A Brief History of the Scourge of the Internet: The Pop Up

Pop Up Ad Example
The pop up ad’s creator has mixed feelings about his invention.

The hated pop-up ad has a fascinating origin story. The original creator was Ethan Zuckerman, who has since apologized profusely for unleashing such an intrusive form of advertising into the world. His explanation of how he came to write the code for such a universally reviled feature of the Internet reveals a lot about our modern culture and the sacrifices we make for free web content.

Mr. Zuckerman worked for Tripod.com, an early web hosting service similar to GeoCities, Squarespace or Wix. Like most early Internet start-ups, Tripod was created without a solid plan for monetizing. Its founders simply wanted to make a cool product that they would use themselves. Eventually, they realized they needed to bring money in if they wanted to keep their product available, and they sent Zuckerman and his team to convince major corporations to buy advertising spots directly on Tripod’s websites.

Because this took place in the early 1990s, the Internet was seen as a much different place. Zuckerman’s team created a program to place advertisements on random user pages and headed out to pitch a few major clients without thinking about what type of content might pop up during their presentation. Unfortunately, not all of Tripod’s users were creating business-friendly personal pages, and Zuckerman ended up displaying the potential client’s branded advertisement on a page with distinctly NSFW content.

After that embarrassing incident, the team scrambled to create an alternative. It wasn’t feasible or in line with Tripod’s culture to start censoring user pages, but they couldn’t sell clients on placing ads on sites with adult content. As a solution, they created the first pop-up ad as a way to get users looking at company messaging without companies being associated with inappropriate user content, and Tripod made big bucks from its major accounts.

Today, Zuckerman worries that his creation sent Internet culture in a negative direction. In a recent essay published in the Atlantic, he expressed his opinion that by chasing advertiser dollars rather than user fees, Tripod set a precedent for content that appears free to users. He argues that, as the death of the pop-up ad shows, we want an uninterrupted web experience. Because the Internet isn’t free to run, users simply accept behind-the-scenes monitoring and data capture from Facebook, AdWords and other advertising behemoths.

What do you think? Should we accept a free, ad-supported Internet or push for more subscription models? Would you rather return to pop-up ads or stick with targeted banner ads and integrated content? Contact me to let me know your thoughts on web-based advertising.