How an Australian Teen Nearly Created a Decentralized Reddit in 1997 (Op-Ed)

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. Why it didn't succeed should serve as a cautionary tale for the Bitcoin community.

Early days

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.)

Decentralized nature

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