The first thing that came on my computer screen when I clicked the link to look over Ethan Zuckerman’s Atlantic essay on the ad-based web was a pop-up.
Oh, the irony! as my kids like to say. Zuckerman has been in the web industry for a couple of decades, and in his essay he looks back to the early days, when he and his associates at Tripod.com were trying to come up with a business model:
“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.”
And it wasn’t just Tripod: “Advertising became the default business model on the web, “the entire economic foundation of our industry,” because it was the easiest model for a web startup to implement, and the easiest to market to investors. Web startups could contract their revenue growth to an ad network and focus on building an audience. If revenues were insufficient to cover the costs of providing the content or service, it didn’t matter—what mattered was audience growth, as a site with tens of millions of loyal users would surely find a way to generate revenue.”
Zuckerman’s essay is not only a personal confession, but an assessment of the “fallen state of our Internet,” most of which he claims is a natural result of the advertising takeover of the web. Surveillance isn’t a misuse of the web; it’s what the web in its current form was designed to do. And advertising “creates incentives to produce and share content that generates pageviews and mouse clicks, but little thoughtful engagement.”
One of his suggestions is to offer the option of opting out: “to charge for services and protect users’ privacy, as Ceg?owski is doing with Pinboard. 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? . . . Would Google allow users to pay a modest subscription fee and opt out of this obvious, heavy-handed surveillance?”