Six Questions for Louis Rossetto, Father of Web Advertising

Yesterday, 10/27/14, marked exactly 20 years since Louis Rossetto and Wired Ventures launched the HotWired site, and with it created the first ads on the World Wide Web. I was honored to have been part of that organization and just last week caught up with Louis to hear his thoughts on that time and on what's happened in the 20 intervening years.

1. Hot Wired launched exactly 20 years ago, giving birth to online advertising. Did you ever think its offspring would be so numerous and prosperous?

When we were all standing around Brian Behlendorf's screen and he threw the switch, I was just hoping the server wouldn't crash when it got its first hit. No, actually, we believed that this was the future of media, and it would eclipse and subsume everything else we were doing. And all is proceeding according to plan.

2. You are first and foremost an editor and journalist. What do you think of the writing and curation on the web today?

Actually, I'm first and foremost a troublemaker, which anyone who ever worked with me would attest to. But the web today — it's like asking what do I think about the writing and curation of evolution. Because it's the ecology itself that's amazing. No one is writing or curating it, it is writing and curating itself. More and more, it's becoming a quicksilver representation of the workings of the human brain — which is itself a manifestation of billions of years of evolution.

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3. What companies do you feel are really pushing the consumers web experience forward?

Facebook, Twitter, Google, Airbnb, Kickstarter, Wordpress, Pinterest, Flckr, Youtube, Spotify, Amazon, Nest, Gilt, Tripit, Wikipedia, Drudge, and Stumble Upon — sorry the list is pretty dull, but the biggest sites are driving experience, maybe because they are delivering most of it.

4. Wired was very much about privacy and the individual. Big data is very much a part of all of this right now. Thoughts?

I hate the fact that all of our life is ending up in databases we have no control over. Especially government databases. Non-government databases I am frankly less scared of. Government databases and intrusion, I guess you could try to curtail, either actively by making your life more opaque to them using technology, or trying to get laws passed — but we already have laws and fat lot of good it does. Profusion of private databases and big data analysis, on the other hand, is pretty much uncontrollable, I figure. In a village, there are no secrets, everyone knows everyone's business. Well, today we live in the Global Village.

5. Wired used to list Marshall McLuhan on its masthead as "Patron Saint." Any new Patron Saints emerging today?

There are a lot of false prophets out there, so I'm not taking that bait. Who said "It would appear that instead of the advertising promoting the product, the product promotes the advertising. But that is not exactly right. Actually, the product promotes the consumer?" Marshall McLuhan said it in 1995. But wait, Marshall died in 1980. This was Gary Wolf channeling Marshall in an email "interview" we published when I was editing Wired. Who needs another patron saint when you can just channel the original?

6. Give us one word or phrase to describe web advertising these last 20 years and another to describe what it might be in the next 20?

The web marked the "future" — you know, the one model we have in our head, that clean break from the past that will arrive someday, but we can't say how, we can't say when, and we can't say what it will be. We just know it will be so "different" it won't in any way be like the present. The past 20 years after HotWired have been "prelude." And the next 20 will be "prelude." And then we will again be in the "future" that marks a clean break with life as we know it. (Although we may be there already).

To learn the full story of the birth of our medium, here are links to an article from Fast Company and an incredible podcast from the Internet History Project.