“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, 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. 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.