HOTorNOT shaped the social web as we know it
The forgotten joke website influenced YouTube, Twitter, Tinder, and so much more
Before MySpace, before Facebook, before Twitter, before YouTube, before Instagram, before Tinder — there was HOTorNOT(opens in a new tab).
Created on a lark in 2000, HOTorNOT became what we’d now call an overnight viral hit by letting people upload pictures of themselves to the internet so total strangers could rate their attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 10. Twenty years later, it’s a conceit that smacks of the juvenile “edginess” of the early web. It's now seen at best as superficial and crass, at worst as problematic and potentially offensive. However, the deeper you dive into HOTorNOT’s history, the more surprised you'll be by the thoughtfulness bubbling below its shallow surface — and its fundamental impact on internet history.
In ways big and small, HOTorNOT’s DNA is embedded into almost every major platform that defines how we interact online today.
It was the genesis for revolutionary concepts like the public profile at a time when uploading pictures of yourself was seen as an oddity or risk, when Facebook wasn’t even a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye. Sure, we may have gotten rid of the 1 to 10 rating scale, but likes on Instagram selfies still essentially serve as an implied aggregated score of exactly how hot or not the internet thinks you are.
Soon after finding instant meteoric success, HOTorNOT then invented the most foundational concept of online speed-dating through the Meet Me feature(opens in a new tab), a proto-Tinder over a decade ahead of its time. Dating sites like Match.com already existed, but back then they were seen as options for an older or “desperate” crowd. HOTorNOT’s Meet Me helped make casual online mingling for younger folks mainstream, originating “double match” opt-in communication that required users express mutual interest before being able to message each other. Instead of extensive bios and questionnaires geared toward long-term commitment, HOTorNOT limited you to a picture, short bio, and keyword tags that reflected your interests. The rating scale of the main website functioned similarly to the dating app swipe, back when ubiquitous smartphones with touch controls sounded like sci-fi.
HOTorNOT’s legacy is marred by the hindsight of today’s more progressive and jaded culture, understandably wary of anything that had a hand in setting the foundation for some of the worst aspects of the social web. But tech has a tendency to spiral beyond its original intent. Most of the internet remnants of HOTorNOT’s formula are stripped of their precursor’s nuances.
HOTorNOT was the first time millions of people ever saw themselves reflected through a digital mirror, only to find the internet’s perception of them staring back. For better and for worse, it ignited our impulse to turn to the web as a collective, objective judge of our self worth. At the end of the day, understanding HOTorNOT is essential to understanding who we are online.
MAKING INTERNET HISTORY
“Everything about HOTorNOT was about wanting to cultivate the idea of a two-way web, finding ways to connect people. We really saw ourselves as trying to build the ultimate people router,” said one of HOTorNOT’s two co-founders, James Hong, referring to a seminal concept that influenced much of Web 2.0(opens in a new tab), which was defined by the social media platforms launched on the heels of HOTorNOT. “The rating side was a way to interact: Posting a picture was an expression of who you were. And the person rating was communicating back — not with words, but with a number of their opinion. We saw that as a conversation.”
That type of “gamified” digital conversation, grounded in reward point systems and scores, remains a foundation for most social online interaction. We still express our opinions by giving each other’s pictures and thoughts a collective numerical value, whether through likes on Instagram (released a full decade after HOTorNOT) or retweets on Twitter (which was initially hosted for free on HOTorNOT’s server in its earliest iterations from 2006 to 2007).
“It was a different internet at the time,” said Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter. A good friend of Hong, he called him one of the smartest people he knows in Silicon Valley, crediting the HOTorNOT team with ushering in many of the pioneering ideas that influenced the early social web. “It was kind of a shock, the idea that people would actually upload their pictures and opt them in to being rated.”
The shock of it was purposeful, too, with Williams characterizing Hong and HOTorNOT co-founder Jim Young as always, “willing to be audacious and bold.”
“Most people hear HOTorNOT and think of the ranking feature, which is crude and sort of questionable in today's light,” he said. “But there was always a deep caring and humaneness in how they did things that wasn't necessarily apparent if you weren't part of the community.”
