The World of Ashley Madison was a far more dystopian place than anyone had realized. This isn’t a debauched wonderland of men sleeping with women (other than their wives.) It isn’t even a sadscape of 31 million men competing to attract those 5.5 million women in the database. Instead, it’s like a science-fictional future where every woman on Earth is dead, and some Dilbert-like engineer has replaced them with badly-designed robots.
Those millions of Ashley Madison men were paying to hook up with women who appeared to have created profiles and then simply disappeared. Were they cobbled together by bots and bored admins, or just user-debris? Whatever the answer, the more I examined those 5.5 million female profiles, the more obvious it became that none of them had ever talked to men on the site, or even used the site at all after creating a profile. Actually, scratch that. As I’ll explain below, there’s a good chance that about 12,000 of the profiles out of millions belonged to actual, real women who were active users of Ashley Madison.
When you look at the evidence, it’s hard to deny that the overwhelming majority of men using Ashley Madison weren’t having affairs. They were paying for a fantasy.
I figured that if I were an admin at Ashley Madison creating fake profiles, I would use ashleymadison.com for the email addresses because it’s easy and obvious. No real Ashley Madison customer would have an Ashley Madison company email. So I searched for any email address that ended in ashleymadison.com. Bingo. There were about 10 thousand accounts with ashleymadison.com email addresses. Many of them sounded like they’d been generated by a bot, like the dozens of addresses listed as email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, 300@ashleymadison, and so on.
The most popular IP address among men and women belonged to a company called OnX, which hosted Ashley Madison’s backups. That could mean a number of things, including that those were all accounts created by people working at Ashley Madison. It could also mean that there was a mass migration of data at some point and everybody’s IP address was changed to Ashley Madison’s host address. There were no weird gender anomalies in this data, though — about 82& of these OnX IP addresses belonged to men, which is close to the percentage of men in the database.
But the second most popular IP address, found in 80,805 profiles, was a different story. This IP address, 127.0.0.1, is well-known to anyone who works with computer systems as a loopback interface. To the rest of us, it’s known simply as ‘home,’ your local computer. Any account with that IP address was likely created on a ‘home’ computer at Ashley Madison. Interestingly, 68,709 of the profiles created with that IP address were female, and the remaining 12,000 were either male or had nothing in the gender field.
• Only 1,492 of the women in the database had ever checked their messages on the site. That’s compared with more than 20 million men.
• Only 2,409 of the women had ever used the site’s chat function, versus more than 11 million men.
• Only 9,700 women had ever responded to a message from another person on the site, versus almost 6 million men. (This number was greater than the number of women who checked messages because it’s possible to answer messages in bulk when you first visit the site, without ever opening your inbox.)
The men’s accounts tell a story of lively engagement with the site, with over 20 million men hopefully looking at their inboxes, and over 10 million of them initiating chats. The women’s accounts show so little activity that they might as well not be there.
The women’s personal email addresses and IP addresses showed marked signs of fakery. And as for the women’s user activity, the fundamental sign of life online? Ashley Madison employees didn’t even bother faking that at all.
Either way, we’re left with data that suggests Ashley Madison is a site where tens of millions of men write mail, chat, and spend money for women who aren’t there.
Overall, the picture (involving sent and replied emails, and chat) is grim indeed. Out of 5.5 million female accounts, roughly zero (ZERO) percent had ever shown any kind of activity at all, after the day they were created.
Sure, some of these inactive accounts were probably created by real, live women (or men pretending to be women) who were curious to see what the site was about. Some probably wanted to find their philandering husbands. Others were no doubt curious journalists like me. But they were still overwhelmingly inactive. They were not created by women wanting to hook up with married men. They were static profiles full of dead data, whose sole purpose was to make men think that millions of women were active on Ashley Madison.
There are definitely other possible explanations for these data discrepancies. It could be that the women’s data in these three fields just happened to get hopelessly corrupted, even though the men’s data didn’t. Or maybe most of those accounts weren’t deliberately faked, but just represented real women who came to the site once, never to return.