What are pixels? The display on your screen is made of them, and raster image file formats have been created with them in mind, but are they real estate? In 2005, Alex Tew thought they were, and became a millionaire.

Tew, then 21 years old, was looking for a way to fund his business management studies at the University of Nottingham. He created a website with a grid of 1,000 x 1,000 pixels, and put each block of 10 x 10 pixels on sale for $100, with the promise that the site would remain online for at least 5 years. Combined, all pixels were worth $1 million. The site was thus named The Million Dollar Homepage.

Have you found Waldo? (Click to enlarge.)

PR is power

At first, most of Tew's clients were his friends and family members. After all, who else would want to buy advertising space on a site that no one had heard about? Then Tew invested his profits into public relations services that resulted in British media reporting the story. That in itself turned the site into a sought-after advertising platform.

Tew's customers were as diverse as you can imagine, from humble sites of rugby tactics or free fonts to The Times of London, online casinos and web hosting services. If you look closely, you can also find Waldo ("Where's Waldo?") a few times. One customer even bought a large square of pixels, and put 9 areas of it out for rent.

The site's top-left corner got booked the most quickly.

On the first day of 2006, Tew put the last free 1,000 pixels on auction on eBay. The winning bid after 10 days was $38,100, setting the site's gross income at $1,037,100. Taxes aside, Tew donated a portion of the money to The Prince's Trust, founded by King Charles III.

The day the auction started, Tew was threatened by email with a distributed denial of services (DDoS) attack if he didn't pay a $5,000 ransom, which changed to $50,000 in a following email. The day after the last 1,000 pixels were sold, the site was flooded with fake traffic and emails and quickly crashed. The problem was solved a week later thanks to filtering traffic to the site through more secure servers.

Never repeat a joke

At the end of his first semester, Tew dropped out of school, saying traditional education wasn't for him. In the meantime, hundreds of copycat sites tried to replicate The Million Dollar Homepage's success, but none of them did. Tew himself realized that if he wanted to create another sensation, he needed a new gimmick.

Tew's Pixelotto was similar to The Million Dollar Homepage, except that every pixel cost $2, as the site had an incentive for visitors to click on ads: among the registered visitors who did so, one would win half of the site's sales income. The pixels on the new site didn't sell as well as on the original, however, and the winner only got $153,000 rather than the expected $1 million.

Pixelotto didn't quite replicate the original site's success.

Tew managed to remain in the public memory thanks to a sophisticated Adobe Flash game inspired by true events and called Shock and Awe. The goal of the game, released in 2008, was to hit President George W. Bush with as many shoes as possible.

In 2010, Tew once again went back to his old ways with One Million People, an attempt to create a physical answer to Facebook, with each person paying $3 to be a part of a book that "captures the faces of a generation." The new initiative never succeeded, even when participation became free. Around 2030, such a book created in 2010 could become interesting, but back then, it was like watching That '70s Show in the 1970s. Most people aren't that forward-thinking.

Two years later, Tew finally had an idea deserving of fame with the meditation app Calm. In 2019, the company founded by Tew and Michael Acton Smith was valued at $1 billion.

A piece of internet history

The Million Dollar Homepage is still online – Tew has more than kept his promise. Some of the ads, such as "Win Xbox 360" or "Copy DVDs," very much reflect the era of purchase. The site's other pages, such as the FAQ or blogs, are only available through the Wayback Machine.

In 2019, BBC reported that 40% of the links on the million-pixel grid were dead, and that many others redirected to new domains. That didn't include URLs that had new owners, or sites that had changed beyond recognition while keeping the same address.

The original site had some... interesting clients.

One example of a site that's remained active and kept growing over the years, possibly thanks to the smart investment, is Date My Pet (don't worry – the name addresses your own pet). A different example, of a site that still looks a relic from the Web 1.0 era, is Ling's Cars, calling itself "the UK's craziest car leasing website."

On the surface, it looks like The Million Dollar Homepage has no real legacy: the idea of selling pixels died around 2006. On the other hand, the site can be seen as the forefather of the non-fungible tokens (NFT) phenomenon, as the value of the pixels didn't come from what they were, but from how famous they were. The story of the site regardless provides the very definition of "famous for being famous" and shows how the internet has changed the world.

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