Twitter was only one of the many web startups that HOTorNOT helped get their start by offering free hosting, too. Others included Bittorrent and Zipdash (which eventually became Google Maps). Famously, even YouTube started out in 2005 as a copy of HOTorNOT’s speed dating concept, but with video instead of images.
“Back then there was a lot of just learning as you go in Silicon Valley,” said Steve Chen, a YouTube co-founder and good friend of Young's at the time. “We were a bunch of, you know, 20-year-olds trying to figure out together how you transform the world with a consumer internet platform, an idea that the world would hopefully need or want to use. HOTorNOT was one of the leaders in that.”
Chen said one of HOTorNOT’s greatest impacts was as a singular example of a tech startup that found enormous financial success at a pivotal moment following the Dotcom crash of 2000(opens in a new tab). It was proof that sites could be profitable through scrappiness, cheap overhead, and attention-grabbing concepts that spread like wildfire without spending a single cent on marketing.
“Back then even if you built a service with a good idea behind it, there was still the question of how would you get your first thousand users? Of all the examples out there, HOTorNOT was the key role model,” said Chen.
Long before social media was around to spread content, when “virality” still referred to viruses, HOTorNOT found a way to be an overnight internet sensation through word of mouth. The site launched at around 2 p.m. on Oct. 9, 2000. Hong and Young sent emails with the link to a few friends who were engineers for feedback, uncertain of how it would be received and requesting they be gentle. Less than 12 hours later, tens of thousands of IP addresses were flooding the site.
“It was amazing, but also caused a lot of problems,” Hong said.
If it kept up, the cost of the bandwidth would be about $50,000 by the end of the month — and the traffic was doubling every several hours or so. In a panic, the two broke U.C. Berkeley grads considered shutting it down. Instead, they ported the site to a spare computer with less power than a modern iPhone that e*Trade gave out for free to anyone who opened an account. At three or four in the morning, they drove it to Berkeley, where Young was still a graduate student. After powering it up and connecting it to the school’s network in Young’s office, they strategically hid the machine under his desk behind some other computers — before leaving like thieves in the night and hoping no one would notice.
They did notice. The Dean of Berkeley’s College of Engineering, Richard Newton, called Young after IT traced the massive bandwidth strain to the machine in his office. He came clean. Miraculously, instead of expelling Young, Newton recognized HOTorNOT’s potential and said he’d buy them a few days to figure something else out.
Courtesy of James Hong
Courtesy of James Hong
“We had a lot of help like that from so many people. And a lot of luck,” said Hong. Newton (who has since died) even later introduced them to folks at Google, which resulted in HOTorNOT being one of the very first beta testers of Google Adsense. “We wouldn’t have made it if a bunch of people hadn’t helped us keep overhead costs low in the early days.”
HOTorNOT was such a captivatingly viral concept that it inspired dozens of copycats, including GothorNot, RateMyPoo, Monkey Hot or Not(opens in a new tab), and even an (unofficial) reality show(opens in a new tab). More than a run of the mill funny cat, HOTorNOT meme-fied a whole website construct. Arguably, it’s how HOTorNOT permanently solidified itself into the internet’s collective unconscious, to the point where kids born long after and with no knowledge of it can innately grasp its formula.
The site didn’t remain a money suck for long. By leveraging its large audience and launching the subscription-based Meet Me matchmaking service in March 2001, HOTorNOT became one of the first to monetize virality.
In a moment of high uncertainty for the industry, HOTorNOT stepped onto the scene essentially flipping the bird in its boxer-briefs at everyone else by earning over $4 million by 2003 (with nearly 88 percent of revenue coming from auto-renewing subscriptions). After the blow of Silicon Valley’s burst bubble, it proved it could harness this newfangled web’s undivided attention and make money. To add icing to the cake, HOTorNOT was run by two college kids with no money, when most other web startups relied on the venture capitalist funding model.
“But it was just us two nerdy engineering grads, building this website in our pajamas," said Hong. "Jim was single-handedly scaling this thing in his bedroom that within like a month and a half was ranked the 20th biggest website by traffic in the world... Only in Silicon Valley could all of this happen around something as silly as HOTorNOT.”
