The accidental history of the internet we use today

Pageviews, cookies, banner ads and targeting are all staples of the internet we know (and mostly love) today. But as Dan Monheit discovers in the first episode of the new Connected podcast series, the net we have today was built in a very, very ad hoc way. Is it time to let it go?


This is an excerpt of an op-ed by created by Clear Hayes with Meta. To view the whole post on AdNews, click here.

If I told you most of the media metrics you’re basing your campaign objectives on today were created on the fly by a group of kids nearly 30 years ago, what would you say?

So much of what we take for granted today like pageviews, cookies and targeting didn’t exist until the mid-1990s, when a group of pioneers tried to make sense of the Information Superhighway, as we called it back then.

And, as we explore in the opening episodes of the new Connected podcast, it’s led to some interesting unintended consequences which we’re still grappling with today.

You probably haven’t stopped to think about how and when the first banner ads were created and sold. But if you’re over 28 it happened in your lifetime, hacked together by a group of developers working for Wired Magazine.

As internet historian Brian McCullough explains, there wasn’t a blueprint these people could copy, so they took their inspiration from the physical magazine – and many of the things they invented then still exist today. These were the inventors of interactive advertising.

As we explore in the podcast, there’s also another legacy of the mid-90s we’re grappling with today. It’s one which has had a much more profound effect on the way we as marketers use the internet – cookies.

At their heart they’re a simple little package of code that’s dropped onto people’s browsers to allow them to be identified as they use different websites. They were originally created to personalise experiences for early internet users, but were soon used to target advertising to people.

And boy, did advertising take off as the funding model for the internet. IAB CEO Gai Le Roy was a humble analyst back in those early days of the web – and remembers the first internet spend reports when there was about $7m spent in 1997 in Australia.

The 2021 spend report showed that figure is approaching $13bn.

Unlike the rest of the internet, cookies haven’t really evolved much in that time – but have become the backbone of the vast majority of marketing campaigns. The problem is, while they’re now a little more sophisticated, at their core they’re still the same. They only give a rough idea of who the user you’re targeting might be.

It’s hardly the kind of sophistication we’ve come to expect from the place most of us now spend the majority of our work and leisure time. So it’s little surprise they’re about to be sunsetted after nearly 30 years of service.

Read the full post on AdNews here.