In 1997, an Australian teenager created one of the web’s first viable p2p programs. What happened to it can teach us a lot about emergent technologies today and where we may be going in the future.
To understand the impact Hotline Communications and its creator Adam Hinkley had on the internet, you have to go back to a time when the web was a very different place. More than just pioneering file sharing, it also pioneered insulated online communities, was quasi-decentralized and was something not all that different from what Ryan X. Charles describes when he talks about his decentralized Reddit project.
In fact, it wouldn’t be far off to say that a decentralized Reddit was already invented, long before Reddit itself was. It just wasn’t as user friendly as Charles’ proposed solution or Reddit is today, nor did it implement any form of electronic cash.
But it had all the necessary pieces otherwise. So why it didn’t succeed should serve as a cautionary tale for the Bitcoin community.
Hotline Communications was a company created out of Adam Hinkley’s invention, a software suite that included Hotline Connect and Hotline Client. Hotline Client was used by users to set up their own servers while Hotline Connect was for users wanting to connect to those servers. Within a server, users would find a unique collection of software, images, videos and e-books that could be downloaded.
They could also contribute to the server by uploading their own files for backup purposes or to share with the community. Besides that, there was an integrated chat room, a “News” bulletin board and a suite of customizable options for who got access to downloads/uploads to specific folders and unique banners and layouts that gave each server its own feel.
File sharing was the star of the Hotline show, there is no doubt about it. Some hardcore supporters and company public faces would argue that it was more about the community than the file sharing but those arguments are similar to the ones that insist the Silk Road was about philosophy rather than drugs or Napster was about giving exposure to independent artists rather than downloading copyrighted songs for free. They are correct that there were more to those services, but are being disingenuous when implying that the focus was different than what they were known for.
But since Hotline’s invention, file sharing has come a long way. Torrenting has replaced centralized file sharing and has proven to be a resilient and effective way of sharing nearly everything. Significantly, Hotline’s decentralized model is what has enabled it to survive to this day, despite its massive loss in popularity.
Hotline was replaced, in terms of popularity, with more centralized services that offered more convenience than Hotline did: Napster, Kazaa, LimeWire etc. These services took the pirating mantle from Hotline Connect because they gave users a simplified way to find the files they were looking for.
But they had their own issues that ultimately led to them falling out of favor. First were the legal issues felt by Napster and later Kazaa’s parent company Sharman Networks. Second was their unreliability as files were often mislabeled or contained viruses. While in some services usernames could be seen, reputation systems were not robust enough or used enough to be effective. Kazaa took this to another level with the software itself being filled with enough spyware and malware to make the NSA blush (that eventually led to the creation of third-party software Kazaa Lite, ironically drawing the ire of Sharman Networks, who filed copyright patents.)
In Hotline Connect, the Server’s reputation and brand acted as an effective reputation system and the decentralized nature of the program prevented any effective legal action targeted at shutting the service down. Hotline Communications had a host of legal issues, most famously when they wrestled the patents out of Hinkley’s hands, but few if any attempts were ever made to shut down servers or bring legal actions against users.
Other file sharing successors, like DirectConnect were useful and safe from a legal perspective but were also limited in scope and depended on the trust between participants (it nevertheless served as a precursor to Torrenting and forms of DirectConnect are still used to this day).
Torrents combined the best of both worlds. The technology is incredibly resistant to law enforcement censorship due to its decentralized nature and by utilizing reputable trackers and uploaders, users can be relatively sure what they are downloading is what they expect it to be.
Because of that, from a file sharing perspective, there is very little reason for Hotline to exist today. Everything you need can be found on torrent sites and if it can’t it can probably be found on a regular website.
What makes Hotline significant today is all the other stuff: the things that were secondary in Hotline’s heyday are now its greatest potential contribution to the internet.
The community aspect of Hotline was extremely strong in its heyday and even when it suffered, small personal servers had an almost commune like feel to them. At times, it felt like a few of your friends had gotten together and put your VHS tapes and albums in a big community pile. Of course, those VHS tapes and albums were actually DivX files and mp3s and everyone could hold their own copy at the same time, but it wasn’t the free-for-all model that Napster later popularized.
