Inventor of pop-up ads: ‘I'm sorry’

Programmer Ethan Zuckerman deeply regrets creating one of the most irritating things about the internet

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popups
How fast can you click 'X'?

Two decades ago, programmer Ethan Zuckerman wrote the code for pop-up ads, in the process inventing one of the most annoying features of online life. And he's really, really sorry about it. 

In an excellent and extremely long Atlantic essay, Zuckerman details his time as a programmer during the wild west days of the internet. In the mid-90s, he was employed by web hosting service tripod.com, and was tasked with finding a way to monetize the site (hey, some things never change).

"At the end of the day, the business model that got us funded was advertising," he writes. "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."

While the apology is welcome, I'm left wondering just how many minutes of my life has been spent clicking "X" on pop-up ads offering me "Sex With Fat Grandmas" or the chance to play "Real Russian Roulette with Real Russian Men" when I'm just trying to illegally stream an episode of The Wire.

At least he's sorry.

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