The man responsible for the invention of the pop-up ad, that infamous source of irritation from the Nineties and Noughties, has come forward and officially apologised for the ways in which his creation has shaped online business models. In an essay on The Atlantic entitled ‘Advertising is the Internet’s Original Sin’, Ethan Zuckerman speaks at length about the ad-centric web, which stems from the days when he was working at Tripod.com.
“At the end of the day, the business model that got us funded was advertising,” he recalls. “Along the way, we ended up creating one of the most hated tools in the advertiser’s toolkit: the pop-up ad.” As the story goes, Zuckerman wrote the code for a pop-up in order to cover a banner for an automotive brand which had accidentally been placed on an adult site. Shortly after, Geocities snapped up the code and started proliferating pop-up ads across the web. And nothing was ever the same again.
“Once we’ve assumed that advertising is the default model to support the Internet, the next step is obvious,” says Zuckerman. “We need more data so we can make our targeted ads appear to be more targeted.” But he is concerned that this default mode is not necessarily good for consumers, and goes on to say that a new conversation is needed in order to modify the historic bad habits and skewed expectations of advertisers and consumers alike.
“We’ve trained Internet users to expect that everything they say and do online will be aggregated into profiles (which they cannot review, challenge or change) that shape both what ads and what content they see,” he says. “Outrage over experimental manipulation of these profiles by social networks and dating companies has led to heated debates amongst the technologically savvy, but hasn’t shrunk the user bases of these services, as users now accept that this sort of manipulation is an integral part of the online experience.”
As far as alternative models go, Zuckerman believes there is no single solution as yet. He cites crypto-currency and mobile money as potentially more democratic means of monetising the web, although they come with their own innate legal and regulatory complications. “Whether we embrace micropayments, membership, crowdfunding, or any other model, there are bound to be unintended consequences,” he says. “But 20 years into the ad-supported web, we can see that our current model is bad, broken, and corrosive. It’s time to start paying for privacy, to support services we love, and to abandon those that are free, but sell us – the users and our attention – as the product.”