their pocket could register a .com, the race was on. Short, English word .coms got reserved, one after another, and before long you had record-setting domain name sales such as the $3.3 million AltaVista paid for their .com in 1998.

Today, fewer than half of new YC startups use a .com.

A .com inferred either that your company was ahead of the curve enough to have claimed your .com from the beginning, or rich enough to buy your way in. Even as alternative TLDs proliferated over the following decades, .com has been slow to lose its dominance. In 2005—twenty years after .com first launched—every YC-backed startups used a .com. It wasn’t until 2013 when .com’s dominance among startups started waning for good—and only in 2022, for the first time, did fewer than half of YC-backed startups use a .com.

For now, at least, there’s more cutting-edge status to be conveyed by a unique new TLD like .chat or .ai than there is with a .com. Yet still, it’s hard to imagine choosing a different TLD if your startup’s name was unique enough that its .com was actually available.

Scarcity. Time in the game. Being early enough to the next new thing to get in before everyone else.

That’s why short Gmail addresses were, at least in the early 2000’s, an internet status symbol. You were likely a Googler or knew someone who was if you managed to snag your first name @gmail.com. Same for social networks. It’s nearly as hard to get your or your company’s name on a new Twitter account as it is to buy a .com. It’s tough enough, Slack the chat app was too late to the game to acquire @slack on Twitter; Matt Slack had arrived earlier and already staked his claim. “I am not a real-time messaging, archiving and search for modern teams,” says the human Slack’s bio.

Instagram handles feel similar to Twitter's; they’re how you mention people in replies, so you want a short, memorable username. But change the game, and status changes with it. Accidental status symbols are incredible susceptible to disruption, more it seems than the financial-backed status symbols of real estate and luxury goods.

Twitter's blue checkmarks conveyed insider status, until they became available to anyone with $8 to spare. The proliferation of TLDs dented .com's exclusivity. Even short usernames aren't valuable everywhere. Facebook has short handles, but they’re rarely visible—and thus feel less valuable, less needed than they are on the text-constrained Twitter. Status symbols only count, if they’re visible enough to be noticed by others.

Or take Mastodon, the decentralized social network that’s popularity rises and falls with Twitter’s drama. There, anyone can start a server. If you can’t claim @slack on mastodon.social, you could spin up a new Mastodon server and claim @slack and anything else you like. And that changed the game.

Short usernames alone aren’t the status symbol, on Mastodon. Accounts on hard-to-get Mastodon servers are. Signups on the official mastodon.social server are closed right now. So, if you have a username@mastodon.social account, that means you were early to the game, or know someone else who was. It’s early @gmail.com email addresses, all over again.

On building a new one.

So what makes an accidental status symbol?

Scarcity. Visibility.

Obtainable by nearly anyone—at least at first. Requires at least a bit of insider knowledge to be appreciated (a tourist would overlook the significance of a county on a tag; anyone who hasn’t bought a .com might discount their value).

Indicative of arriving early, of being ahead of the curve, of your time in the game (or, of purchasing power, but not at first—otherwise it wouldn’t be accidental).

Game changing, doing something different than what people expect. Show a county, or don't. Auto-assign usernames, or require all usernames to be X characters long. Mix things up, so people won't expect what you built will convey status, not yet at least.

Put those together, mix in growth and time, and your randomly generated user numbers and account names, or filters and skins available only if you complete a specific quest, or virtual awards your forum or app gives members based on their contribution or account age, they all have the chance of turning into an accidental status symbol.

But don’t try too hard. Somehow it’s hard to imagine short Twitter handles or .com’s being as desirable if they’d been pricy and exclusive from the start.

Image Credit: Header photo by Felipe Simo via Unsplash.

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