Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Monogamous Man Behind Ashley Madison

The lipstick-covered Noel Biderman
As the man behind Ashley Madison, Noel Biderman bills himself as the "most hated man on the internet", with pictures of him wearing open collar shirts, with lipstick kisses all over his face and surrounded by leggy models not wearing much. That's because Ashley Madison is a dating website primarily for married or attached men or women looking for some action on the side.
Even before the founder and CEO arrived in Hong Kong for the city's launch of Ashley Madison, church groups and family value organisations upset about Biderman's website harming the family as a social institution.

"Without trying to moralise, [the website founder] is treating something as serious as marriage very casually," said Reverend Lawrence Lee, the Chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong. "Family life and fidelity in marriage are essential for the well-being of our society. If you weaken that foundation it is harmful to society."

Meanwhile Mayte Yeung Kit-wah of religious group The Society for Truth and Light said extra-marital affairs should not be encouraged.

"Not only will it lead to the unforgettable damage in marriage by which trust and commitment will be destroyed, it will also jeopardise the relationship between spouses and also with their children," she said. "Broken families have become a major problem in western societies and gradually in Hong Kong and the cost is always borne by society as a whole."

According to the Census and Statistics Department, the divorce rate in 1991 was only 1.1 people divorced per 1,000 people, but in 2011, it jumped to 2.8 people per 1,000.

However, Biderman is an old hand at brushing off the criticisms.

The Simpsons' take on Ashley Madison called Sassy Madison
"People had affairs in every country before Ashley Madison arrived," he says. "But they had them in the workplace or within their circle of friends – which is much more destructive. We don't want to convince anyone to cheat, but we can tell them how to have the perfect affair. And that means not only finding the right partner, but also not getting caught."

Hong Kong is Ashley Madison's 30th country, with over 20 million members. In the first week 82,669 people signed up, of which 31,415 are women. The profiles include not only the age, status and which district they lived in, but also what they were interested in, ranging from sex talk to fetishes and "lots of stamina". Curiously, the users' photographs had the option of adding a mask over their eyes that seems unattractive than beguiling.

By way of starting the interview in a suite in the Peninsula Hong Kong, Biderman's handlers invited journalists to watch a 30-second commercial. Viewers are meant to feel like voyeurs spying on a couple in the throes of passion under the covers through a green-coloured lens, in an attempt to entice people to sign up at Ashley Madison.

"By the time we explain what we want to do, we find it easier to just do it ourselves," explains the Canadian entrepreneur, of the company's advertising.

While the images may look amateurish, Biderman is serious about his business.

"Infidelity is universal. It plays out the same way everywhere. That's why I'm building a global dating company," he says, sitting back comfortably in a dusty pink shirt, white jeans, and blue suede shoes. The 42-year-old has a few grey hairs, but looks slimmer than his appearance in the ads.

"People have affairs and they go to singles dating sites when they shouldn't. There are lots of like-minded adults looking to cheat and that's what Ashley Madison is for," he says plainly. Having had so much media coverage, Biderman feels comfortable despite the barrage of criticisms over the morality of his website – in fact he welcomes the attention.

His idea for Ashley Madison came about when he worked as a sports attorney for Interperformances Inc, one of Europe and North America's largest sports management firms. He managed 45 athletes around the world and saw first hand the infidelities they dabbled in.

"Professional athletes play in different countries and they're 10,000 kilometres from home. They're in a high stress profession, and they have lots of fans, fan-dom. So there's lots of temptation. It's like putting a plate of cookies in front of you and you think you can resist them but it's an overestimation. This happens to politicians, athletes and celebrities. They are surrounded by fans. Infidelity is part of the professional sports landscape."

Tiger Woods comes to mind, and Biderman added Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain to the list. "Athletes, CEOs and politicians are type A personalities, people who are risk takers and have power and influence which makes them tend to cheat. At some level we are unsure about our relationship or are curious about cheating."

He recalls getting a phone call in the middle of the night from one of his basketball players in Milan saying his wife back home missed him and wanted to fly over to meet him. "But my Italian wife won't like that", Biderman recalls him saying.

The athlete had just tied the knot with an Italian woman and as the manager, Biderman had to scramble to annul the marriage, pay the woman off, make sure she had a pregnancy test – a massive headache that made him think there must be a better, more discreet way to cheat.

Biderman began researching statistics on affairs and found over one-third of users of internet dating sites are not single and so he concluded they are a community of their own. In order to make it a level playing field, he made Ashley Madison geared towards women. 

"Men are predisposed to cheating, whereas women are penalised, in that it is beyond the scarlet letter and stoning them," he says. "When a woman joins a dating site, she meets a man, and he seems perfect but then he disappears and she finds out he's married. It's close to a sexual assault."

He's also done his research on Hong Kong – considering it a separate market from the mainland. 

"It has a unique culture and different regulatory body," he says, though he freely admits the Hong Kong site is a springboard to China. "I see hundreds of thousands of hits from China," he says. "They're doing it either virally or they somehow hear about the most talked about dot-com. It's in the mainstream media, like Bloomberg, CNN, CNBC so it's made its way into the vernacular."

And when The Simpsons spoofs your own commercial, you know you've become mainstream. In one of the episodes, Marge Simpson thinks she is ordering a cake from Dolly Madison but mistakenly logs onto Sassy Madison, enticing her to cheat on Homer. "We are the Kleenex of cheating," he says proudly.

"Cheating is in our DNA," Biderman has been quoted as saying, and in the case of women, he says they enter affairs not just for sexual reasons. "They were once objects of desire, taken on dates, given flowers, but then 10 years later there's no conversation, only grunting," he says. 

He says cheating nowadays is on another level, where one's history of which websites they have visited are the equivalent to digital lipstick. Biderman says with Ashley Madison, users log onto the site and use the messaging system there and so no personal email addresses are exchanged.

Ashley Madison works on a credit model, where men pay HK$360 for 100 credits to contact 20 women. "Infidelity is transient," explains Biderman. "Some say they'll give it three months, or the site must be broken. Or on Monday they will think it's time to do something. They can pay as they play."

Biderman explains when people must pay to make contact with others, it forces quality. "A guy can blast 1,000 women, but he isn't going to get any responses. When it's targeted, the women get the invitation they want."

In setting the price in Hong Kong, Biderman says users can be price sensitive. "In Switzerland and Japan it's higher than average, but in Columbia it's lower, and we need to do something about the number of users there," he said. "We look at the CPI index, the price of things when we set the prices."

He also looks closely at the statistics – that men at the age of 39 are more predisposed to having an affair, much like buying fancy cars or women having plastic surgery. Men also tend to cheat three to four years into the marriage when their wives are pregnant.

Universities of Duke, Michigan and California at Irvine are partnering with Ashley Madison to mine the data to examine trends in infidelity, with over 25,000 users self-publishing why they are having an affair and sending hundreds of thousands of messages a day.

Biderman and his wife Amanda
"We've found that when Asian women want to join our site, 95 per cent send messages to non-Asian men because they are looking for something different in their marriages," Biderman says. "Sex is the human condition and monogamy is set up to fail."

This coming from the man who has been married for 11 years to his wife Amanda with two children, a boy and girl.

"My wife is my biggest cheerleader. When I said, 'Honey I want to start a cheating website' she said, 'Yeah, OK', and I explained why and how, she said, 'How can I help?'"

In fact, Biderman says, working on Ashley Madison has helped him be more faithful since he deals with infidelity everyday on the job. While he says his children are too young to know exactly what he does, but claims he will be honest with them. "I think they will judge me for the dad I am."

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