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[whitespace] Illustration by Takeshi Tadatsu
Illustration by Takeshi Tadatsu

The Rating Game

How a really silly website idea has grown up into one hot proposition

By Lauren Dake and Drew McGuire Milam

IF NICK ROMERO knew anything with certainty, it was that he was better looking than his cousin Casey. But knowing wasn't enough--Romero wanted proof. His was an argument that couldn't be settled by biased friends, relatives or romantic conquests. His was an argument that needed an objective test.

So, late one slow workday afternoon, the 20-year-old telecom engineer scanned a photo of himself and uploaded it to Hot or Not (hotornot.com), an Internet site where viewers can rate, anonymously, a poster's attractiveness. Weeks earlier, Romero's cousin Casey had scored a 7.8 on Hot or Not. Soon after posting his own photo, Romero beat out his cousin's score--no, he decimated his cousin's score--with a 9.5. Just as he had suspected, Romero had the looks in the family, and now he had the numbers to prove it.

I'll Take Contestant No. 3

As recently as three years ago, Nick Romero might have had to enter a male beauty contest or, even worse, climbed onstage at MTV's Summer Break to find out how attractive he was. These days, millions of people log onto Hot or Not, or an ever-growing number of copycat sites, to get a brutally honest assessment of their visual appeal--and to meet their mathematically calculated dream date. It's a matchmaker's dream come true--or maybe a mother's nightmare.

James Hong and Jim Young, the two Mountain View-based rating pioneers who launched Hot or Not in October 2000, unwittingly kicked off what would become an Internet rating craze. To date, there are hundreds of imitators, with titles like Rate My Girlfriend, Rate My Shoes, Rate My Thong, Best Butt, Cutie Pageant, Face the Jury, the geek-centered AMIBIOSOR NOT.COM and the satirical Am I Annoying or Not?. Even AOL has gotten into the rating game with a site called Rate a Buddy.

All over the world, the curious are signing on to rate others and find out how they themselves rate. Internet users surf virtual meat-market and people-watching sites daily, getting addicted to the numbers game. Photo after photo keeps appearing for the bored and the procrastinating to appraise. Flipping through the scores of photos is like people-watching in a global shopping mall. People from all walks of life submit their pictures for rating and dating--even former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's picture was on the site at one time.

As if the people-watching section of the site wasn't addicting enough, the "Meet Me" feature was added six months after the initial launch. Meet Me enables users to see the bios of the people they rate and, for a fee, to make a "double match," which means that both posters have agreed to share their contact information.

Hong and Young invented Meet Me in order to keep the site afloat. Keeping Hot or Not up wasn't a simple task. Three months after the site was launched, it was costing the duo almost $20,000 a month to maintain.

"We had to do something," Young says. "We didn't realize how much money it would all cost. When we first launched, advertising was kind of making enough to pay the bills. Well, you know where that story goes." He laughs. "It kept dropping and dropping, and pretty soon we were in the red. The boom was already over, the economy was dismal. Fortunately, we had friends who said, 'Don't you dare shut it down.'"

For a couple of days, Hong hosted the site on his school's server; then he found a hosting provider that ran the site for 30 days for delayed pay. In the meantime, the Meet Me feature was becoming an obvious necessity. Until Young and Hong shut them out, porn sites had been posting fake photos that led users to chat sites--not the ambience the Hot or Not creators were looking for, exactly, but their own site's users had enjoyed the porn sites' chat feature. That gave the Mtn. View entrepreneurs a flash of inspiration: Why not turn the online rating game into the online dating game?

And so Meet Me was born. There is no initial cost to sign up for the Meet Me feature, but when people start making double matches, there is a $6-a-month fee, a price that Hong and Young designed to be reasonable.

"Nothing we ever did was designed to make money," Young insists. "Hot or Not was just built for fun."

Well, maybe they didn't intend it that way, but the truth is, Hong and Young's humble website is actually providing the hapless entrepreneurs a salary now, even though neither spends very much time maintaining Hot or Not. Young, who is currently a grad student in electrical engineering at Berkeley, fixes any technical glitches, and Hong, when he's not working on side projects, answers emails for a couple hours a day. It's the Internet lifestyle dream come true--on a modest level.

The irony of a ridiculous idea like Hot or Not blooming in the midst of the supposed Internet bust does not escape the pair.

"We note the irony," Young says. "We like it. I think maybe because what we do is we're not so serious, not like a big Internet company--the whole Internet thing hasn't affected it." But then he adds, "But we are banking the money. You never know. We're saving it for that rainy day."

In Your Face

For some, the idea of rating, or meeting, people based solely on their looks is just another sickening way today's superficial society links people's intrinsic value to their appearance. If you're pretty or handsome, society says, then you're a better person. It's a message that mainstream entertainment pushes on the young and old alike. Better-looking people are more successful, they routinely receive lighter court sentences and are less likely to be considered to have any sort of psychological disorder.

Social psychologist Jerry Burger, who teaches at Santa Clara University, thinks that sites like Hot or Not are terrible. "This site sends the message, once again, that you are being evaluated on your appearance," Dr. Burger says. "It's bad enough that people do that informally anyway--as people meet us, they are evaluating us on our appearance--but that they have it out there in that meat-market kind of thing is horrible."

Hong and Young's answer to that is their mantra: the site is just for fun. Yet when it first came out, they weren't sure how it would be received, so they remained anonymous. A month later, when everyone seemed to approve, they faced the glaring light of minor celebrity and posted their own faces and bios on a "Who's Who" section of the site. And they continue to offer themselves up for rating, so as not to seem hypocritical.