While there are a few variations to the origin story, it always starts with Hong and Young drinking beers (some versions have them in a dorm, others their living room, another at a bar), debating whether a woman was a perfect 10 or not. So they programmed a website that could give them an answer.
“All of those things are kind of true, because that did happen. But there was more intent behind it than we led on,” said Hong, who openly admits to playing up certain aspects of the site’s quaint, scandalous (at least back then) origin story, both in the press(opens in a new tab) and on the website itself(opens in a new tab). We now know to take mythologizing stories of young male tech “disruptors” changing the world by inventing something in their proverbial garage(opens in a new tab) with a giant grain of salt.(opens in a new tab)
Hong remembers wanting to port the experience of IRL people watching onto the web. The idea initially entailed more passive voyeurism, with a screen saver type interface where people’s pictures would float across your computer background. It was seen as a solution to the growing number of people working in isolated office cubicles with only a computer for company. The rating feature was added to make it more interactive (and “edgy”), also tapping into our natural impulse to make snap judgments about the folks we people watch.
On an even more base (and relatable) level, HOTorNOT’s co-founders can be likened to today's content creators, scheming up strategies for monetizing the social web through humor and cult of personality branding. Hong cited the Turkish Stud as a major inspiration, which KnowYourMeme characterizes(opens in a new tab) as a precursor to online dating profiles that became, “one of the first widely circulated internet memes, up there with Hamster Dance and Dancing Baby.” They wanted to make their own Turkish Stud, Hong recalled: something oddly funny that only got big because people naturally wanted to share it with each other, outsmarting all the corporate bigwigs burning piles of cash to try and get users.
Young remembers an even less romanticized motivation: boredom.
“I was in grad school at the time and working on stuff I wasn’t super excited about. I had just wrapped up a paper for school, and needed to blow off some steam. The idea of rating pictures was funny and simple enough that it wouldn’t take very long to build.”
The HOTorNOT craze also amazed their Silicon Valley friends because Young and Hong were one of the first web engineers to get some social cache and fame from outside of their insular tech-nerd circles.
“Being a Silicon Valley founder definitely wasn't cool then. I mean, not that many people even knew what it meant,” said Williams. “But they had tapped into a pretty mainstream audience... They were like mini-celebrities in a world where there weren't a lot of celebrities created via the internet.”
A New Yorker writer profiling “The Hot or Not Guys(opens in a new tab)” even followed them around Entertainment Weekly’s exclusive “It List” party in 2002. Thrust into the glitz and glam, Hong was shocked to discover beautiful women who’d never give him the time of day before were suddenly captivated after hearing he was behind HOTorNOT. Not because of any presumption of riches, but because people saw the site as imbuing him with some sort of magical ability to be an objective arbiter of attractiveness. Their newfound popularity baffled the two co-founders, with Young describing it as “awful.” It was a stark contrast to the reality of exactly how unglamorous their jobs actually were.
“We’re not even hot ourselves, so who were we to talk? We were not the type of people with any right to go around judging people on their hotness,” said Hong. “We saw HOTorNOT more as a tool where you could get an honest assessment from people if you wanted it.”
Your friends would probably lie about your number out of kindness, they figured. But the internet certainly would not.
Famously, they put up a three-story billboard on the side of their datacenter on 365 Main St. in San Francisco that showed the two co-founders buck naked, their private parts covered only by a sign with their relatively low HOTorNOT scores of 3.9 and 4.1. It was an irony often played up for branding, too, some proof that — despite what critics said — their site wasn’t really built on the worldview that beauty was the most important quality in a person.
The concerns others levied against HOTorNOT were ones the founders themselves wrestled with at first. Ultimately, Hong said, the rationale was that real-world society already placed the same value on attractiveness, regardless of whether HOTorNOT brought it to the web. Many of their initial worries also turned out to be unfounded since only under 2 percent of visitors actually submitted pictures. Those brave enough to seek ratings were self-selecting, rarely surprised by their scores.
