There is an old joke about a priest who decides to skip out on his congregation and play golf instead. God is looking down from heaven with Saint Peter and decides to teach him a lesson. “Watch this,” He says. The priest tees up a ball, and hits a terrible shot that bounces off a tree, but a hawk picks it up and drops it on the green. A squirrel runs over and knocks it into the hole for an ace. Saint Peter says, “What did you do that for? You just rewarded him for skipping his duties!” “Oh yeah?” says God, “Who’s he going to tell?”
Which is exactly the principle that Ashley Madison may have been counting on with their so-called “dating service” that encouraged users to commit adultery. (Tagline: “Life is short. Have an affair.”) After the initial shock of having its entire member list made public by hackers, one intrepid journalist dug deeper into the data and has raised serious questions as to whether any of the their claimed 5.5 million female “members” were real at all. Meaning the 31.5 million men supposedly on the site were being fooled by an elaborate fiction. Meaning the Ashley Madison site was encouraging immoral behavior and then delivering a fake version of that, as well.
A writer for Gizmodo, Annalee Newitz, reviewed the data of both male and female user accounts on the site and developed an extensive analysis of what she found.
“When you look at the evidence, it’s hard to deny that the overwhelming majority of men using Ashley Madison weren’t having affairs,” Newitz wrote. “They were paying for a fantasy.” This may have been because the women on the site weren’t real. The most compelling evidence that most of the female users on the site were fake was that they almost never used the site.
CBS News reported that, “out of those 5.5 million purported female users, Newitz found that only 1,492 had ever checked their inboxes, a sign that they were active users. The chat feature was another telltale sign: while 11 million men used chat, only 2,400 women did.” (That’s a ratio of about 4000 men for every woman. I think I went to some frat parties like that in college.) CBS noted that, “the third strike that flagged most of the female profiles as fake was the fact that only 9,700 women ever replied to messages they were sent, versus 5.9 million men who had.”
In a subsequent article in Gizmodo, Newitz revealed internal Ashley Madison emails that described the guidelines for creating fake female profiles, known as “angels” within the company. Creators were instructed to never use the same photo for more than one angel profile and to add personal details beyond the standard check-box material.
So, while there may have been a handful of real women actively using Ashley Madison and hooking up with a few of the male users, the other 31 million men who were members were generating nearly all the revenue for the site (membership fees, messaging fees, etc.), in exchange for an apparently fake experience about 99 percent of the time.
But the male patrons of Ashley Madison are in the same position as the priest in the old joke. They may feel ripped off, but whom are they going to tell? To complain about the injustice done to them, they would have to reveal a greater immorality of their own. Which isn’t a good trade, and may be exactly what the leadership at Ashley Madison was counting on. And the website is likely protected legally, because deep in their terms and conditions is this line, “some people are using the site purely ‘for entertainment’” and that they are “not seeking in-person meetings with anyone they meet on the Service, but consider their communications with users and Members to be for their amusement.”
It must take a certain kind of twisted brilliance to create a site that promises to facilitate an affair, fakes the content, but stands back from any questions of morality. Ashley Madison poses as a legitimate business, as though it were nothing more than a dimly lit cocktail lounge where people can arrange their own liaisons. But the reality appears to be that, with the exception of paying customers, everything about Ashley Madison is fake—at least most of the female profiles, the brand promise and the brand itself. And yet, ironically, maybe that’s the best you can say about it.
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal and Lehigh Valley Business.