“Nobody [in Silicon Valley] saw that far ahead. “Today’s tech solutions create tomorrow’s micro problems, and then we just keep trying to fix those problems and those fixes will create new problems. We don’t necessarily just throw those technologies out, though, because they also bring a lot of value. But we need to figure out what went wrong.”
“During the pandemic, Ive been watching a lot of ‘80s and ‘90s movies and there are a lot of classics that would now be considered problematic. HOTorNOT is sorta like that. It was great for its time, but theres no way you could get away with something like it in today’s culture.”
Questioning the impact of even the best-intentioned, most superficial and crass technological innovations like HOTorNOT is crucial. Yet trying to conclusively declare whether it was an ethical or moral net positive is not only impossible, but futile.
Hong agreed that growth stagnated by 2006, but doesnt consider that his reason for wanting to sell HOTorNOT to Avid Life Media (the company behind Ashley Maddison, the controversial dating site marketed to those already in relationships) for about $20 million in 2008
“If we could go back, would we change it? Yeah, maybe. But it’s kind of moot thinking because we can’t go back,” said Hong. “And I can’t say that if we did go back, we wouldnt end up creating something worse.”
In the end, HOTorNOT’s co-founders are wary of taking both too much credit and too much blame for the parts of the social web that trace back to them. Technology – especially on the internet – is defined by building on someone else’s building blocks.
Unlike the monoliths it influenced, HOTorNOT didnt survive. The sites downfall began with the arrival of Web 2.0 (which it arguably helped usher in), when web platforms with “venture money started pouring back into startups again. HOTorNOT couldnt compete with services that were free and relying on cash from investors to pay their bills,” Young said. He also cited the loss of their talented and ambitious employees who left to start their own companies, like Crunchyroll.
“Losing that team and our inability to pivot to a free model pretty much sealed the fate of the company,” he said.
As co-founders, they didnt have a lot to do anymore. As two people who got in the startup game to pursue exciting ideas, the routine started to feel stifling. As a last-ditch effort to motivate himself to stay, Hong proposed pivoting HOTorNOT into an incubator, using its excess of funds and resources as how to hookup in Sheffield a platform to quickly iterate on and launch wild, pioneering ideas – like the ones they helped their friends get off the ground in the beginning. Hong envisioned it as an engineers utopia that would expand HOTorNOT beyond the narrow confines of its original concept, in a similar way to how Google leveraged its early internet success to incubate other tech that wasn’t about search engines.
Unfortunately, a board member shot the proposal down. Not fighting back harder for it is one of Hongs only true regrets.
As it stagnated, he watched peers like Steve Chen play much bigger roles in shaping the future of the web by turning YouTube into a billion-dollar company (opens in a new tab) in only a year. Envious of the thrill more than the financial success, Hong couldnt stand the idea of doing the same old thing day after day.
It also soon turned their million-dollar online speed-dating concept into the multi-billion dollar idea copy-pasted by Tinder (opens in a new tab)
Avid Life Media ran HOTorNOT into the ground. Adding salt to the wound for Hong, he effectively cashed out of the Silicon Valley game right before the ubiquity of smartphones changed everything again, opening up another world of startup possibilities.