Meet the entrepreneur who built “the dark side of online dating.”
Noel Biderman could sell his own wife on the concept of Ashley Madison, the world’s largest social network for married people looking to have affairs.
“Imagine you’re in a significant relationship,” he instructs me over Skype, speaking from the company’s Toronto offices, his voice calm and collected.
“You have wonderful kids, an extended family you love, a great house, your career is going well. You get to take great vacations to Martha’s Vineyard. Everything’s great, but you know what?”
He pauses for emphasis, leaning in.
“He hasn’t touched you in six months. You’ve talked to him about it and even decided to go to marriage counseling, but you’re not a nun. You didn’t sign up for a life of celibacy.”
A “happily married” father of two, Biderman, 42, appears professional and relaxed. He clasps his hands together in front of him on the table.
“So you’re faced with a choice. Leave all those good things I just described—those critical things—behind because there’s an interesting guy at the workplace or someone you met online or a neighbor who is interested in jumping in bed with you.
“You go through a divorce,” he pauses again, “or maybe you just do this on the side and nobody’s the wiser and then you won’t be so stressed with your partner, or with your kids, and you’ll work more effectively. So an affair can act as a marriage preservation device.”
Ten years ago, the term “married dating” would have been an oxymoron. Now it’s part of popular culture. Last week, Ashley Madison’s commercials were parodied as “Sassy Madison” by The Simpsons. Biderman has been played by comedian Sarah Silverman in an episode of The Good Wife, and the NFL and Fox famously blocked the site’s ads from running during the Super Bowl.
“I know it’s hard for people to hear that, because we view it as a linchpin for destruction, but some affairs never get discovered; women have affairs the same way men do, and most people use it to stay within their marriage.”
For the uninitiated, Ashley Madison is a discreet dating website for married people looking to have affairs or single people interested in a temporary good time. The site has roughly 16 million users and 42 full-time employees who carefully examine every profile to ensure discretion and prevent scams. Playing the odds, someone you know probably uses it, but you’d never know—and that’s exactly the point.
“I’m the entrepreneur,” Biderman boasts, “who built the dark side of online dating.”
Photo via Noel Biderman
Behind closed doors
Songs are written about the heartbreak adultery causes. Movies like Obsessed and John Tucker Must Die glorify getting revenge on cheaters. If caught, an adulterer could lose custody of his or her kids and be denied alimony in a divorce. Statistics on how many married people are cheating are hard to come by: Some researchers argue it’s just 4 percent a year, while others say 70 percent of women married longer than five years will cheat.
Ashley Madison didn’t invent cheating, especially online. In fact, in 2009, roughly two years before Ashley Madison became popular in the media, close to 40 percent of men on dating websites were married.
Ashley Madison simply streamlined the process. It made having an affair easier to accomplish and far less risky. Biderman says he would love to claim he’s a brilliant entrepreneur, but the site just plays on the human condition.
“The ‘real’ America is way different than the one we want to portray sometimes,” he says. “We’re just not really built to be monogamous, and I just happen to be in the right place at the right time.”
That right time occurred in 2002, when Biderman left his career as an attorney for professional athletes, where he often had to maneuver players’ mistresses and wives and clean up their extramarital messes. Around that time, he also read an article about online dating where a female journalist says she would never recommend it to her female friends because most of the men on dating sites were married. Single women duped by married men pretending to be single on sites like Match.com or OkCupid are more likely to rat them out to their spouses.
According to Biderman, one of the big reasons people cheat is because they have a limited understanding of what marriage is truly like, and traditional dating sites create unrealistic romantic expectations. Commercials for Match.com and eHarmony show couples ending up blissfully married in weddings straight off a Pinterest board, happily together for years and years.
“In people’s minds, it’s all about holding hands and falling in love with people who are perfect and matched through your scientific methodology or with your religious background,” he says. “But honestly, I think people who are looking for an extracurricular relationship on the side or people who are looking for something casual are a way bigger marketplace in online dating at this time.”
Ashley Madison is currently the second largest dating company in North America. After all, America isn’t the black-and-white Pleasantville of yesteryear. Biderman quoted statistics showing 40 percent of children are born out of wedlock and that Americans spend more money on pornography and strip clubs than they do on seeing Broadway, Off Broadway, and regional theatre.
In an Ashley Madison focus group when the site was just beginning, Biderman says 98 percent of the respondents admitted they’d never be honest with their partner about having exterior sexual desires.
“I’m more comfortable cheating than being honest,” they told him.
Biderman believes his critics are asserting a broad oversimplification of infidelity.
“You don’t know that someone who had an affair is in the wrong. You don’t know what goes on behind closed doors,” he counters, “so we’re there, if not to defend people, to help people understand the topic more intelligently.”
Erasing the digital lipstick
Discretion is Ashley Madison’s highest priority.
Biderman has spent millions of dollars on the site’s security, and in the past decade, Ashley Madison has only had about a dozen hack attempts—none of which were successful. And while the site has 16 million users, Ashley Madison has only a paltry 5,400 Twitter followers and only 15,000 Facebook likes—a telling insight into the secretive behavior of its clients.
“Our users don’t tell their friends they’re using this service,” Biderman says.
In the wake of a glitch that showed everyone on Facebook who was using the supposedly secret hookup app Bang With Friends, Biderman has no hesitation about calling his site the most fastidious dating company online.