“If you’re attractive, you didn’t really need HOTorNOT to tell you that. You get that feedback every day from people and the way they treat you,” said Hong. “The small percentage of people who had the chutzpah to submit themselves who weren’t, you know, conventionally attractive also already had the confidence to not really be fazed by a low score.”
They even got some positive feedback from people with lower scores because, inevitably, some rated them much higher than expected. One person’s 4 is inevitably someone else’s 8, a platitude that the internet helped validate.
Courtesy of James Hong
Still, they did think a lot about designing the site in a way that lessened its potential negative psychological effects and misuses.
They purposefully forwent conventions like comment sections and forums, so people with low scores or specific insecurities wouldn’t get dog-piled. Those who submitted photos could opt out of public ratings or even upload a different one at any time. If anyone ever contacted them to request taking down a picture uploaded of them without their consent, they always did so as quickly as possible with little to no questions asked. To further deter bullying or inappropriate use of the site, they implemented a pioneering moderation system that incentivized power users to become mods through gamification. Becoming a mod was presented as selective and aspirational, requiring users to apply, get accepted, and then receive rewards and status symbols the more they contributed to protecting the community. It was yet another advent from HOTorNOT that’s now standard on the web, used by monoliths like Wikipedia and Reddit.
Every design choice was meant to service HOTorNOT’s tagline — its north star — of keeping the site, “Fun, Clean, and Real.”
Keeping things fun meant ensuring the site didn’t become a hotbed for bullying, toxicity, or really anything too serious. Keeping things clean meant not letting it become just another place for porn (which, of course, immediately became its biggest ongoing problem). Most interesting, though, was the goal of realness — arguably a precursor to what remains the most sought after social currency of “authenticity” on platforms like TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter. Like social media authenticity now, though, HOTorNOT’s “realness” still meant literal models with high-production photos tended to top the hottest score charts above everyday people.
Like much of the early web, HOTorNOT contributed small innovations so rudimentary we take them completely for granted. For example, before it, users always had to click “submit” before any sort of vote or action would be registered by an HTML site. But in service of making the ratings game of HOTorNOT as fast-paced and addictive as possible, Young got rid of that extra step.
But that’s the thing: Most stuff from back then sounds so basic — perhaps even inevitable — in retrospect.
“The ‘OG Instagrammers’ first cut their teeth on HOTorNOT, optimizing angles, using sepia tones, posing with puppies as their profile pic to optimize their ratings,” said Kun Gao, one of HOTorNOT’s earliest employees who was part of the group that eventually splintered off to found their own wildly successful anime streaming website, Crunchyroll.
Actually, Hong eventually launched a proto-Instagram himself called Yafro, a social network photo-sharing site. But he shut it down prematurely after hearing rumors that the Bush administration would soon crack down on illegal images spread through web platforms.
While they didn’t originate it, HOTorNOT popularized the Korean innovation of virtual goods bought with IRL money in the West. Suitors on the Meet Me speed dating service could buy each other digital flowers. Meet Me flowers, which “died” after a certain amount of time, were equivalent to a Tinder Super Like: paid-for bling to make a potential match more likely to notice your profile.
For the few who’d stuck around in Silicon Valley after the Dotcom crash dried up all the money, the sheer ridiculousness of HOTorNOT’s seemingly unstoppable success was a ray of hope, reigniting a belief in the web’s endless potential — no matter how stupid or wild.
“HOTorNOT showed us that anything was possible on the internet,” said Gao. “That it can serve as a social playground instead of just a place for utility services to buy cheaper books and look up sports scores. It connected online and offline social interaction in new ways never imagined or implemented before. It gave all of us that went through its doors the realization that the internet was one big social experiment.”
Exactly how much of HOTorNOT’s mythos was fact or fiction, natural or manufactured, a stroke of genius or luck, revolutionary or inevitable, positive or negative, is a question with no definite answers. It’s also a debate the founders welcome.
LIKE IT OR NOT, THIS IS HOTORNOT'S INTERNET
Not everyone (including Hong himself(opens in a new tab), for various reasons(opens in a new tab)) sees some of the social web conventions HOTorNOT innovated as something to celebrate. In her 2016 book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers(opens in a new tab), Nancy Jo Sales critiques HOTorNOT as the genesis of misogynistic social media platforms that were created mostly by men and promote valuing women and girls’ for their physical appeal above all else.
