The story behind the pop-up

Published - April 24, 2017 07:33 pm IST

Popup ads have become one of the most hated aspects of Internet browsing

Popup ads have become one of the most hated aspects of Internet browsing

You’re trying to do something relatively important online, but just when you’re about to book a ticket, buy a product, or read the most interesting part of an article, an irritating window pops up and gets in the way.

If you’ve been on the web long enough, then you’ve been annoyed by many different kinds of pop-ups. Some promise you a luscious head of hair, others offer impossible discounts, and still more claim you’ve won a fabulous prize. It feels impossible to get away from these exasperating windows that seemingly appear at random and whose only purpose is to antagonise you.

But have you ever stopped to think about why we have these pernicious pieces of software hassling us? If you have, here is a short history of the pop-up.

It all started in 1994, back in the Jurassic age of the Internet, when dinosaurs like Netscape, GeoCities and AltaVista roamed the web. The web was really figuring itself out, and the underlying philosophical discussion was about how to keep content free. The easy answer was to use advertising.

A young engineer named Ethan Zuckerman was working for a GeoCities-like company called Tripod. Tripod was among the first sites on the Internet that let you build your own web pages. The novelty of having your own website as a non-techie meant that everyone wanted one; Tripod was blowing up and costs were escalating fast. Ethan’s job was to figure out how to serve ads on those pages and make money for Tripod to cover server and bandwidth costs.

Trying to come up with a new advertising format, Ethan was playing with a new software language called Javascript. Javascript basically allowed a programmer to open a new browser window from within the current window for the first time. Ethan built a tiny ad and programmed it to pop up beside each user’s homepage on Tripod, and the web has never been the same again.

The early days of pop-ups were relatively innocent – you could close them easily and they really didn’t get in the way. Today is a different story. Pop-ups are a lot more malicious. They refuse to close, block your browser, download viruses onto your computer and a lot more. For a very long time, no one knew about Ethan and his guilty little secret. But seeing pop-ups morph from a relatively benign bunch of bees into a voracious swarm of locusts made Ethan feel like he needed confess. In 2014, Ethan apologised to the world for what he called ‘The Internet’s Original Sin’ and came clean in an article about creating this despicable piece of Internet software.

Rather than commiserate with his predicament and accept his heartfelt apology, the Internet reacted as you would expect, with biblical amounts of vitriol. Anyone who has witnessed any of the outrage we regularly see on Facebook and Twitter today, will have an inkling of what he was subjected to, along with more than a few death threats of course.

So the next time you see a pop-up, spare a thought for poor Ethan and don’t get exasperated. Just install an ad-blocker and you’ll be good to go.

The writer is a digital transformation and strategy consultant

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.