In fact, Biderman claims he came up with an idea like Bang With Friends years ago called “Secret Admirer,” but he quickly realized the app would have security holes similar to the one Bang With Friends ended up having. Biderman also created technology similar to that of sexting app Snapchat, which claimed to delete photos immediately but was discovered to retain them inside the phone.
The hookup market is constantly being inundated with new “discreet” sex apps, but they’re all flashes in the pan, Biderman says. These new entrepreneurs and developers want to rely on “virality” for promotion, but Biderman says that shows they don’t understand their consumer or the infidelity economy, and only want to get rich quick without thinking of the user’s privacy.
“[Ashley Madison is] far and away the best,” Biderman says. “All the power to the Bang With Friends guys, but we knew it was a matter of time before users realized how foolish it was to use the product and so we shut it down. It’s easy and titillating to say we do this, we do that, and have the media run with the story and gain a bunch of users and then after the fact say, ‘Oh, sorry, we didn’t think it all through.’
“The worst place in the world to conduct an affair is Facebook. Bang With Friends is fraught with peril.”
Facebook is actually Biderman’s biggest competition, but as made clear by the numerous privacy glitches the site has faced, the social network is also the least secure. Facebook doesn’t fully delete profiles, and even photos take a significant amount of time to be completely removed from the site.
Ashley Madison is one of the only social networks that promises complete deletion of what Biderman calls “digital lipstick.” If a user deletes their account, he or she is not just taken out of search rotation: Every point of exposure is fully erased, even messages in someone else’s inbox. Nothing is kept on a server or saved in any files.
“You’re a ghost,” he says. “It never existed.”
Photos are masked until a user unlocks them specifically for another user. Ashley Madison’s messaging is done so no emails or phone numbers need to be exchanged. If you choose to pay for site upgrades, your credit card statement won’t read “Ashley Madison”; instead, the site rotates through different code names that are unique to each user. There’s also a “Panic Button” that users can click to immediately navigate away from Ashley Madison and to a local family-friendly site.
Biderman says 60 percent of Ashley Madison’s traffic came from people logging in through work hours, but that upon the popularization of the smartphone, the site began seeing more mobile logins when people are probably at home “in bed beside their partner.”
The Ashley Madison mobile app may be the site’s only weak link. The initial design had the app disguised as a chess game. When the user made a move, it opened to reveal AshleyMadison.com. Apple rejected it because of rules that apps must look like what they are. Now, the Ashley Madison app has an “A” on it, and when you click, it goes directly there.
“It’s fair criticism,” Biderman admits, looking pained that there’s a hole in his Fort Knox of cheating. “The app is probably one of the least discreet aspects of our service. We were still OK proceeding with an app, though, because phones are password-protected. We chose to play within the Apple universe.”
The Ashley Madison app gives people a GPS location on a map, so they can, for instance, go to a hotel and see who else in that hotel might be willing to have an affair.
“It’s not bulletproof,” Biderman sighs, “but we tell our users that clearly and let them make those choices.”
The wife next door
The demographics of Ashley Madison’s users bascially break down like this:
Married men: Married men at the four-year mark, usually when their wife gets pregnant. “That’s a physical thing,” Biderman contends. “Their sex lives went from on the kitchen table to abstinence, and they can’t adjust.” Then, men in their 50s, experiencing the empty nest of their children leaving. They gave everything to their families, Biderman says, and so they have a sense of entitlement to have something or someone for themselves.
Women: Single women in their 20s looking for married boyfriends, married housewives in their 30s remembering when they were brought flowers, and late-20s married women who Biderman calls “honeymooners.” Honeymooners tend to join the site for information gathering.
“When you get married young, where do you turn to have discussions about what marriage should be?” Biderman says. “These women have been married three years or less and don’t have kids yet, and they’re here, which is systemic of an information void as to what marriage is really like.”
Singles are allowed on the site. When it launched in 2002, a married affair’s “mutually assured destruction” was the guarantee that whoever you hooked up with via Ashley Madison wouldn’t cause trouble in your real life. But Biderman realized customers want to have a sexual relationship with something their partner couldn’t be—namely, they want same-sex relationships.
On its website FAQ, Ashley Madison stresses that “providing a service like ours does not make someone more likely to stray any more than increasing the availability of glassware contributes to alcoholism.”
Biderman also runs the dating sites CougarLife.com, for women looking to date younger men; EstablishedMen.com; and ArrangementFinders.com, which connects young women with rich men to play benefactor, and so he is a regular target for hate mail.
“People call us a scourge on society,” he says, “but think about how many people have signed up, sent one message, and then never even bothered to check the reply because they decided the guilt of having an affair was something they couldn’t deal with and now they’ve rejuvenated themselves within their relationship without doing anything?
He jokes: “Where’s my humanitarian award for that great effort?”
Home to roost
How does this play in the Biderman home? Does his wife care that this is her husband’s job? Biderman laughs.
“I think if you asked my wife, she’d say, ‘My husband’s mind and skills could probably be better used for something like curing cancer.’”
But in the end, he says, he’s gotten her to see it his way. He told her, “You can’t convince someone to have an affair whether I build Ashley Madison or not.” He could show someone a TV commercial a thousand times or knock on their door and beg them to have an affair, but they won’t if they’re happy.
“We’re making society better,” Biderman contends. “People may not believe me, but 50 to 60 years from now you’ll see the benefit of making this social network—whether it’s the research and data provided to institutions about infidelity, or it’s people becoming more successful in their own relationships because they understand marriage and cheating better.”
Illustration by Jason Reed