Twenty years ago, Ethan Zuckerman did something terrible on the internet. And he’s still living with the consequences.
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PJ VOGT: You’re sitting at home alone and there’s a knock on the front door. When you open it there’s a man standing there, and the man says to you, “I think we both know why I’m here. We know what you did. Let’s go.” My friend Jamie always talks about this hypothetical. He swears Errol Morris came up with it – I dunno, it’s not on Google — but the point is, most of us, if we get that knock on the door, we’ll confess to something. Because most of us have done a bad thing, and we’ve gotten away with it, and we’re looking over our shoulder until the day we finally get caught. This guy Ethan Zuckerman had a secret like that, but his is bigger than most of ours. When he was young, he accidentally did something that made the world, and specifically the internet, a lot worse. And most of us today are living in that broken world he helped create.
PJ: From Gimlet, I’m PJ Vogt and you’re listening to Reply All, a show about the internet.
PJ: Before Ethan Zuckerman screwed everything up, he was a grad student in a small town in Massachusetts. This was 1994, and Ethan was working at a company called Tripod.com. Prior to recording this story, I thought that Tripod.com was one of those websites that everybody had heard of–turns out that’s not true. Tons of people haven’t, so we thought we’d do a quick refresher just in case. By way of explanation, I got my cohost, Alex Goldman, to bring up one of the Tripod sites he used to haunt. Goldman?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Give me just a second…stevealbinilyrics.
PJ: Oh my god. Every part of that is like a perfect time capsule. It’s like when people worshiped Steve Albini, when the lyrics of a person would have their own website….everything like that.
ALEX: And before lyrics websites existed…
PJ: Here’s some other typical Tripod websites: I’m on one at airjudand2.tripod.com/jordan. The entire page is a long rant, in comic sans font, called Michael Jordan hyphen NOT the best ever, three exclamation points. Maybe you get the idea, which is that the Tripod that most people remember, if they remember it, was kind of like a precursor to Tumblr. It was a place where fans of very specific, and random, things came together to express their love for, or opinions about those things. That’s what me and Alex remember it as. But at the point when Ethan Zuckerman enters our story, Tripod was not yet that. Tripod.com at that point was nothing more than a web-based magazine, specifically geared at recent college graduates. Here’s Ethan.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: We had editors, and we were writing stories about how to furnish your first apartment and no one was paying any attention to it.
PJ: Ethan wasn’t a magazine guy, but he was into computers. And he just learned about this thing called the world wide web. His new hobby was making webpages.
ETHAN: And so despite the fact that I knew almost nothing, I got hired as the founding webmaster for Tripod.
PJ: It was better than grad school. In other words, it was a cool enough job for a young person in the mid-90s. Ethan had no way of knowing that taking that job was step one in the direction of his big mistake. Step two happens after Ethan is a year into his job. In the middle of the night one of Ethan’s programmers is up, and he builds this tool on his computer, just for fun.
ETHAN: A webpage builder. And what you could do with this is that you could just paste HTML into a form, you could hit publish, and you would have your own webpage on the internet.
PJ: Remember, this is 1994. Most people weren’t online, the ones who were were using AOL. People weren’t actually really visiting websites yet. So, what Ethan’s colleague at Tripod had done during this middle of the night work session was essentially invent a way for non-techies to build a webpage. Anybody who wanted to could make a website now. All they had to do was use this tool that Ethan’s colleague had invented. It had the potential to be very revolutionary.
ETHAN: We basically put it up, and forgot it. And I didn’t even notice that people had discovered it until I got a call from my Internet service provider, who told me that I owed him some astronomical amount of money.
PJ: Do you remember how much?
ETHAN: Uh, it was in the neighborhood of $100,000.
PJ: Their web bill for the month before had been about $5,000. And it kept going from there. Tripod, because it was now the place than anybody could make a website, saw their traffic skyrocket. All of it coming from weird, homemade stuff like the lyrics sites that Alex Goldman was surfing.
ETHAN: I remember our chairman coming in to a meeting and saying, “You have to see this website, it’s the most amazing thing I had ever seen.” And it was a Tripod page that listed five playing cards, and then did a magic trick where you selected a card and it’d in fact pick your card. And, of course, when you actually unpack it and look at it, it was set up in such a way that it had to guess it correctly every time, but it was the only card that remained consistent between the pages. But he was convinced that this was the best thing ever, and as it turned out, so were a quarter million Internet viewers a day.
