‘Sorry’: Creator of Pop-Up Ads Apologizes for His Invention

This is one of the people you have to thank for every pop-up ad you ever come across while surfing the Web: Ethan Zuckerman. 

Zuckerman, currently the director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, recently shared about his thoughts on the small window that will appear in front of the content you actually sought out on the Internet until you click the  “X,” hoping that you’re not about to give yourself a virus in the process.

The man who helped create pop-up advertising details the pitfalls of an ad-based Web after 20 years. (Photo credit: Shutterstock)
The man who helped create pop-up advertising details the pitfalls of an ad-based Web after 20 years. (Photo credit: Shutterstock)

The core of his message on pop-ups?

“I’m sorry. Our intentions were good,” he wrote in a piece for The Atlantic.

Zuckerman’s post delves into the “fiasco” that has become the Web, specifically its “advertising-supported, ‘free as in beer’ constellation of social networks, services and content that represents so much of the present day Web industry.”

Zuckerman wrote about working for a company in the mid- to late-1990s that developed the pop-up advertising model. He called it “one of the most hated tools in the advertiser’s toolkit.”

“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,” he wrote.

Advertising becoming and remaining the main revenue source on the Web created to the need for more data to develop targeted advertising, Zuckerman wrote, citing a talk given at a Web design conference by Maciej Ceglowski.

“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,” Zuckerman wrote. “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. 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.”

Zuckerman later acknowledged, even with its many negatives, that an ad-based Web allows for growth and provides a service for those who don’t want to or can’t pay for it.

After “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,” Zuckerman concluded in his lengthy piece. 

Read Zuckerman’s full post about the state of the Web and advertising on the Atlantic’s website.

(H/T: Gizmodo)

Front page image via Shutterstock.


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