– Many Hotline Server users did not have a fixed IP address at the time Hotline was developed; Hotline clients users can browse server lists by accessing “trackers”, machines with fixed IPs that keep track of the IPs of online servers. (Source)
While there are no numbers or statistics tracked that would prove or discount my hypothesis, I feel that, contrary to popular belief, it was when that community aspect became corrosive, rather than when Napster rose to prominence, that caused people to abandon Hotline. Bitcoin users should take note of how an impressive piece of technology can be wasted on a community motivated by greed.
Hotline existed in a time before a workable digital currency like bitcoin had been invented. Servers cost money to run in the form of bandwidth and electricity. A viable reward system for Hotline was never created and the reward structure that did form killed the community and the usefulness of the application.
Some larger servers asked users to pay directly with a credit card, something all but the most reckless wanted to avoid. Most servers resorted to an advertising scheme. Prospective members were generally allowed to browse a server’s files but were prevented from downloading them. Users could generally offer a movie or piece of software not found on the server and the server admin would then give that user access. If the user was unable to offer anything of value and were unwilling to part with a credit card number, they were often asked to click on banners and fill out surveys and do other menial tasks that gave some small kick back to the server owner.
This shift in focus from a community of file sharers to a community of file purchasers and sellers caused a massive gloat of disreputable servers sending users to disreputable websites. Suddenly finding a particular movie or game wasn’t an exciting hunt across multiple communities that had you meeting new and interesting people everyday, it became more akin to running through a minefield, hoping that the banner ad you clicked wouldn’t lead to a dark, malware infested corner of the internet.
This must have proved profitable for server owners because there was an explosion of near inaccessible servers where before most users simply lost interest and moved onto greener pastures.
Did Hotline ever die?
It is hard to say exactly when Hotline “died” simply because it still isn’t completely dead today. After the September 11 attacks in 2001, fears of terrorism on the internet decreased interest in underground technologies and the venture capital investments behind Hotline Communications dried up.
Not long after that, the company Hotline Communications folded. Former employees attempted to revive it, but failed. The technology itself, however, never completely died. It exists on life-support, propped up by a few dedicated hardcore believers. While the core client remains virtually unchanged since its heyday, third party clients have been created and abandoned over the past fifteen years, each adding their own functionality.
Only one development team remains active on their version of Hotline Client, UberFox’s Pitbull client. Pitbull allows connections to both Hotline compatible servers while adding more features to its own servers (users still on the ancient Hotline Client can also connect to Pitbull created servers, but they will miss out on the new features). These features include extensive chat functions, the lifting of the old 4GB file size limit and most important: extensive encryption options for communication.
Other clients manage to encrypt messages and bypass the old 4GB file size limit, but only Pitbull has those features, is available for Windows and is still being worked on. It is, unfortunately, closed-source. There is an open-source client available but it doesn’t have an active developer, though it is, nevertheless, a viable option. Nostalgia is a popular Mac-only client that is used by much of the remaining community and has the most essential features, but its developer is tragically no longer with us.
The remaining servers are very much like a decentralized Reddit, although they are far too few to come close to matching its extensiveness. There are only a dozen or so servers left but they each have a theme. One, for example, has a treasure trove worth of Mac abandon-ware, another stores videos of historical significance, both copyrighted and older videos considered public domain. If a cryptocurrency server were created, it could host wallet clients and blockchains of various coins.
It isn’t hard to imagine Hotline growing into something similar to Reddit or newsgroups, if it were only a bit more user friendly. One project attempted to bring the service to web browsers, something Ryan X Charles contends would be critical in creating a decentralized Reddit, but the project appears to have been abandoned.
There is also no Bitcoin integration. Although UberFox is now accepting bitcoin donations for continued development of Pitbull, there doesn’t seem to be much crossover between the two communities. Additionally, some of Pitbull’s key features don’t work with the older Clients, and that has caused some fracturing.
Unfortunately, the Hotline Community continues to be fractured. The root issues are different but the problems remain the same: the community continues to have infighting. Which is just as well at this point, I don’t think this article or anything else is going to revive Hotline Connect to prominence, nor, I suspect, do many of the users. But the issue of infighting is something the Bitcoin community can relate to.
