In a lengthy piece for The Atlantic, Ethan Zuckerman talks about spending the early days of the Internet working for the shapeshifting Tripod.com, which started as content company marketed to recent college grads and eventually became a web-hosting service acquired by Lycos in 1997.
“The model that got us acquired was analyzing users’ personal homepages so we could better target ads to them,” he writes. “Along the way, we ended up creating one of the most hated tools in the advertiser’s toolkit: the pop-up ad.”
The idea, explains Zuckerman, was a way for advertisers to put some distance between their ad and the content on a web page.
“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,” he recalls.
Of course, pop-up ads quickly became a way for advertisers to be more intrusive, forcing you to interact with their ad, if only to make it go away.
And while things like pop-up blockers and tab-based browsing have made pop-ups less of a nuisance than they once were, the idea still lives on in countless forms of advertising that put up a roadblock between the user and the content they want to reach.
“I’m sorry,” writes Zuckerman. “Our intentions were good.”