Self | Technology | History

The Inventor of Pop-up Ads Has Deep Regrets

The other Zucker who ruined the internet.

Sean Kernan
5 min readAug 6, 2022


Editorial rights purchased via iStock Photos

Alfred Nobel invented the Nobel Prize as a public relations move.

A year earlier, French newspapers mistakenly thought Alfred had died (it was his brother who had passed).

Alfred stared in horror at obituaries that slammed him for inventing dynamite. He’d created it with good intentions, never thinking it would become a weapon of war.

And so perhaps Ethan Zuckerman has the same fear, all because of one well-intended creation, all part of his attempt to be a good employee.

Yet his chapter reads very differently.

The story begins in 1994

Ethan was a brilliant programmer, still in college, and working for

It was a user-generated online magazine geared at recent college graduates. Its articles discussed saving money, fun things to do, and dating tips.

The web was new and a very, very different place back then. For example, this is Yahoo in 1994:

Via web design museum (public domain)

The web was also far less competitive.

If you typed “shoes” into Yahoo, the first result would be some random dude's site, “Joe’s Shoe Shop”. SEO was a distant and primitive discipline.

How the first pop-up came to be

Ethan was hired on as a “Founding Webmaster”.

A year into his job, he developed a special tool in his off hours and rolled it out quickly. The tool allowed you to paste HTML code into a form, click a button, and instantly create your website.

Ethan didn’t think anything of it and went on to his next project.

Weeks later, he got a call from Tripod’s web provider. They said he owed them $100,000 (versus the normal $5000 annual fee).

His tool had quietly become extremely popular.



Sean Kernan

Always on the hunt for a good story. That guy from Quora. Writing out of Tampa, Florida.