But Bitcoin does offer an opportunity for success where Hotline previously failed. It can offer a reward structure that doesn’t involve endless surveys or credit card information. Servers would have less leverage this time around because there are better alternatives for file sharing. Instead, they would be dependent on creating good exclusive content or at the very least, properly curating web content.
The idea of a tipping or a microtransaction economy has been promised many times in the past, and it has thus far failed to meet those expectations outside of rare circumstances. This has understandably led some to declare it a dead idea, but if we want the culture of the internet to flourish, we need a better economic system than advertising and Hotline is a prime example of why.
The tipping economy has been successful for various podcasts, open source developers and popular pirating collectives so it isn’t as if there are no successes to point to. Hotline simply had the unfortunate fate of existing before anonymous digital currencies did.
The aspects of Hotline that make it different than a decentralized Reddit go beyond the conceptual and user friendly differences mentioned above. It should be noted that while Hotline is distributed or arguably decentralized in the sense that each server acts as its own independent point of failure, they are centralized individually. In theory, a government agency or company could shut down a server by shutting down the actual computer it is running on. For a true interpretation of Ryan X. Charles’ proposal, there would need to be a system where each server could be distributed to several users who share in hosting responsibilities.
While Hotline servers still offer files for download, the only piracy advantage of Hotline is that it is under the radar of the authorities. They have bigger fish to fry than the few dozen (at most) users keeping Hotline alive. More often, it seems, Hotline is being used as a place for collaboration. In practice, it is a bit like a Mormon marriage of Github, Slack and DropBox, but everything is self-contained and as private as the admins want it. Everything it does can be done better elsewhere, but the gated community nature of Hotline seems to have some appeal to some.
As for what happened to the 17 year old prodigy inventor of Hotline, Adam Hinkley? He had a long drawn-out battle with Hotline Communications over who owned the rights to the technology. He eventually lost and disappeared after that. It was rumored that he created the company Haxial, which made a Hotline Client, but the identity of Haxial’s owner was never definitively proven.
Since then, there hasn’t been a trace of Hinkley online. Even the Wikipedia mods deleted his entry, determining him not significant enough to have his own page. The only remnants left of Hinkley that can be found are a few decade old complaints from technology forums and what Archive.org managed to save of his blog and Haxial’s site. If Haxial was in fact Hinkley, he appeared to have become disillusioned with the online community as his posts became increasingly bizarre.
– Ryan X. Charles
Lessons from Hotline
But there are a few lessons that we can learn from Hotline. First, that decentralized is not always preferred simply because it is decentralized. It could be argued that Hotline wasn’t true decentralization but it was certainly more decentralized than the software that preceded it. Yet users preferred the easy to use and far more centralized Kazaa and similar, despite their inherent risks.
Second, a community is at least as important as the technology fueling it. Hotline was an amazing technology when it launched. It was heralded as “IRC 2.0” but whereas newsgroups and IRC communities never succumbed to greed, Hotline server owners did, and it destroyed what made the technology significant at the time.
Third, ideas are reused and re-purposed all the time. The jokers at r/Buttcoin compared Ryan X Charles’ proposal to newsgroups. They sort of missed the point of distributed nodes and Bitcoin payments but their taunts did have a bit of truth to them: Newsgroups are similar to a theoretical Reddit without a central authority.
But of course, Newsgroups aren’t Reddit, and neither was Hotline. Sometimes life is about hitting on the right idea at the right time when the technology is there and the culture is ready for it. Hinkley was way before his time. Our society didn’t see value in distributed systems in the late 90s and early 00s.
While the cypherpunks fought the government and won us our rights to online privacy, the vast majority of users were more than happy to communicate unencrypted and hand over all their personal details to anyone who asked. The NSA may have never gotten Clipper Chip on every system like they hoped, but public apathy opened up the world’s communications to them anyhow.
But the pendulum appears to be swinging the other way. The public is more concerned about online privacy, security and censorship than it has ever been. As we shape the future of the digital world, it is worth taking a moment to learn from our past. Greed and community infighting destroyed both Hotline Communications the company and Hotline the technology. These two aspects are prominent in the Bitcoin community currently and we would be well-advised to keep them in check.
If you are interested in checking out Hotline, Macworld had an interesting article on it a few years ago, complete with instructions on how to connect.
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