It’s tempting to talk about Ashley Madison, the beleaguered, infidelity-oriented hook up site, in the past tense. How is one supposed to imagine a future for it in the wake of a hack that led to the public shaming of many of the site’s members and the resignation of its parent company’s CEO? Reporting its death is a perfectly reasonable trap, one that I fell into when writing about the site last week, as I described what its users “had” done, operating on the implicit assumption that they wouldn’t be doing it anymore. But if you believe Ashley Madison, I may have been a bit too hasty.
In a press release issued Monday morning, Avid Life Media—which owns and operates Ashley Madison, along with other platforms such as Cougar Life—struck back against critics who claimed that the site’s best days were behind it. “Recent media reports predicting the imminent demise of Ashley Madison are greatly exaggerated,” the statement begins. In particular, it's defensive about the claim that there were hardly any women using the site.
Last week, Gizmodo’s Annalee Newitz analyzed data from the hack, and her initial results indicated that only 1,492 of its supposedly millions of female members had engaged with the site. She later amended this conclusion, having found that there was little to no information about user engagement in the leaked data set. But in her subsequent reporting, Newitz still suggested that the vast majority of the women that men were interacting with on the site were bots.
If those numbers turned you off, never fear: In its recent press release, Ashley Madison claims that 87,596 totally real women who are definitely real have signed up in the “past week alone.” In its specificity, this number is clearly meant to carry the weight of authority and truth. And there’s no reason to doubt that it’s a real figure. Given the amount of publicity the site has received, it’s entirely possible that some new users created accounts, whether out of curiosity, intent to troll, or even real desire. Of course, if Newitz’ latest findings are true, they may be more likely to be approached by bots than by their fellow humans.
Surely that's why Ashley Madison also pushes back against the idea that the site was a barren wasteland of disappointed desire. Without naming Newitz, it suggests that her analysis was flawed, asserting that she based it on “incorrect assumptions about the meaning of fields contained in the leaked data.” Claiming that women sent “more than 2.8 million messages within our platform” in the last week, the site’s press office goes on to assert that the ratio of active male accounts to active female accounts—accounts which were, presumably, operated by entirely real “people,” though the press release isn’t clear on this point—was 1.2 to 1.
Apparently there were actual women on Ashley Madison, women who really were using the site for its intended purpose. In 2013, GQ spoke to a handful of them, and there may be many more of them out there. A more telling—if accidental—data point, however, may be the company’s claim in its recent press release that the site remains “the number one service for people seeking discrete relationships.” While the company normally describes its services as discreet, which means “on the sly,” discrete refers to something that stands entirely alone. If anything stands alone on Ashley Madison, it must be those relationships, most of which are likely still playing out only in the individual imaginations of its members.
Update, Sept. 1, 10:35 a.m.: This post was updated to include the revisions Annalee Newitz made to her initial analysis about the Ashley Madison hack.