Hong does concede the site is superficial, and he points out that everyone has had friends who don't seem that good-looking until you get to know them, when their great personalities suddenly make them seem more attractive.

"We're not necessarily saying that hotness is important, but if you want to know how hot you really are--just based on that small sliver, your looks--well, you could never do that before," Hong says. "If you ever asked your friends to rate you, you're not going to get an honest answer. I didn't realize that until I ran this site. I thought I was a 7, and I wasn't." Hong currently has a score of 5.8.

James Young and Jim Hong
Photograph by Paul Myers

Two Hot Entrepreneurs: James Young (left) and Jim Hong (right) dreamed up their ratings website on Tuesday, built it by Friday, and had it up and running by Monday. Two years later, it's finally making money.

Sex-Crazed Vampires

From a 69-year-old widow with curly gray hair and a nice set of legs who promises her picture is recent to a retired Army officer clad in aviator glasses who lists "sex" as his hobby to the early-20s, bleached-blond stoner looking for someone to "share 4:20 with," there are 21 flavors for every taste on Hot or Not. After perusing the site for a while, however, some subjective standards of beauty do become apparent.

For men, for example, holding a puppy dog can earn you a 7, and holding a baby might knock you up to an 8. And despite popular belief, the whole macho look is out--women rate friendly-looking fellows higher than guys in muscle shirts standing in front of their suped-up sports cars. For women, right in line with popular belief, the more skin shown off the better. Baring a midriff or even dressing scantily in a bikini is guaranteed to boost your score.

But beware: pornography or anything close to it is not allowed on the site. Hong and Young, or their volunteer moderators, look over each picture before it gets posted. That isn't to say that a gorgeous guy in a turtleneck will necessarily be able to compete with some average-looking dude in a swimsuit. As Hong points out, "It's Hot or Not, not Classically Beautiful or Not."

A lot of people--like Nick Romero, the 9.5-rated telecom engineer--posted their picture to Hot or Not after hearing about the website from a friend. Unaware that he could also meet people on the site, Romero started getting matches from "hot girls" who wanted to meet him, so he decided to pay the $6 and see what would happen.

What happened was that he met an Australian woman and started corresponding with her. "She's hot," Romero says, "and also a total freak, which is cool. We always end up talking about sex. It's fun talking to her. She's also bisexual, so we get to talk about girls. We have this joke that if we ever meet we are going to have sex in a public place, but I doubt that will happen, considering she's across the globe."

Romero has met several other girls but says many of them are too "boring" to keep him entertained for long. Some of them get too attached and scare him off. He has also declined several invitations to meet on the basis that they aren't cute enough.

Recently, he met a girl online from Half Moon Bay, and since he was going to a bar in the area he suggested she meet up with him and his friends.

"She said OK, but I didn't really think about it when I was there, because I was already having a good time with friends. Then she came over to me and said hello, and we got a drink. We were talking about this and that, and she leaned over and started sucking on my ear. I was kinda surprised but acted normal. Then she wanted to know if I wanted to go back to her place, but I didn't, because I was already with some friends. She seemed really weird, like some kind of sex-crazed vampire," Romero recalls.

His experiences with Hot or Not have been interesting, and he's met at least one cool girl out of the deal. But he's decided to just pay the six bucks for this month and then cancel it.

"It was fun being on the site, but I'm over it. Maybe if I'm bored at work I'll get on and rate some pictures," he says.

Other people have had more success with the Meet Me section of the site, such as Chris C. from Boston, who wrote to Hong and Young and thanked them for changing his life. His letter sounds like the testimonial of a religious convert: "I met the girl of my dreams about a month ago, and we have racked up a few thousand dollars in phone bills since then! I joined Hot or Not simply to meet new people to chat with while I worked on my computer. I could have never imagined I would meet the woman I am going to marry."

Running the Numbers

October 2000: It was a sleepy Tuesday afternoon in Mountain View when Hong and Young found themselves enjoying an afternoon Heineken in their living room. Young began to tell Hong about a girl he had met at the party the night before. "She was a perfect 10," Young says. That's how it all began.

Anyone could have done it. People had probably already thought of it before, and there were certainly scores of websites being thrown up that year based on far less. But Hong and Young actually put their plan into action--an online rating site where people post pictures of themselves and visitors to the site rate them on a scale of 1 to 10.

By Friday night, the site was built, featuring photos of Hong, Young and their friends, and the following Monday it was ready for the public. Before it was launched, however, Hong tested what was going to become one of the most popular websites in the nation on his father.

"I was at home when [Young] sent it to me," Hong says, "so the first person to see it besides us was my dad. I told him it was something [Young] had been working on, because I didn't want to tell him I was behind it, too."

What was funny, Hong says, is that his dad instantly got addicted to it. "'It was kinda weird having your dad be like, 'Oh, she's hot.'"

Hong's father wasn't the only one who would get hooked on the site; he was just the first. On Oct. 9, a week after the flicker of inspiration, Hot or Not rocketed--50,000 people logged on during the first day.

Today, between 70 million and 100 million people have visited the site. More than 2 million have posted their pictures to find out if they are hot or not, and altogether more than 2 billion votes have been tallied.

And now that billions of votes have been cast and counted, the results are in for the millions who have posted their picture to receive the brutal truth. Maybe it's not the 9.9 that you had expected, but take some advice from the Hot or Not pioneer himself: "That's the nice thing about the site--even if I'm a six, I had someone give me a 10," Hong says. "Someone out there likes me, right? Just not most people. That's all right, because I only need to find one."

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From the June 13-19, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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