Blinking with Lou Montulli

Lou Montulli, Santa Clara, 2018.

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I love tech history. Putting faces to names, learning the backstories of inventions, and discovering wrinkles that never made it into the history books. That’s why Lou Montulli has been someone I’ve wanted to photograph for a long time.

Lou was one of the founding engineers at Netscape Communications — the famed Silicon Valley web browser company that ushered in the dawn of the commercial Internet during the 1990’s. The history of Netscape is a walk down memory lane for me (I was working for their ad agency at the time) so it was a real treat to have Lou in front of my camera.

Lou Montulli by Peter Adams.
Lou Montulli, Santa Clara, California.

The Cookie that Changed Everything

Lou is arguably best known for creating the browser cookie — the thing that websites use to “remember” you across visits.

Interestingly, cookies were not part of the original design of the web. Instead, they were added by Montulli (while he worked at Netscape) to make it easier for websites to remember things about visitors such as their browsing preferences or the products they added to a shopping cart.

Despite this original intent, cookies quickly became controversial once online advertising companies figured out how to use them to target ads and track people across different websites. These days, with consumer concern about online privacy at an all time high, it seemed only fitting to photograph Lou opening pandora’s box. Or, in his case, the cookie jar.

Lou Montulli by Peter Adams .

Don’t Blink

Lou’s contribution to web history didn’t end with cookies.  He was also responsible for a host of other browser innovations including http proxying, the Lynx text-only web browser, and my favorite: the “blink” tag.

Blink was a secret HTML markup tag hidden in Netscape’s web browser that could be used to make the text of web pages “blink” on and off.

Lou tells the backstory on his blog, but blink was what computer programers call an “easter egg” — an amusing feature hidden in a piece of software by its developers. Like all easter eggs, the blink tag was undocumented and not something its creators expected many to discover.

Unfortunately, blink didn’t remain a secret for very long. Once the cat was out of the bag, people began to make web pages that looked like the digital equivalent of a very annoying neon sign.

Back then the net was so tame that using all caps in an email was just about the worst thing you could do. So when the use of blink really caught on, people were not pleased.

The backlash was so bad that even Netscape and Microsoft (who were arch-enemies at the time) agreed to sit down and sign a pact to remove the tag from their respective browsers and from the official HTML specification.

While he didn’t write the code for blink himself, Lou was the impetus behind the tag’s creation and today proudly takes the heat that people occasionally throw his way.  Years later, blink has become both a badge of honor as well as a caustic reminder of unintended consequences. Which gave me an idea…

After we were done with the other photo setups, I brought in Celeste Oda (a very talented face painter) to give Lou a tattoo. More specifically, an eyelid tattoo.

Lou-montulli-bts1 by .

Yes it’s possible to write proper HTML on eyelids. No, we didn’t forget the backslash.

The final shot:

Lou Montulli by Peter Adams .

My thanks to Lou for being such a great collaborator and for not blinking the entire time.

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