Pop-Up Ad Man 'Fesses To An Internet 'Sin' — But Hopes To Fix It

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Ethan Zuckerman recently confessed to "the Internet's original sin," saying he helped create pop-up ads in the medium's early days. The director of MIT's Center for Civic Media tells Robert Siegel that it's not to late to repent, and to build a better Web — without ads.


Ethan Zuckerman has made a public apology. It's on the website of The Atlantic Monthly. And that should be a tip-off that the Zuckerman mea culpa is for no garden-variety misdeed. Ethan Zuckerman is now at MIT. Before that he was at Harvard and in the 1990s he was at tripod.com. And it was there that he committed the offense at hand. And Ethan Zuckerman, why don't you describe the thing that you are personally involved in inventing that you're now apologizing for.

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: So Robert, I am now publicly apologizing to you, to the nation and to the world for my role in inventing the pop-up ad.

SIEGEL: The pop-up ad. Now the title of your article in The Atlantic is "The Internet's Original Sin." It's not just the annoyance of the pop-up ad, it's the dependence of the Internet on advertising that you're saying is the original sin.

ZUCKERMAN: Well, that's right. I wrote the article not to make a public confession about my role in bringing the pop-up to life, but I wanted to go back to this question of why advertising has become the default business model for the Internet. And I wanted to share my concern that by letting ourselves become dependent on advertising as the main revenue model, we've all gotten way too used to putting ourselves under surveillance. And I think that not only is this a bad way for us to build businesses online, I think it's bad for us as citizens.

SIEGEL: You're saying that in that respect advertising and on the Internet is qualitatively different from advertising in The Atlantic say or sponsorship in public broadcasting?

ZUCKERMAN: I think that's absolutely true. I think when someone buys a page in The Atlantic or when someone sponsors NPR, they know very little about those readers or those listeners. We know about them in aggregate. But on the Internet we have advertising-supported companies like Facebook that are analyzing as much as they can possibly find out about us. They're analyzing our demographic. They're analyzing our friendship patterns. And they're trying to create these very complex sophisticated profiles of us to market to. And that I think over time has a very corrosive effect. I think that regularizes surveillance and makes us feel like we're being watched at all times.

SIEGEL: So describe the path not taken. What kind of Internet would it be if it weren't supported and generally free as a result in terms of access to sites - if it weren't supported by advertising?

ZUCKERMAN: There's a couple of paths not taken. One that people are pursuing now is a subscription model where people are paying modest fees for services that they really care about. In my article in The Atlantic, I write about an online bookmarking service called Pinboard. I paid $5 for it. It's mine to use for the rest of my natural days as long as they run the service. And for something like Twitter which I use every day, I would happily pay $5 a year to make that accessible. Another one Micropayment - paying small fractions of a cent for content might actually be a very good way to launch new businesses and services. Finally, there are sort of philanthropic-based models where people are crowdfunding or giving as ways of supporting projects and services that they care about. My point in this piece was not just to apologize for the pop-up ad, but really to challenge the idea that we have to build businesses around advertising. I really do think there are other ways to do it.

SIEGEL: But would those alternatives to advertising lead online institutions and companies to stop trying to find out more about us? Wouldn't it still be in their interest to try to expand their membership use, for example, to keep on investigating who we are if we use them?

ZUCKERMAN: I think it's a slightly different prospect between getting people to pay for subscriptions and trying to target the ads. Because the arms race is not so much about the quality of the ad, it's persuading investors that they're going to make more money off of advertising with our service than with anybody else. So Facebook has set a very very high bar. They know an enormous amount about you. If you want to start a new advertising-based web business, you have to somehow demonstrate you're going to find out even more about your user than Facebook does. And we need some combination of new business models and probably a certain amount of regulation to protect our online behavior and identities - to really get us out of what looks like an increasingly complicated trap.

SIEGEL: Well, Ethan Zuckerman, I can't speak for the whole world or the audience, but personally I accept your apology.

ZUCKERMAN: The forgiveness feels wonderful to me, Robert. And thank you for the chance to confess to your audience.

SIEGEL: OK. Ethan Zuckerman is director of MIT's Center for Civic Media and author of the article on The Atlantic's website, "The Internet's Original Sin."

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