PJ: So this is awesome! All of a sudden Tripod.com is going through the roof, millions of viewers, more web traffic than they know what to do with. There’s just one thing: they’re not making any money. They’re actually losing it. They had to turn that around. Their answer: advertising. They sent representatives after the big name companies.
ETHAN: And I get a phone call from Detroit because our ad sales guy has just been in a meeting with Ford. He’s showing off the website, he’s showing off what user home pages look like and he pulls up a homepage that has a bunch of content on it that we shouldn’t be hosting. Nude photos of gentlemen enjoying themselves a great deal with one another…
PJ: Wait, but why…if it’s like “triple x hot guys dot tripod dot com,” like how did he accidentally stumble…?
ETHAN: Well, first of all we had a random page button
ETHAN: That’s a terrible idea. Second of all, he’s giving a live demo, another terrible idea. But these all seem like good things until you sort of realize where you are. But yeah…no, he ends up at hotdudes dot tripod dot com. And there’s a lotta gay porn on the page and on the top of it, there’s a Ford ad. And Ford, needless to say, feels like this is not in fact enhancing their brand image.
PJ: Ford was pissed and Ethan’s bosses panicked. They told him: look, you’re the webmaster, fix this. Make sure that a Ford ad never runs alongside hot dudes dot tripod dot com again. That’s actually really tricky. Because you don’t want to censor people’s websites. But you can’t manually match every ad with every website. So what Ethan came up with was a way to create the appearance of distance.
PJ: The pop-up ad.
ETHAN: I really did not mean to break the Internet. I really did not mean to bring this horrible thing into people’s lives. I really am extremely sorry about this. We were trying to solve a problem that may turn out actually to be unsolvable. How do you monetize user-generated content without implicitly endorsing that content?
PJ: So you’re a young Ethan Zuckerman and you’ve just unleashed this thing on the world that no one is ever going to forgive you for. What does that moment feel like? Ethan was ecstatic.
PJ: And how quickly did you realize that this thing you’d come up with was going to be used, essentially, for evil and, like, iterated into its most annoying mutation?
ETHAN: The really horrible — first of all let me say, I teach at MIT now. I have students who study the history of new media. I hope one of them someday will actually try to figure out when the pop up ad completely went off the rails. And when it went from being an inept solution that we put forward into the spawn of satan. Because there’s some moment, and it’s not immediate, it actually sort of takes a while. I would say that when people started doing pop ups that were difficult to minimize, I would say ones that would pop to the front while you were trying to look at content, or would sort of pop up as the interstitial that you had to shove out of the way, to me that feels like moving from trying to accommodate user design into demanding your attention and making you feel like you’re swatting flies. We just wanted to serve an ad and not have it interfere with your page, we thought that would be better for us and for you.
PJ: Of course it was not better for anybody. Ethan now knows this and he actually tried to apologize to the entire world for what he did two decades ago. How that went after this message from our sponsors. Isn’t it weird how it just popped up like that?
PJ: And now, back to the show. For years, the fact that Ethan had invented popup ads wasn’t publicly known. His guilt was private. Late this summer, he decided it was time to confess his secret to the world. Or, at least, the part of the world that reads the Atlantic magazine. He did it in the form of a 4200 word think piece.
ETHAN: I hand it to my editor at the Atlantic, she’s very smart and she sees a mile off that no one wants to read my philosophical musings on how content should be supported on the Internet. That the winning piece of this article is going to be my admitting the pop up. So she does this 300 word pull-quote piece of it, she takes a pull quote from me, she asks me one or two more questions in email, she runs the 300 word piece. That ends up on CNN, and once it ends up on CNN. Forty other sites do incredibly thin rewrites. They basically cut and paste the piece.
PJ: Gawker, Huffington Post, Forbes. All of them with basically the same headline: The monster who invented the pop up ad says he’s sorry.
JIMMY FALLON: I saw that Ethan Zuckerman, the guy who created the internet popup ad, is finally apologizing 20 years after his invention.
PJ: The late night shows are making fun of Ethan within 6 days.
CONAN O’BRIEN: Hey, guess what? The man who created the first Internet popup ad, says that he is sorry. He gave an interview and he said he’s sorry. Yeah. The man also says that a 15 minute call to Geico could save you 15% on car insurance.
PJ: Death threats followed.
ETHAN: You’ve ruined the Internet. You deserve to die. We’re coming for you.