“Some people hear the initial premise of HOTorNOT and immediately jump to conclusions,” said Young. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them had never actually been on the site.”
For one, HOTorNOT wasn’t the “one-sided beauty pageant of women being judged by men,” that Sales’ characterization suggests, Young said. Both men and women opted into being rated. According to aggregated scores, men were also on average rated more harshly than women by several points. Surprisingly, men submitted photos of themselves at almost double the rate of women, too, requiring Young to actually insert coding that ensured both would be presented for rating at a more equal frequency.
“In a way it was actually kind of payback for sexism because, up to that point, only women had been judged for their appearance in this way. Men got a taste of their own medicine,” said Hong. “We thought, well, at least some men who think they’re hot stuff are going to get disillusioned.”
For another, HOTorNOT’s mutual opt-in messaging system (which Williams’ noted as an advent later brought to direct messaging on Twitter) introduced the concept of digital consent to online dating. Though, to be fair, the purpose of implementing it was twofold. Firstly, it improved women’s online dating experience since every other dating site (like Match.com) gave them zero control over who contacted them, often leading to a bombardment of unwanted, harassing messages from men. Secondly, it spared men the rejection of sending countless messages to women who’d never write them back. Similarly, the site allowed for “men seeking men” and “women seeking women” (which was not a given for dating sites at the time), but still defined queerness only within a gender binary (as was the norm back then).
There’s no doubt that gendered, racist, heteronormative, ageist, fatphobic, ableist, and socioeconomic biases were present in the beauty standards ranked highest on HOTorNOT (as captured by this experiment amalgamating the highest to lowest ranked facial features(opens in a new tab)). They reflect much of the same biases of who gets the most likes or biggest followings on modern social media. Though, Hong argued, since the internet shifted the power of defining beauty standards away from just mass media and advertising companies, more alternative and diverse definitions of attractiveness have been able to thrive on digital platforms like TikTok.
Reductive portrayals of HOTorNOT as an all-male company inventing misogynistic internet culture erases the existence, contributions, and perspectives of its women employees. Dawn Ngo, hired in 2003 for customer service and eventually promoted to operations manager, said her opinions and feedback were very sought after, her significant contributions as equally valued as those of technical contributors. She’s also credited as the main creative force behind the Meet Me digital flowers.
Desiree Therianos, hired for customer service in 2004 as a new mother re-entering the workforce, also said she was given a major voice in shaping users’ most commonly requested features and issues, working closely with the engineers who highly valued her input.
“The features were heavily skewed in favor of female users,” said Therianos. At the end of the day, the subscription model wouldn’t work if HOTorNOT was a bad experience for women on the Meet Me side.
Ngo and Therianos described a workplace environment at HOTorNOT that was a far cry from modern stereotypes of sexist tech bro culture, despite some questionably racy (but innocuous) humor. That poster version of the billboard, for example, was one of the first things one would see upon entering the office.
Both women felt supported, heard, and were given ample opportunities to grow and pursue ideas in similar ways to the male engineers. Therianos was one of the employees who left with Gao to help build Crunchyroll, working with the anime site for over a decade as an HR consultant. There, she helped get a Girls in Engineering Program off the ground. To this day, she said she still calls Hong and Young for advice sometimes. HOTorNOT wasn’t a progressive utopia though; its employees were mostly Asian and white. Two decades later, employment diversity is still lacking at Silicon Valley tech companies(opens in a new tab), with Black and Latino employees holding very few leadership and technical roles.
Like Hong, both Ngo and Therianos agree that there are important consequences to consider about the social web HOTorNOT helped pioneer.
“At the time, I believed it was harmless fun. Now, I can see how it’s superficial and could contribute to sexism,” said Ngo. After all, social platforms bear the biases of the people who make them. “Yes, heterosexual men affect social media culture. HOTorNOT may have been the beginning of this, but I think it is a reflection of culture and not the origin of sexism online.”
