Ashley Madison is not a dating site, if you ask Christian Rudder. It’s just a scam.
The OkCupid cofounder says recent reports that the “Original Extramarital Affairs Site” boasts an army of 70,000 bots prove that the company wasn’t even trying to deliver on its promise of connecting users for covert liaisons.
“It’s like a marketing scheme with some HTML behind it,” says Rudder, author of Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking.) A look at what Internet data tells us about human behavior, it comes out in paperback next week.
To Rudder, the newly discovered swarm of bots is more damning for the reputation of Ashley Madison than the release of user information following the now notorious high-profile hack of the website. Anyone can get hacked by a disgruntled employee or skilled programmer, so blaming Ashley Madison for the release of the data would be a bit unfair.
It’s easy to get rid of bots; OkCupid runs programs that purge them without humans having to look at the profiles, says Rudder. The reported bounty of bots indicates that the Ashley Madison at best welcomed the presence of fake users to fluff the experience for real users. At worst, the site created the red herring accounts.
“This thing that people were paying for was not delivering anything real,” says Rudder, continuing, “I don’t know how that could not be fraudulent.”
He clarifies that he’s using what he describes as a man-on-the-street definition of scam, not a legal definition of fraud.
Of course, OkCupid has run into its own controversies, having openly experimented on users by telling them they were compatable with users with which they actually had low compatability scores. But that experimentation was done in the interest of better delivering on the service's core promise, which is to connect real human users with real people looking to date.
Ethical qualms aside, Rudder says Ashley Madison’s apparent reliance on bots was an effective approach to keeping users engaged and spending money to stay on the site. The humans logging on comprised a captive audience disinclined to complain about shoddy service for fear of being revealed. From that perspective, the site was well-run, “in the same way that a cartel is probably a pretty well-run operation.”
Had the hack never happened, unleashing the troves of data that have come to show the workings of the site, “I think they could have gone on with it for a long time,” he says.