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The Million Dollar Pixels: How a Student’s Idea Changed the Internet for the Better

The Million Dollar Pixels: How a Student’s Idea Changed the Internet for the Better MIND(s that filled) THE GAP(s) [XIII]

The internet. A place where (almost) everybody can see (almost) everything (almost) for free. An incredible technological asset of humanity as a whole. But how can we find everything? Do we pay these people? How many people would agree to make the internet a bigger and better place for free? The answer is simple: a few. The main source of online income comes from advertising. We got used to them on television, radio and even on the streets but who came with the idea of implementing them online? In this article, I will uncover the story behind internet advertisements and the minds behind it. 

The internet was a different place 

Our story begins with the invention of the World Wide Web in 1989 by the English scientist Tim Berners-Lee. At that time the network was small and few people could actually access it. In those early days, internet commercial activities were mostly prohibited. In the 1990s, these restrictions phased out and the first online banner ads appeared. In 2000, Google launched “AdWords” search advertising program (now renamed Google Ads). The whole industry was very different from what we see today. Firstly, web pages were not meant to represent the main source of information regarding a business. For example, the website of New York Times was meant to accompany its printed newspapers, not to replace it. Regarding the advertisements, they were largely dedicated to a business-to-business model. It was uncommon for a personal blog to host ads. Nowadays, everybody is free to create online content and profit from it. But whose mind came up with this? We will never know for sure, but a student from England certainly helped. His name is Alex Tew. 

Innovation comes from unexpected places 

In 2005, Alex Tew was 21 years old and was planning to study Business Management at the University of Nottingham. His main concern was related to the student debt he would be left with at the end of the studies and so he came up with an ingenious idea: creating a website where anyone could buy pixels at 1$ each to display anything (a logo, an advertisement or image). His goal was to sell one million pixels. Regarding the question “why American dollars and not British pounds?” he responded on his website:

“I think US dollars are the closest thing we have to a universal currency on the internet, so it made more sense to do it in dollars. ‘The Million Pound Homepage’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it! Also, given that the US has the largest online population in the world, more people will be able to relate to the concept than had I done it in British pounds. Plus, £1 per pixel would probably be too expensive (would equate to around $1.80 per pixel).” (Alex Tew, 2005).

The website was launched on August 26th, 2005 and it cost €50 (domain name registration and the web-hosting package). The website contained a banner with the site’s name and a counter displaying the number of pixels sold and an empty square grid of 1,000,000 pixels. Tew promised that the site would remain active for at least five years. 

The power of creativity 

Alex’s main purpose was to raise enough money to cover his student debt but he achieved more. People from all over the world bought space on his site and he received endorsements coming from both media and individuals. He became a millionaire at the age of 21. On his website, he answered the question “What will you do with the money?”: “First and foremost, if I make enough money, I will pay my way through University. That includes 3 years worth of tuition fees, accommodation fees, textbooks etc., and [God forbid] – having a social life! After that, I would like to pay for my parents to have some time off because they work so hard and they deserve a break. I would like to return some of the support they have given me over all these years. Thirdly… socks! I definitely need some new socks. Whenever I buy new ones they seem to disappear, or they disintegrate. So I want to buy some really expensive, long-lasting socks. Finally,… if I reach the $1m target and still have money left over after buying my swanky new socks, then I have a couple of interesting business ideas I would love to invest some money in. So watch this space!” (Alex Tew, 2005).

After the success of the website, Alex Tew founded startups like: Pixelotto in 2006 (“An interesting twist to the Million Dollar Homepage concept. This time around advertisers will pay two dollars a pixel and one lucky user will walk away with a million dollars for clicking the winning pixel, hence the lotto bit in the name.”), PopJam in 2008 (“A safe place to share your drawings, post art, make friends, chat with friends, and explore”). In 2012 he founded the software company “Calm” which provides guided meditations to its users. It is marketed as being “the #1 App for Meditation and Sleep”. In other words, he used the money to fund his entrepreneurial ambition.

This shows that student debt worked as an incentive for Alex. The Million Dollar Homepage proved that incentives lead to innovation and that a normal person can do it. Disruptions can happen anytime and big businesses may not be the source. It all comes down to spotting a potential demand while making sure you can manage the supply. 

The legacy of the Million Dollar Homepage 

The website managed to pave the way towards an individual’s ability to generate income on the internet. It changed the way we see online advertisements. 20 years ago, ads were meant to be displayed on a business’ site but now we see them on personal blogs or on platforms made for content creators like YouTube. Furthermore, anyone can pay Google or Facebook in order to display ads. We see individuals promoting their own work just like a corporation would do. Alex showed that the internet, because of its massive size, is open for all and, as a consequence, we witness a free market which is now more open than ever.

A disruptive idea can come out of a peculiar place that no one thinks of. It may come from a 54 year old taxi driver from Eastern Siberia and the internet can be of great help. If the internet was not such a big part of our lives, the taxi driver might just have waited for his retirement and his ideas would most likely be lost with him. Beware, you should not search the internet for that Siberian taxi driver. The only thing we can do is to “expect the unexpected”. 

References: 

Calm.com. (2020). Experience Calm. [online] Available at: https://www.calm.com/ [Accessed 16 Apr. 2020].

Calore, M., Calore, M., Aschwanden, C., Simon, M., Watercutter, A., Simon, M., Cartoons, W. and Rogers, A. (2020). Win a Million Dollars at Pixelotto.com. [online] WIRED. Available at: https://www.wired.com/2006/12/win-a-million-dollars-at-pixelottodotcom/ [Accessed 16 Apr. 2020].

Googlepress.blogspot.com. (2020). Google Launches Self-Service Advertising Program – News announcements – News from Google – Google. [online] Available at: http://googlepress.blogspot.com/2000/10/google-launches-self-service.html [Accessed 16 Apr. 2020].

Livinginternet.com. (2020). NSFNET, National Science Foundation Network. [online] Available at: https://www.livinginternet.com/i/ii_nsfnet.htm [Accessed 16 Apr. 2020].

Milliondollarhomepage.com. (2020). The Million Dollar Homepage - Own a Piece of Internet History! [online] Available at: http://www.milliondollarhomepage.com/ [Accessed 16 Apr. 2020].

News.bbc.co.uk. (2020). BBC NEWS | England | Wiltshire | Student’s cash-raising net scheme. [online] Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/wiltshire/4271694.stm [Accessed 16 Apr. 2020].

News.bbc.co.uk. (2020). BBC NEWS | Magazine | The Million-Dollar Student. [online] Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/4585026.stm [Accessed 16 Apr. 2020].

Play.google.com. (2020). [online] Available at: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.mindcandy.popjam&hl=en [Accessed 16 Apr. 2020].

Web.archive.org. (2020). The Million Dollar Homepage – FAQ. [online] Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20090201202828/http://milliondollarhomepage.com/faq.php [Accessed 16 Apr. 2020].

 
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OEconomica No. 1, 2016