The August leak of thirty-plus gigabytes of data—customer email addresses and credit card records, company emails, salary and bank information, source code, at least one film treatment—from Ashley Madison, the pro-infidelity dating site, brought the cultural logic of the moment to some kind of perverse perfection. With all of the florid maximalism of a Michael Bay film, the hack, targeting Toronto-based Avid Life Media (ALM), Ashley Madison’s parent company, proved that information about ourselves we might hold private and dear shall be, in due course—inescapably, you bet—spilled faster than a two-pump chump six beers into Saturday night.
On cue, the usual doleful cultural assessments arrived alongside the tidal wave of hacked data to scold a site promoting covert infidelity. As moral failings go, hypocrisy appeals to the easily shocked, the naive, or the deeply cynical. (Gawker founder Nick Denton once said, before his public conversion on the subject, “Hypocrisy is the only modern sin.”) This righteous judgmentalism, which is nothing if not regressive, originated with the hackers themselves, a group calling itself the Impact Team. In several statements, the Impact Team—which an ALM executive indicated may include a former contractor—castigated the site’s users, addressing them as “cheating dirtbags” who should “learn your lesson and make amends.” Initially, the Impact Team had demanded that ALM shut down its two most prominent sites (Ashley Madison and Established Men); when that didn’t happen, the group began the leak and announced that it would continue to dump data periodically (and punitively). This corporate set-to delivered, in short, an admirably elegant equation of motivational boardroom sloganeering: Avid Life plus Impact Team equals Cheerless Monogamy Vindicated.
But things didn’t stop there. Enterprising crusaders with nothing better to do created searchable versions of Ashley Madison’s user list from the dumped files, and the Washington Post and others published articles explaining just how a Schadenfreude-minded tech civilian could go about plumbing the database for customized juicy details. The names of various notable members began to emerge, though they could claim, at best, a dubious provenance: Ashley Madison’s loose procedures meant that anyone’s email address could be registered with the site. A famous conservative family values activist/reality star/sexual abuser—the triple crown of today’s right wing—was a member, apparently. So were some politicians, an NFL player, actors, government employees, and a guy I went to college with. What do you know?
People may have met and had affairs through the site, but probably vastly fewer than implied by Ashley Madison’s cunningly crafted image.
Fairly quickly, tales of individual Ashley Madison users began to appear, mostly anonymously. Some reflected familiar tropes of rich men paying for sex or sociability. But some offered more complicated pictures—loveless marriages, open relationships, appetites for self-destruction, desire for companionship, or minor transgressive thrills. Sex outside of marriage happens in many forms, but the users of Ashley Madison were judged through the lens of the site’s louche promotional style. (“Life is short. Have an affair.”) There is no reason to sit in judgment over others’ private sexual choices, except that it can feel good and allow us to think we have made better ones.
Within days of the story efflorescing onto every homepage and feed, there were reports of blackmail attempts and two suicides connected to the leak. The operative sentiment in this affair wasn’t so much distaste for hypocrisy as simple cruelty. A great deal of “reporting” on the viral sensation of the moment boils down to pointing at some stranger, briefly in the glare of the spotlight, and announcing: “Look at this dumb bastard.” Reality TV has enthroned this same principle of predatory mass humiliation, relentlessly pushing its hapless subjects toward mockery and failure while rewarding a (supposedly) lucky few. The promise of a permanent afterlife in the form of embarrassing search results, tied to their real names, hangs over all viral stars. Welcome to the funhouse, guys.
It soon became clear, amid the mounting digital squalor surrounding the Ashley Madison hack, that Avid Life Media was far from innocent. As security researchers, reporters, and untold amateurs pored over the ALM data, the startling possibility emerged that Ashley Madison was a fraud. It turned out that most of the site’s users were men. Women rarely sent messages; the company, in fact, had programmed millions of bots to contact male accounts, feigning female interest. (Two years ago, a former Ashley Madison employee sued the site, claiming that she injured her wrists via the drudgework of creating hundreds of fake female profiles—not exactly the sort of repetitive motion the dude-heavy client base was likely fantasizing about.) People may have met and had affairs through the site, but probably vastly fewer than implied by Ashley Madison’s cunningly crafted image. As Navneet Alang wrote in Hazlitt, “It was, in essence, a site dedicated to fantasy.”
There were other signs of deceptive behavior, if not outright criminality. Users’ passwords were poorly encrypted, allowing a group of researchers to crack eleven million passwords in ten days. Emails between company executives appeared to reveal efforts to spam Twitter with one hundred thousand messages per month, design a stock-picking app that would serve as a front for a pump-and-dump scheme, and hack into competitors’ systems. Company engineers also created an app called What’s Your Wife Worth—no elaboration needed.
The site makes money by soaking users with fees. Liaison-seekers have to pay for all kinds of essential features, from messaging women to sharing photos to being “guaranteed” an affair. Until recently, Ashley Madison charged customers $19 to delete their accounts, yet held onto data it claimed to have trashed; included in the leak were birthdays, body weights, and geographic coordinates of men (poor saps) who thought they had paid to cover their tracks.
This kind of pay-to-play model can be found at many low-rent e-commerce shops. GoDaddy, Ticketmaster, Spirit Airlines, the background search service USSearch.com: these destinations are designed to coax users at every turn to add another upgrade, piece of insurance, associated product, or membership renewal to the shopping cart, simply by clicking another box. Fantasies aren’t cheap.
If the Internet really is some kind of collective id, then the scattered traces of such transactions reflect who we are and where we’ve been—not to mention the inadmissible, time-honored fact that we might desire varieties of sex that our regressive society doesn’t condone. In the immortal epigram of William Blake, “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.” For everyone else, there was Ashley Madison, a machine built to exploit the rickety institution of marriage, promising security and discretion in its algorithmic matchmaking. What a crock. But every good grift has its winners: ALM’s defrocked CEO made $5 million last year.