PJ: It didn’t matter what he said, or how his apology was phrased. It was the fact that Ethan thought he could apologize at all that made it such a punchline. People were not going to forgive him for creating the internet version of cockroaches. Things that would endlessly multiply but not die. Except here’s the funny thing about that: When I was doing this story, I wanted to find a pop up ad to play for Ethan. Could not do it. I went all over the internet, couldn’t get popped at. Unless you’re watching porn or illegally streaming the Big Bang Theory, the pop up ad is very hard to find in the wild. So, if popup ads are mostly gone, why does Ethan still feel so guilty? Because, he thinks when popups disappear, they actually pave the way for something worse. Today, when a website wants to make an ad more valuable they won’t shove it in your face with a pop up window. They’ll make it more valuable by collecting data on you and the other people they’re advertising to. And Ethan has this theory, and that theory is pretty much impossible to fact check because it involves an alternate reality in which the popup ad was never invented. But his theory says that the true thing he’s guilty of, the actual thing that people should be mad at him for, is this: because he invented the popup ad back in the mid-90s, he helped create a world today in which Edward Snowden can come forward with his revelations about government spying, and most of us will just shrug, because we’re so used to being generally surveilled by the websites we visit, by the ads that are on them. Ethan Zuckerman believes that the true sin of the pop-up ad was ushering in a world in which the american public has grown too comfortable with the idea of being under surveillance.How does he get there? I’ll walk you through: back in the 90’s, the idea that the internet should be free to use but ad supported, like TV or AM radio, that idea almost died. But, instead, Ethan came up with a fix – the pop up ad – and it saved that model. The pop-up kept this idea of an ad supported internet clanking along for a few more years, which was long enough for all of us to agree, without even knowing it, that the web should always be free to use and the price of that freedom should be ads. It was too late to do something dramatic. To say, look, people, there’s a better way to pay for all this. instead, the internet found a new, advertisement based revenue stream. In this case, we decided to start selling advertisers more than just our clicks. We started selling them data about who we actually were.
ETHAN: I think that by normalizing surveillance, we’ve gotten people used to the notion that hey! Maybe the NSA is reading their communications as well . And that when we have revelations like the Snowden revelations, we don’t take to the streets to protest because we simply assume that the Internet will be surveilled. So, for me the original sin was building a web where everyone assumed everything was free, and that we had to support it with increasingly intrusive and increasingly surveillant advertising.
PJ: What if, says Ethan, back in that Ford meeting, he’d just let the whole rickety idea of a free internet crumble. It’s possible a new purer internet might have emerged from the rubble, one where we just asked people outright to pay for the stuff they love, instead of tricking them into paying for it, in one way or another.
ETHAN: One of the things that I think I’ve learned in all of this is that good enough is a really serious problem. So if you just flat out fail, if you do something and it just doesn’t work at all, you can look at it and say, “So that was a fiasco. Let’s do something really different.” If you do something and it kind of works, it works well enough to support what you were doing, it generates enough revenue to keep the lights on, you tend to get really attached to it even if it was a pretty lousy solution.
PJ: It’s no coincidence that most of Ethan’s post-Tripod life has been spent on the kind of projects that would qualify him for internet sainthood. He founded a non-profit that send people with tech skills to developing countries, and then he founded another non profit, which helps draw attention to international bloggers. His day job is being director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT. He says, and he’s serious when he says this, that one way to think about the last 20 years of his life, is that it was pennant for the world we live it. A world that he’s pretty sure he created.
PJ: Reply All is hosted by Alex Goldman and me, PJ Vogt. Our producer is Lina Misitzis. Our editors were Alex Blumberg, Starlee Kine and Kaitlin Roberts. Matt Leiber makes the ship run. Special thanks this week to Hillary Frank, and her show “The Longest, Shortest Time.” Our episode was brought to you by Squarespace. Squarespace recently launched the latest version of their platform, Squarespace 7, which has a completely redesigned interface, integrations with Getty images and Googles apps, 15 new templates, an incredible feature called cover pages. Try the new Squarespace at squarespace.com and our offer code “reply” at checkout to get 10% off. We are also supported by Igloo: an intranet you’ll actually like. It’s filled with easy to use apps like file sharing blogs, calendars and task management. It works on any device from your laptop to your tablet to your phone to your iWatch. You guys do have iWatches already, right? And if you need to make changes, you don’t need to hire a team of developers–it’s super easy. If you’d like a free trial for up to 10 people go to igloosoftware.com/reply to get started. Our theme song is by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder, additional music by Rishikesh Hurway of songexploder.