The accidental history of the internet we use today

Originally shared via AdNews 7.4.22

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?

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.

And it’s that decision to get rid of third party cookies, and the massive implications this has, that we explore across the first two episodes of Connected. It’s a wild ride looking back on where we came from — the pioneers doing amazing things, a cheeky million-dollar idea from the man who went on to found the Calm meditation app, and an ever-evolving user relationship with what has now become another public utility.

The thing is, as we hear, many businesses have become reliant on cookies to fuel their digital advertising, and most really aren’t prepared for the changes coming down the line in, what by internet terms, will be the blink of an eye.

And with those changes comes the struggle to balance the need for information with privacy, the question of new regulation coming online which will impact everyone. So how do we go from having more data than can be possibly used on customers, to none at all?

Well, as people far smarter than me, like WPP AUNZ President Rose Herceg, social media strategist Meg Coffey, Meta’s Ian Stone, and Brian and Gai explain, it’s all about first party data and the building new, trust-baed relationships with our customers.

It’s where we’re headed as we enter the very real era of Web 3.0, and it’s an exciting place to be working for us all, if we embrace it.

Have something to say on this? Share your views in the comments section below. Or if you have a news story or tip-off, drop us a line at

Sign up to the AdNews newsletter, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter for breaking stories and campaigns throughout the day.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store



We’re an independent creative agency helping brands capitalise on the why, when, where, what and how of human behaviour.