From Therianos' and Hong’s perspectives, HOTorNOT succeeded because it tapped into a human urge that isn’t necessarily gender-specific. When you look back at the “edgy” humor that made HOTorNOT an overnight sensation, though, it’s hard to imagine women co-founders being given the same leeway. Even now, women CEOs and tech leaders are held to higher ethical and even physical attractiveness standards(opens in a new tab). It makes one wonder if there has ever been a time when two women co-founders (especially queer, trans, Black or brown women co-founders) would be universally celebrated for putting up a three-story billboard with their naked bodies advertising how average-looking they are.
But as evidenced in Nancy Jo Sales’ book, a lot of HOTorNOT’s bad reputation comes from people retroactively lumping it in with Facemash, which was Mark Zuckerberg’s 2003 Harvard copycat credited as the precursor to Facebook.
The caricature of HOTorNOT as an emblem of Silicon Valley misogyny seems to stem more from later portrayals of Facemash’s origin story. In 2010, The Social Network's iconic retelling of Facemash(opens in a new tab) depicted a college-aged Zuckerberg making it after a girl rejected him on a date. It solidified the public perception of this type of platform as a revenge-of-the-nerds type power trip with tech geniuses seeking to belittle those who ever doubted them, particularly women.
But what’s most notable about the comparison between HOTorNOT and Facemash is how small design choices can lead to a drastically different copycat. Unlike the voluntary submissions of HOTorNOT, for example, Zuckerberg stole students’ photos(opens in a new tab) without their consent from various dorm directories for Facemash. It also pitted two people against each other, asking users to comparatively vote on who was hotter.
Courtesy of James Hong
Funnily enough, while the connection between HOTorNOT and Facebook is what people remember most now, in reality it was the major social media platform from that time with the least connection to HOTorNOT’s creators.
After hearing about how Zuckerberg was nearly expelled for making Facemash, Hong reached out to him via email to offer help and free hosting and services (as he had done with so many others, like Twitter and YouTube). He never heard back. Years later when Facebook was already taking over the college scene, Hong saw Zuckerberg at a Silicon Valley launch party. He asked in passing why he never responded to the email.
“And he was just like, ‘Oh, yeah, sorry, I, you know, I just never saw that email. I must've been too busy,” Hong recalled. (Facebook representatives declined to comment on the interaction.)
Still, despite not being part of its original creators’ intent, the direct remnants of HOTorNOT on the internet today do make one question the efficacy of its impact. Recently, a friend sent our group a heads up that someone uploaded a photo from our personal Instagrams to the r/hotornot subreddit, under the title “Which one is the most fuckable?” It made me appreciate the HOTorNOT co-founders’ forethought to forgo a comments section.
At the same time, I was surprised by how little it fazed me.
Maybe it’s because I’m a woman on the internet with a lot of public, critical opinions on tech, video games, and sexism. Or maybe this kind of violation (which used to frighten us in pre-HOTorNOT culture) is now just the accepted price of admission to the world wide web, especially for women and other marginalized people. The truth is that I’d experienced far worse online harassment elsewhere that same day. Some Reddit dweeb calling me and my friends equally “whore-y” and “uglier than the last” was the least of my concerns.
“I think a lot of technology is an inevitability of human nature, based on how we interact, the things that we care about,” said Hong. “Did HOTorNOT invent vanity? No. Did we invent insecurity? No. But we for sure evolved the web in a direction where we brought those things more clearly onto these platforms that accelerate them. And, as a society, as engineers, yes of course we need to care about that.”
When the printing press was invented, Hong pointed out, it helped spread literacy and ideas at rates previously unimagined. Those same positive advancements also allowed Mein Kempf to spread ideas that led to genocide and World War II. Back in the day, Facebook was created to, in essence, let a bunch of horny college kids check each other out. In 2017, it was investigated by the Senate(opens in a new tab) to determine if it had influenced the 2016 election by spreading fake news and selling ads to Russian propagandists.
