The First Pop-Up Ad

A man who has spent the last decade trying to make the Internet better tells the story of how he launched one of the most hated online features. 

Ethan Zuckerman is sorry.

Zuckerman, who leads the Center for Civic Media at MIT, says he didn't realize what he was bringing into the world when he wrote the code for the first pop-up ad more than 20 years ago. 

He tells the story of how it happened in an exquisite essay about how the ad-based business model came to dominate the Internet—and why it really shouldn't (and what we ought to do about it).

It was the mid-1990s, and Zuckerman was working as a designer and programmer for Tripod.com:

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

When Geocities introduced pop-ups a few weeks later, he says, they reused his code.

"Not only did I deploy what was probably the first popup, I wrote the javascript and the server-side Perl to launch it," Zuckerman told me in a follow-up. "I'm old." 

Read the complete essay here. 

Presented by

Adrienne LaFrance

Adrienne LaFrance is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Technology Channel. Previously she worked as an investigative reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Nieman Journalism Lab, and WBURMore

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gawker, The Awl, and several other publications. 

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