Inventor of the Pop-Up Ad Apologizes for Helping to Ruin the Internet

Ethan Zuckerman calls for revenue reform

If you were looking for someone to blame every time a pop-up ad mars your Web-browsing experience, here's a guy who'd like to nominate himself—and offer his apologies.

Ethan Zuckerman, Internet pioneer and director of MIT's Center for Civic Media, takes to the pages of The Atlantic in a lengthy essay titled The Internet's Original Sin. In it, he delves into the myriad issues around something we all might generally take for granted: a free, ad-supported Web. He also owns up to having invented that odious pop-up format, which assaults your eyeballs when you least want it (i.e., anytime), while he was working at the early Web-hosting service in the 1990s. (Though, in a moment agency people might find empathetic, he also sort of pawns off the blame on an auto client, who didn't want its ad appearing on the same page as explicit content.)

It's worth reading the whole article if you're up for reflecting on the current, sorry state of Web affairs. Zuckerman includes a lot of smart perspective on topics like meager digital revenues, the stupefying allure of click bait and blasé consumer attitudes about behavioral tracking, along with how all that ties in with broader financial systems—and why it came to be so in the first place. He also notes that the ad-supported Web was borne of good intentions, though as Fast Company points out, that's a tricky line to walk, given that it was, on some level, always at least in part about making money.

Toward the end of his treatise, Zuckerman even begins delving into other possible revenue models, like subscriptions, micro-payments and crowdfunding—acknowledging the difficulty of finding solutions and allowing that regardless "there are bound to be unintended consequences."

And at risk of being fatalistic, it's hard to imagine alternatives gaining traction when the vast majority of consumers expect free content and don't seem to mind becoming the product to get it. But you also have to credit Zuckerman for falling on his sword to help draw attention to the debate.

We're still not sure we forgive him for pop-up ads, though.

Recommended articles