Bookmark: "Chinese Number Websites: The Secret Meaning of URLs"

Sebastian Greger


At first sight, this article may not have much to do with accessibility or inclusive design. Yet, after reading it, I suddenly realized how even my own thinking, deliberately tuned to think in an inclusive, prejudice-free way wherever possible, has been biased by a preconception of something I do not fully understand.

Christopher Beam starts from the (apparently) odd use of numbers in email addresses and URLs in China, something that in the western world often has a connotation of “spam” or being trashy. I mean, as we are all used to representative email addresses to look like, who would choose as their email? That must be some automated spam robot!

Turns out there is a range of good reasons for this, and this actually has a lot to do with how the internet’s domain system is tailored to Roman script first and foremost. But there is also a strong cultural component related to the meaning of numbers (along with strategies to navigate certain ambiguities with the transliteration of Chinese script to the Roman alphabet) – something we may not understand but, even unconsciously, dismiss as something that “cannot make sense”.

Just one of many enlightening examples in the article:

The digits in a domain name usually aren’t random. The Internet company NetEase uses the web address—a throwback to the days of dial-up when Chinese Internet users had to enter 163 to get online. The phone companies China Telecom and China Unicom simply re-appropriated their well-known customer service numbers as domain names, and, respectively.

This is not just an interesting read, it is a very welcome reminder to always question one’s own assumptions and be ready to identify and erase bias from one’s own thinking.

Still, the numbers/letters divide is emblematic of the Internet’s built-in bias: Even more than two decades after its birth, it’s still a fundamentally American system.

I'm Sebastian, Sociologist and Interaction Designer. This journal is mostly about bringing toge­ther social science and design for inclusive, privacy-focused, and sustainable "human-first" digital strategies. I also tend to a "digital garden" with carefully curated resources.

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