There’s one site that is connected to Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo!, Twitter, and many others. And you probably never think about it.
There is a single website that has a major influence on some of the largest and most influential modern-day sites. That website isn’t a part of those companies public histories, nor is it mentioned often by tech world founders.
That site is HotOrNot—tacky and controversial but not without its defenders. Its enduring influence, however, is not so much an admonishment of the site itself then it is a reflection of a truth of the web. That much of the web’s most powerful influences were built by simple (mostly) men with simple goals that often stemmed from the immaturity and arrogance of youth. And those websites have gone on to having lasting effects on our communication, our governments, our information, and our future. It is an origin worth examining.
HotOrNot was created in the fall of 2000 by two Berkley grads, James Hong and Jim Young. This was not long after the dot-com bubble burst; the tech world still in recovery.
It was in this environment that Hong and Young snuck out their web-based game with a superficial, though earnest, premise. Visitors could upload pictures of themselves, and other visitors could rate them on a sliding scale from 1 to 5. Hong and Young would later state that the site was simply a way of settling a bet, an overnight project that spiraled into success. The truth is a slightly more concrete and well thought out. They had played with the idea for some time before developing it.
Even that planning left Hong and Young unprepared when, after passing it around to to fellow engineers, it became a runaway success in weeks. Within months, it was one of the most popular destinations on the web.
Drawn by its suggestive proposition, visitors flocked to the site. That people would log on and rate pictures of strangers on the Internet was not all that surprising. That lots of people would actually upload their own photos to be rated was a bit of a shock. Hong and Young staked their fortune on the site, making millions with their viral hit, and demonstrating a new, bootstrapped way of building websites in the wake of the dot-com crash—one that was scrappy, independent and organic.
At the center was a single interaction—assigning a number to a picture with a passing glance—that Hong would later describe as a “conversation.” Whether or not Hong truly believes that such a one-dimensional exchange actually qualifies as a two-way conversation is up for debate. But it was genuine sentiment by most of the HotOrNot team. HotOrNot’s creators went to great lengths to try and reduce harassment (though they were far from successful). They argued that these were natural human impulses. They didn’t invent superficiality, after all (a common argument these days in reaction to online backlash). They did, however, amplify it.
Hong and Young eventually left the site, and it has passed through several iterations and owners ever since. It has never been able to recapture its initial success.
In 2014, Eliana Dockterman penned How ‘Hot or Not’ Created the Internet We Know Today for Time. Several years later in September of 2020, on the 20th anniversary of Hot or Not, Jess Joho published an article on Mashable called HOTorNOT shaped the social web as we know it. Both take different angles, but rest on the same idea. HotOrNot helped to create and influence the modern web.
HotOrNot is connected to some of the most important sites on the web; in different ways.
When they were just starting out, HotOrNot was able to connect with some of the most prominent figures of the early web. Larry Page helped the site’s founders choose the right hosting configuration. Executives from Yahoo! got them going with free hosting for their images. Powerful people from the web helped the site get a headstart.
After HotorNot became a massive success, Hong and Young decided to pay it forward by giving away server space to upstart companies. Some of those companies—primarily Twitter but also Zipdash (later absorbed by Google Maps) and BitTorrent—would become smash successes of their own.
Other sites used HotOrNot as their model. You don’t have to look far to find examples, sites like Tinder or Funny or Die draw obvious influence. But more surprisingly, YouTube also began as a HotOrNot clone in video form.
The most public example is Facebook. Histories of company and, notably, in the 2010 film Social Network, features Mark Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook idea, “Facemash.” Casting off propriety entirely, Zuckerberg pulled pictures of women at his alma mater Harvard without their permission so others could unduly rate them. From that came the origin of Facebook.
Writing in Mashable, Joho points to the proliferation of superficial interactions as HotOrNot’s biggest legacy. From influencer culture to dating by thumb swipe, Joho asserts that HotOrNot proved out that ephemeral connections were more viral than deeper interactions. Dockterman, for Time, makes a similar point, though she believes the gamification of social actions to HotOrNot’s primary influence.
That HotOrNot helped shape the most popular of websites of today is not in question. There is one question, however, that goes unanswered. How does a largely forgettable website with a crude, perfunctory premise boast such a strong and intense pedigree?
For all its strengths and open access, the web was built unevenly. The advantages and divisions of the world did not evaporate when the world moved online. The type of people that were able to access the web early were the type of people that could afford computers, and rarefied internet access, and lots of spare time to experiment with said access, and space to fail and try again. It was the type of people that might feel that a website that let users rate other people—something human beings have been doing for centuries—was indeed novel, and fascinating, and not really hurting anybody.
It was on this inequitable ground that some of the web was built. Not all of it. Not even most of it. But some sites with outsized power. This is not the web as it needs to be. More and more people have come online and brought new perspectives. There are organizations and activists that fight for an open and fair web. There are tinkerers and practitioners and pioneers working away from the walled gardens that houses so much influence.
But recognizing that we operate in a web where Hot or Not was the foundation upon which websites that control the future of our world was built is important.