Tech innovations we owe to HotOrNot

Nineteen years ago, I taught a high school computer networking class for ten boys. It was my first time in a classroom, which had a live network and Internet connection using a bunch of Windows 95 computers, hard wired via Ethernet. We had some fun times with the class, which lasted all year, and I am still in touch with many of the students today. I can’t imagine trying to teach a class like that via Zoom, but that isn’t why I am writing about the experience.

One of the more memorable moments was when some of the kids posted my picture on, a new website that just celebrated its 20th anniversary and got some mention in Mashable here. I would urge you to read the entire story, even if you are in a stable relationship and don’t have any use for dating or matching sites. The story notes the many places where HotOrNot was ahead of its time, and lay the foundation for many of the web technologies we have come to know and love today. For example, the site connected online and offline social interaction in new and useful ways. Now we take this kind of connection for granted. Some other ground-breaking things:

  • Gamified ratings of each participant’s photo, now enshrined in Likes and up-votes across all the social media platforms.
  • Word-of-mouth traction: traffic doubled every few hours in its first weeks. In the piece there is this charming story about how UC Berkeley engineers figured out the extra traffic was coming from one of their servers that had been connected without approval on the campus network.
  • They very quickly put in place a subscription model and became cash-positive by using auto-renewing subscriptions. That was a rarity then but now is so commonplace that you would be hard-pressed to find a website that doesn’t do this.
  • Outlandish promotional billboards. They put up one with the two founders mostly naked, strategically covered by their laptops with low scores. The founders were nerds, after all. This is way before Oracle and numerous other tech companies used similar tactics, not to mention every airport ad ever used by a tech vendor. Remember airport ads?
  • Something not seen currently were a series of anti-bullying measures, include great take-down response time if someone complained about their photo. It has taken many tech companies far too long to figure this out.
  • A real tagline: keeping the site “fun, clean and real.” Unlike other taglines (don’t be evil, say), they actually meant it and ran their company accordingly.
  • Eliminate needless clicks: when it was first conceived, there was a “click to submit” button. That was eliminated.
  • Virtual goods purchased through real money, typically with Western currencies that could retain their buying power if they lived in other parts of the world. Now we have Bitcoin.Not sure that is progress.
  • Mutual opt-in messaging, a precursor to many what many subscription and dating  sites do, and the model behind Twitter’s DMs.
  • Inclusive dating to the same-sex world. While not as inclusive as today’s alphabet soup of non-binary genders, it was still innovative in moving beyond hetero norms.
  • Speaking of gender, HoN also had several female managers way before it became a cause. Again, this has taken way too long to implement.

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