Exclusive book excerpt: Ashley Madison founder talks data

“Part of the legacy we’ll leave behind is this data set:” site founder Noel Biderman

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Ashley Madison: Humans 3.0 Excerpt

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The Ashley Madison hack story is proving to have legs as various media organizations and individual analysts sift through the reams of data made publicly available last week. If you missed it, the hackers responsible for obtaining member information from the adultery-enabling website followed through on their promise to reveal that data.

Toronto-based Avid Life Media, which runs the website, is keeping relatively quiet as the, er, affair plays out. I interviewed company founder Noel Biderman two years ago in his Toronto office while working on my book Humans 3:0: The Upgrading of the Species. Much of that conversation focused on the data sets the site was compiling, so I thought it would be timely to run an excerpt from the book here.

The excerpt is from the chapter “Relationships: Superficial Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” which focuses on how technology is changing interpersonal relationships. The adultery section in which the interview with Biderman features follows an analysis of modern dating trends:

The Equality of Cheating

So what’s happening on the other side of dating, the extramarital affairs that often lead to divorce? With technology providing access to Chris Rock’s proverbial “options,” are affairs increasing in frequency as well?

Noel Biderman, founder of the affair-facilitating website AshleyMadison.com, has some thoughts on the issue. The site, based in Toronto, operates in more than two dozen countries and has a floating membership of around nineteen million. Biderman is something of a pariah, a bogeyman that the public and the press have blamed since the website’s launch in 2002 for aiding and abetting infidelity and the destruction of families that often follows. Yet he himself is happily married with children — “Divorce lawyers don’t have to be divorced, do they?” he quips. It’s clear he’s used that line before.

He’s dressed casually, wearing a comfortable-yet-snazzy hoodie that makes him look like a slightly more distinguished Mark Zuckerberg. He’s sporting rainbow-coloured socks, visible just under his desk, which indicate a certain sense of playfulness. He peppers our conversation with the odd joke, so he clearly doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Biderman talks fast and seems to have an answer for everything — except when I ask if his website is leading to more affairs happening than ever before. “The problem is, we don’t really have a good historic sense,” he says. “How unfaithful were we in 1972? I don’t know and I don’t think anyone really knows.” He makes a good point. Humans have been having affairs for centuries, but nobody has been tracking them until the likes of AshleyMadison came along. “It’s only now that we’re getting a sense of the volume of infidelity,” he adds.

The data that his website is gathering on its users provides a gold mine for social scientists, and Biderman is partnering with universities in Michigan and California to study it. A large monitor hanging on the wall behind his desk displays some of AshleyMadison’s most pertinent information. At a glance, we can see that 6,447 new sign-ups have taken place so far today, about 7 percent above the average, while average revenue per user is down slightly on the day by 2 per cent. About twenty thousand affair seekers will sign up before the day ends. It’s like watching a stock market, except the tickers monitor the statistical ups and downs of people cheating on each other.

I ask whether he considers the tracking and sharing of such data with scientists, who can study what it means, to be the socially constructive “good guy” part of what he does. “No one’s ever put it that way, but yeah, I guess it is,” he says. “Part of the legacy we’ll leave behind is this data set, which people much smarter than me will dive into. With that information, people might approach marriage differently or better. I don’t know?”

But Biderman is well rehearsed in answering the charge of whether AshleyMadison is a social ill overall or merely a vehicle for affairs already happening in the first place. He maintains that he’s just an innocent guy out to make a buck from a long-standing reality of humanity. “If an affair is about meeting someone and not getting caught, I just need to cannibalize that,” he says. “I don’t have to generate the demand, it already exists because of our genetics. I can’t [make it happen] with a thirty-second TV commercial. No one is that pliable.”

He is seeing a change in who instigates affairs, however. That role historically has gone to men, but more women are doing so because of improved equality overall. In this way, technology is acting as an accelerant because it provides women with the constructs through which affairs can happen. For years men have had their own set of brick-and-mortar platforms — strip joints and massage parlors, for example — but women haven’t had those equivalents. Websites such as AshleyMadison and perhaps even Facebook are filling that void. “Technology has not changed the male infidelity landscape,” Biderman says. “It has allowed for the cannibalization of the more traditional environments where it has happened, and I believe it’s currently impacting the female infidelity landscape.”

The majority of affairs are now catalyzing online as opposed to at work or otherwise “in real life,” according to the company’s statistics. The typical affair is also accelerating in speed. Whereas in the past it might have taken weeks or months for an affair to come together, now it typically happens in thirty-six hours: Users sign up to AshleyMadison in the morning before work, hunt for willing partners and send them messages during their lunch hour, respond to messages and set up meetings the following morning, then meet after work that day. Before, people who engaged in affairs had to concoct elaborate charades to make that secret phone call —“Uh, I have to go walk the dog” — whereas now they’re sending and checking messages with their spouse in the same room.

According to the stats monitor, 62 percent of women are checking their inboxes during prime-time evening hours, possibly while sitting across from their husbands on the couch.

Smartphone GPS functions only accelerate the situation more. Apps geared toward enabling affairs can tell users if there’s someone else in the same hotel who’s raring to go, for example. “The technology has shortened the windows,” Biderman says. “There is that time consolidation for sure.”

It’s easy to conclude that technology is accelerating affairs and therefore leading to an increase in their numbers. The statistics aren’t conclusive, but surely this development plays a role in rising divorce rates. Maybe those Facebook divorce stories were correct after all? Biderman isn’t sure, but he does believe he knows the underlying reason for most affairs. “I’ve never seen a study that says the longer you’re with someone, the more sexually attractive they are to you.”

Humans 3.0 is available in print and e-book in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. It was also just released in South Korea and is coming soon to China.

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