Ethan Zuckerman, the current director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, recently published a heck of an essay in the Atlantic called “The Internet’s Original Sin.” In it, he deconstructs the good (or at least neutral!) intentions, that turned the Internet from a place with some banner ads to a creepy surveillance state in which your every move is tracked (be it by the NSAs, the Facebooks, or just the lowly advertisers).
Along the way, Zuckerman apologizes for his own worst Internet sin–creating the pop-up ad. You know, that ad that turds itself right on top of your otherwise pristine canvas of news, entertainment, and information. His explanation:
From 1994 to 1999, I worked for Tripod.com, helping to architect, design, and implement a website that marketed content and services to recent college graduates. When that business failed to catch on, we became a webpage-hosting provider and proto-social network. Over the course of five years, we tried dozens of revenue models, printing out shiny new business plans to sell each one. We’d run as a subscription service! Take a share of revenue when our users bought mutual funds after reading our investment advice! Get paid to bundle a magazine with textbook publishers! Sell T-shirts and other branded merch!
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. 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.
Again–“our intentions were good” feels a bit like revisionist history. Zuckerman alludes to an idyllic, hippie past in which a few coders and entrepreneurs just wanted simple freedom of information, man, and for that, they paid the price of advertising. But these were businesses pioneering this new territory, trying to make money by, maybe not any means necessary, but many means necessary. Tripod.com wasn’t exactly a division of Unicef.
That said, I’ll still accept the apology. (And I’m sorry if a popup greets you on this page. My intentions in writing this story were good.)