June 2, 2014 -- Before there was Facebook, or YouTube, Twitter or Tinder, there was HOTorNOT, the website where (in the words of co-founder James Hong), “People uploaded their picture for others to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 based on hotness.”
To a generation of guys and gals in college dorms, this was an invention on a par with fire and the wheel: Hours upon hours could be wasted, happily, rating the hotness of fellow students, faculty, celebrities and European royalty.
"My wife recalls posting her picture to HOTorNOT her freshman year in college, years before we met," Jim Young, HOTorNOT's other founder, told ABC News recently. "She remembers her dorm mates thinking it was hilarious and shocking. She is also of the opinion that compared to the kind of content one finds routinely these days on Instagram, Twitter, etc., HOTorNOT seems almost wholesome."
Hong and Young once told Newsweek that their inspired idea was born when the two University of California, Berkeley electrical engineers disagreed over the attractiveness of a passing woman. The site they launched in 2000 originally was called “Am I Hot Or Not.” But like “The Facebook,” its name quickly got pared down to its essence.
“Monster hit” does not begin to describe HOTorNOT’s success: In its first week, it was getting close to 2 million page views a day. In a few months, it ascended into NetNielsen’s top 25 advertising domains. In addition to revenue from advertising, it got subscription fees from a matchmaking component.
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When Hong and Young finally stepped away in 2008 and sold the site, it was enjoying sales of about $5 million a year and profits of about $2 million, according to TechCrunch. The buyer, Avid Life Media, reportedly paid $20 million for it.
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Young told ABC News he’s “busy being a new dad” to daughters Gemma, 6, and Vivienne, 3. He’s still in touch with Hong, he said, but the two are “not as close as we were. I’m on the East Coast now, in Philadelphia. I don’t see much of the old Internet crew, back in San Francisco.”
Hong, in an online bio, describes himself today as a “father, husband, friend, traveler, entrepreneur, and sometimes angel investor.” Hong follows a philosophy of what he calls “regret minimization.”
He told ABC News he realized one day how many people wish they’d traveled while they were still young. “So, after we sold the company in ’08, I got the travel bug and decided to travel around the world,” Hong said. He also got married, had a son, then a daughter, and another child is on the way.
Hong jokingly describes himself as a “house dad” whose first priority is spending time with his kids.
“Lately, though, I decided I wanted to start making things again," he said. "So, earlier this year, I brushed up on my coding." He built an app for his kids -- a child-safe YouTube viewer. It doesn't yet have a name. “I’m cleaning it up now,” he said, “so I can put it in the app store.”
HOTorNOT had a strong influence on the birth of some of today’s biggest, most successful sites, Hong said, noting that YouTube started off as a video version of HOTorNOT’s dating service. HOTorNOT also helped Zipdash (now Google mobile maps) and Twitter get started by offering them free hosting, Hong added.
However, Anthony Curtis, a professor of mass communications at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, questioned how big a legacy HOTorNOT can claim.
“Frankly, I think there’s a little self-aggrandizement in what he’s saying,” said Curtis, referring to the self-estimation. “There were so many other things happening back then -- things that cut new ground and set new standards. He was one of many.”
Curtis reeled off names from yesteryear, including Geocities, FriendsUnited and Myspace. HOTorNOT definitely pioneered the idea of rating things,” Curtis conceded. “Now, there’s a million people rating things.”
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Young told ABC News he has been involved in several start-ups, some as an angel investor.
Among the companies in which he has invested is Dogster (a canine-friendly website), which was "one of my first forays as an angel investor.” He also has invested in software company Anomaly Innovations, which, according to its website, is working on Melt, a mobile app where, “you make friends with people by sharing a glimpse of your life.”
Young’s other investments include a cosmetics and “social beauty site,” Beautylish; Mission Motors (a designer of electrical powertrains), and Crunchyroll (a video service for Japanese Anime).
HOTorNOT is now owned by Or Not Limited. A spokeswoman told ABC News the site will be re-launched soon, though she declined to provide details about what users can expect from the new product.
Performance metrics suggest HOTorNOT today is a shadow of its former self. According to website analysis and statistics company Hyperstat, the site is valued at $93,500. Alexa Traffic Rank says the site is visited by only 0.0042 percent of global Internet users, making it the 48,088th most visited site in the world.
Asked what he thinks his and Hong’s legacy is, Young said: “We pioneered the use of open-source technology, which [Facebook CEO Mark] Zuckerberg used later on to build Facebook. We were one of the first social networks.” As for Tinder, "Obviously it's very popular right now. It's essentially just HOTorNOT re-invented for mobile," Young said.
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At the time when HOTorNOT was launched, “it was a scary thing to put a picture of yourself online. Now? It’s normalized," he said. "We were at the forefront of everybody having their own presence online.”