When was the last time you saw a pop-up ad? They're not quite as prevalent as they once were, but they're still all over the Internet. The next time you get an annoying advertisement that pops up in front of the webpage you wanted to see, you can thank Ethan Zuckerman.
He's very sorry.
Zuckerman wrote a very in-depth article for The Atlantic explaining how he came up with the idea and why he regrets it. While working for website hosting provider Tripod.com, Zuckerman and his team devised a plan that would culminate with one of the most annoying things in the history of the Web. Here's how he tells it:
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.
Zuckerman has since made a career as a media scholar and Internet activist. In his Atlantic article, he goes on to explain how advertising revenues became the driving force for the online economy. People think that websites are the product and they are the consumer, but Zuckerman doesn't see it that way.
Advertisers are the consumer and your and my eyeballs are the product. When he puts it that way, it does sound a little backward. It's what drives companies like Facebook and Google to dig deeper and deeper into our personal lives to provide a more compelling product to sell to advertisers.
If we want to take back the Web and our privacy, Zuckerman says we need to start paying for the services we want and avoiding free, ad-based sites.
What would it cost to subscribe to an ad-free Facebook and receive a verifiable promise that your content and metadata wasn’t being resold, and would be deleted within a fixed window? Google now does this with its enterprise and educational email tools, promising paying users that their email is now exempt from the creepy content-based ad targeting that characterizes its free product. Would Google allow users to pay a modest subscription fee and opt out of this obvious, heavy-handed surveillance?
What do you think? Would you pay for Facebook if it meant it would never share your personal info with advertisers? What about other media and content producers? Let me know in the comments below.