“Nobody [in Silicon Valley] saw that far ahead. And nobody really expected their system to get that big,“ said Hong. “Today's tech solutions create tomorrow's micro problems, and then we just keep trying to fix those problems and those fixes will create new problems. We don't necessarily just throw those technologies out, though, because they also bring a lot of value. But we need to figure out what went wrong.”
Young has a similar perspective on HOTorNOT’s retrospective legacy.
“During the pandemic, I’ve been watching a lot of ‘80s and ‘90s movies and there are a lot of classics that would now be considered problematic. HOTorNOT is sorta like that. It was great for its time, but there’s no way you could get away with something like it in today's culture.”
Questioning the impact of even the best-intentioned, most superficial and crass technological innovations like HOTorNOT is crucial. Yet trying to conclusively declare whether it was an ethical or moral net positive is not only impossible, but futile.
“If we could go back, would we change it? Yeah, maybe. But it's kind of moot thinking because we can't go back,” said Hong. “And I can't say that if we did go back, we wouldn’t end up creating something worse.”
WHEN VIRTUAL BEAUTY FADES
In the end, HOTorNOT's co-founders are wary of taking both too much credit and too much blame for the parts of the social web that trace back to them. Technology — especially on the internet — is defined by building on someone else's building blocks.
Unlike the monoliths it influenced, HOTorNOT didn’t survive. The site’s downfall began with the arrival of Web 2.0 (which it arguably helped usher in), when web platforms with “venture money started pouring back into startups again. HOTorNOT couldn’t compete with services that were free and relying on cash from investors to pay their bills,” Young said. He also cited the loss of their talented and ambitious employees who left to start their own companies, like Crunchyroll.
“Losing that team and our inability to pivot to a free model pretty much sealed the fate of the company,” he said.
Hong agreed that growth stagnated by 2006, but doesn’t consider that his reason for wanting to sell HOTorNOT to Avid Life Media (the company behind Ashley Maddison, the controversial dating site marketed to those already in relationships) for about $20 million in 2008.
“Honestly, what really happened was that by 2004, maybe 2005, we were just really bored,” said Hong.
As co-founders, they didn’t have a lot to do anymore. As two people who got in the startup game to pursue exciting ideas, the routine started to feel stifling. As a last-ditch effort to motivate himself to stay, Hong proposed pivoting HOTorNOT into an incubator, using its excess of funds and resources as a platform to quickly iterate on and launch wild, pioneering ideas — like the ones they helped their friends get off the ground in the beginning. Hong envisioned it as an engineer’s utopia that would expand HOTorNOT beyond the narrow confines of its original concept, in a similar way to how Google leveraged its early internet success to incubate other tech that wasn't about search engines.
Unfortunately, a board member shot the proposal down. Not fighting back harder for it is one of Hong’s only true regrets.
“HOTorNOT never really got the chance to be bigger than HOTorNOT,” he lamented.
Courtesy of Desiree Therianos
As it stagnated, he watched peers like Steve Chen play much bigger roles in shaping the future of the web by turning YouTube into a billion-dollar company(opens in a new tab) in only a year. Envious of the thrill more than the financial success, Hong couldn’t stand the idea of doing the same old thing day after day.
“In a way we sold HOTorNOT to buy our lives back,” he said.
Avid Life Media ran HOTorNOT into the ground. Adding salt to the wound for Hong, he effectively cashed out of the Silicon Valley game right before the ubiquity of smartphones changed everything again, opening up another world of startup possibilities. It also soon turned their million-dollar online speed-dating concept into the multi-billion dollar idea copy-pasted by Tinder(opens in a new tab).
Eventually, Avid Life Media offered to sell HOTorNOT back to Hong at a much lower price than it paid. But at that point, he was too burnt out and focused on his new family. In 2012, it was sold to British dating site, Badoo(opens in a new tab). In a painfully ironic full circle, Badoo only revived HOTorNOT to turn it into another Tinder app clone(opens in a new tab) launching in 2014.
“So now HOTorNOT is a copy of a copy of itself. It's like it became its own grandchild,” said Hong.
The internet turned HOTorNOT into a distorted, hollow, facsimile echo of what it actually was. Maybe that's just what happens to everything we hold up to the digital mirror.
Brittany Levine Beckman