Pop-up ads are, at best, a nuisance or, at worst, delivery systems for corrupting viruses that have signaled many a hard drive's demise. In reflecting on the Internet's 25th anniversary, Ethan Zuckerman, the creator of the code behind the very first pop-up ad, wants to say that he's sorry.
Zuckerman, the director of MIT's Center for Civic Media penned an essay for The Atlantic on how advertising became the web's predominant business model, and what that means for internet users today, especially when it comes to privacy.
Zuckerman writes the idea for the pop-up ad came about while he was working for the web-hosting service Tripod.com in the mid-90s. "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."
"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."
Zuckerman argues that while an ad-supported Internet lowers financial barrier to entry, making it possible for platforms like Facebook and Twitter to build the sizable communities they have now, he sees the model as inherently broken. His suggestion is to move more widely towards a subscription model that would encourage people to pay to use the sites they love, while taking targeted data collection and surveillance out of the equation.
Tell us: Do you think Zuckerman is on the right track? How do you feel about online advertising?