Ethan Zuckerman, the man who invented pop-up ads, has apologised to the world in a lengthy explanation of his original intentions.
Writing for The Atlantic, Zuckerman explains that he had unintentionally created one of the most hated forms of advertising on the web.
In the late 90s Zuckerman worked for Tripod.com, a website that marketed content and services to graduates. Tripod later changed business model after the initial concept failed to catch on, becoming a webpage-hosting provider and “proto-social network” instead.
Tripod tried a number of revenue streams to keep the business going including; selling merchandise, a subscription service and even a paid-for magazine. But what really worked was advertising, and this is where it all began.
As Zuckerman explains in his essay: “At the end of the day, the business model that got us funded was advertising. The model that got us acquired was analyzing users’ personal homepages so we could better target ads to them. Along the way, we ended up creating one of the most hated tools in the advertiser’s toolkit: the pop-up ad.
Ethan Zuckerman. Credit: JD Lasica
“It was a way to associate an ad with a user’s page without putting it directly on the page, which advertisers worried would imply an association between their brand and the page’s content. Specifically, we came up with it when a major car company freaked out that they’d bought a banner ad on a page that celebrated anal sex. I wrote the code to launch the window and run an ad in it. I’m sorry. Our intentions were good.”
And pop-up advertising was born. Zuckerman, who now works for the Centre for Civic Media at MIT, bemoans the current ad-supported state of the web. Believing that “advertising is the original sin of the web” and that “the fallen state of our Internet is a direct, if unintentional, consequence of choosing advertising as the default model to support online content and services.”
He does, however, believe that the advertising revenue model that funds many businesses on the web isn’t the only option. There’s a dialogue, albeit between the tech savy, that’s happening around what we want the future of the web to look like. A good example of this in practice is The Web We Want initiative, supported by creator of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners Lee, which campaigns for a more open, affordable and private web.
Zuckerman is, however, positive that other models could and should be explored. “One simple way forward is to charge for services and protect users’ privacy, as Cegłowski is doing with Pinboard [a bookmarking site where users pay a one-time signup fee, which goes up by a fractional penny with each new user] . What would it cost to subscribe to an ad-free Facebook and receive a verifiable promise that your content and metadata wasn’t being resold, and would be deleted within a fixed window?”
He continued: “We may be nearing such a system with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies that permit transactions with extremely low transaction costs. (In theory. In practice, Bitcoin transaction costs are currently still a significant fraction of a dollar.)Projects like Stellar are focused on mainstreaming cryptocurrency and ensuring these systems aren’t open only to the digerati.
“If Stellar takes off (a big if) and if transaction costs drop low enough (a very big if), we might see an Internet supported on micropayments of a fraction of a cent to compensate the operators of services or creators of content.”
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