Pop-Up Ad Inventor Offers Apology to Internet Users

"I wrote the code to launch the window and run an ad in it. I’m sorry. Our intentions were good."

Image by Pascale Kinchen (Douglas) via Flickr
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Go to any website, social or informational, and you’re very likely to encounter ads. If you see a pop-up ad or a pop-up window, you’ve got Ethan Zuckerman to thank. It’s possibly one of the Internet’s most aggravating nuisances, though admittedly, there are easy and popular solutions on every major browser. Nowadays, there are even hover ads, a transparent layer of advertising that obscures the web page from view until the ad has been viewed for a prescribed amount of time or until a user “skips” or “closes” the ad.

Advertising designers like to trick users by creating extra buttons that appear to close or skip the ads, but actually open up extra windows or something equally annoying. Even worse are those pop-under ads that appear below the window — the kinds that you don’t even notice until after you move or close your browser because they are hidden.

In a long essay in The Atlantic, Zuckerman admitted: “I wrote the code to launch the window and run an ad in it. I’m sorry. Our intentions were good.”

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.

“Original Sin” is a sincere, apologetic essay on the need to revise the Web as we know it — the ad-supported, surveillance state — into something more free, open and decentralized. It is a digital dream worth discussing, even if it is virtually impossible to imagine, because for all we know, the Internet is an information engine that’s largely driven by ads.

I have come to believe that advertising is the original sin of the Web. 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. Through successive rounds of innovation and investor storytime, 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.

Consequently, advertising has turned the Web into a data-driven economy, where websites and web services collect data in order to sell ads. This means that content creators, when sharing stories for revenue, will focus on generating clickbait headlines rather than “thoughtful engagement.” With the current model, advertisers inadvertently centralizes the Web into neat compartments of easy-to-reach providers. Think Facebook, which now owns Instagram and Whatsapp.

However, “20 years in to 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.”

The sad truth is that the war on annoying advertising cannot be won without users paying for Internet content. Unfortunately, Internet users are accustomed to free browsing — people have never had to pay for Internet content. Models of pay-for Internet services are just now emerging; they’re still not the default model for growing a massive user-base. It’s hard to convince investors to pay for your startup when you don’t have more users than Facebook.