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.