Feb 22, 2016 · 8 minutes

Nearly every tweet I’ve read about Nancy Jo Sales’ new book “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers” has been some variation of “I’m scared to read this.” Indeed by page 20, I started making plans to move to an Amish village by the time my daughter turns 12.

The deeper I read, the more I was impressed by many of the young women Sales interviewed, and the more sorry I felt that we've given them this world.

I’m still working my way through the book, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it in the future. But one thing caught my interest early on. Sales describes a world where thirteen year old boys harass girls for nude photos that they trade to high school boys in exchange for buying them liquor. No joke. This happens across the country. Pictures of thirteen year old girls used as currency to break another law.

Sales also describes how young girls worship Kim Kardashian and derive their self worth from how many likes they get on Instagram. One in which they do hair and make-up for hours before taking a selfie. One in which some moms are so invested in their kids’ popularity that they buy them followers so they get more likes. One of the thirteen year old even notes how absurd the word “selfie” is since the photos are manufactured to look nothing like the girls do IRL.

And she traces this wave of social media predicated on men approving women’s sexy photos back to a place I didn’t expect: HOTorNOT. You remember HOTorNOT from the Internet’s earliest days? It was one of the first times two college programmers quickly built something utterly frivolous based on stoking the flames of ego and released it to the world because they could. It was also one of the first times that people shared photos publicly online without a username and password.

Sales writes:

You could start with the concept of “hot or not.” “Hot or not” is a prevailing social media conceit, first seen online in 2000, with the launch of the photo-rating sites Hot or Not by two Silicon Valley-based software engineers and Berkeley graduates, James Hong and Jim Young. The site grew out of an argument the two were having about whether a site grew out of an argument the two were having about whether a certain woman was attractive, or “hot.” Hong and Young created a way for strangers to look at a picture of a woman’s face and vote on how she measured up. The idea was also the basis of Facemash, the precursor to Facebook, a campus rating site created by Mark Zuckerberg in 2003, when he was still a Harvard sophomore. Two of the founders of YouTube, guy Silicon Valley software engineers who met at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have said that Hot or Not was the inspiration for what they originally thought would be just a video version of the game, as well. Much of the culture of social media is, in a way, an ongoing expression of “hot or not,” liking or rejecting people and things, and the physical appeal of women and girls.

So embedded in the culture of Silicon Valley is “hot or not” that it became the subject of satire with Titstare, a fictional mobile app that was presented at TechCrunch’s annual Disrupt Hackathon in San Francisco in 2013….some on Twitter called the joke “brilliant” and “pretty funny.”...

“Beautiful,” “gorgeous,” “sexy,” “hot” are conventional responses to selfies in the culture of social media, responses which many girls seek as they spend minutes or hours of their day preparing themselves to be photographed and photographing themselves to the best advantage. There are typically more graphically sexual comments, too, which many girls feel they are expected to show appreciation for, or just ignore. And then there are different kinds of comments, critical or degrading assessment of how a girl appears on-screen, all based on an array of motivations, from personal animus to jealous to slut-shaming.

For many girls, the pressure to be considered “hot” is felt on a nearly continual basis online. 


I thought the connection was fascinating.  I’ve known James Hong for years, since he moved mostly out of the limelight continuing to work on projects, angel invest, and mentor startups. I also know another fact about him: He’s raising daughters too.

I wondered how Hong would feel about being ground zero of an online mentality that’s driven thirteen year old boys to harass their peers for nude photos and in regrettably too many cases, the girls comply. We spoke this weekend and he told me Sales had not spoken to him for the book, so I read him the passage. The following is an excerpt of our conversation.

James Hong: [Sales] might be interested to know that men were being rated 2:1 on HOTorNOT. Far more men than women were being objectified. And I think it was more of a shock to the system for men than women, because sadly women get used to it in our world.

It was innovative in some ways, but I can’t really take credit for inventing human nature. We ported what was already going on to a new medium. Our big innovation was the concept of being willing to show yourself online without knowing who was going to look at it. Back then, most images were private. This was the first time people were willing to let other people look at them, and she’s right that companies have extrapolated on that more and more over time.

But I don’t think we invented human nature. HOTorNOT was already happening in the minds of people since the dawn of time.

That being said, I appreciate what she’s saying. This is a new world with a new medium and we have to figure out how society is going to adjust to that.

For one thing, we didn’t allow comments on HOTorNOT for the very reason that if something was going to be hurtful, we felt it would mostly come out in the comments.

I should note that we didn’t score super high on our own site. We felt that HOTorNOT was a way to get honest assessment of our attractiveness. We didn’t say it was the most important thing. If looks were the only thing that mattered, I’d still be single.

If you think about the trend of how technology over time has affected society, I think as new mediums come online and people find new ways to express themselves and their opinions in a faster and more fluid way, it can be a scary thing.

But over thousands of years the ease of sharing information has only increasing. I do believe it’s a net net positive.

If we wouldn’t have done it with HOTorNOT, it would have happened anyway.

SL: It’s interesting how you talk about worrying about the negatives before you launched. How much did you weigh it?

JH: When we launched HOTorNOT we thought a lot about whether or not it was a bad thing. But the truth is people already knew if they were attractive or not because society tells you everyday. People who submitted pictures were good looking and knew it or didn’t really care. They were confident enough in their own personality.

We were definitely scared about someone getting such a low score it might destroy their life, but we didn’t find that to be true. You opted in to getting rated.

But we were concerned about it. I am not looking to make people feel bad.

We actually did some studies on what we saw and gave the data to some data scientists. They noticed that everyone rated women a lot faster than they rated men. We are programmed to know what an attractive woman is supposed to be. There was also a tighter variance in ratings with women.

But I agree in the spirit of the concerns that she’s bringing up. By having these concerns and conversations we can create change. But I cringe a little bit being associated with things like Titstare. We really weren’t bros.

SL: You are raising daughters. They aren’t teenagers yet, but does stuff like this worry you? Do you have thoughts on what you’ll allow them to use, how you might handle these things?

JH: It’s hard to extrapolate, because they aren’t teens. The world is always changing. I kinda feel like it’s just helpful to have faith in humanity. Every generation has these concerns, but somehow we are still around.

It’s no different than saying to my kids, “Don’t watch this scary movie when you are five years old.” We want to pace our children into adulthood.

I don’t want to sound defensive or tone deaf. We were worried about this stuff even then. In reality, we were always willing -- especially early on before it was a business-- to shut the site down if this was ever a problem. In the very beginning of the site, we actually remained anonymous for about two weeks. We eventually came out, but we worried we might want to shut this down and not let people know it was us. But the potential problems we anticipated didn’t exist, not in any scale. We were pretty quickly willing to put our names on it. And we created a branding statement that it was supposed to be “fun, clean, and real.”

She’s right that HOTorNOT was the first site that unleashed this part of human nature. But if it wasn’t us, it would have been someone else.