Ashley Madison's fembot fantasy: The collective alienation that made this shady business model work

Gizmodo's report on the company's fake female profiles is damning — but so is our demand for ersatz companionship

Published September 8, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Lee Jin-man)
(AP/Lee Jin-man)

Notorious website Ashley Madison (“Life is short. Have an affair.”) has become like the cyborg assassin played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator movies. It keeps seeming to be gone, but keeps coming, ah, back. I don’t dust off this hackneyed cinematic image lightly. But it’s not just that the site keeps showing up, apparently bigger than before (now boasting “Over 40,815,000 anonymous members!”). It’s that each time it returns, it seems to be more synthetic than ever. That is: With each new report, the site’s cast of characters seems to be more and more about lonely married guys sending notes to an artificial intelligence program that’s just a step or two up from the old Eliza system.

Some of that news broke a few days ago. What we’ve just found out is how hard the company worked to create a network of fembots and, even harder, to play games with the California attorney general, and to generally keep the whole thing a secret.

What Gizmodo’s Annalee Newitz is calling the final installment of her excellent Ashley Madison project – she’s been assisted by several anonymous hackers – is an indictment of the company that cashes in on alienation and of a society where men are desperate for connection. I’ve written over the last few weeks arguing that the case is morally complicated – that members of the site don’t deserve to have private information spread around like this, that their loved one deserve it less, and that giving in to schadenfreude is not productive. Either way, the new reporting makes the company come across as deeply awful and duplicitous, and legal action seems likely.

Here’s how it worked, according to Newitz’s piece:

"When men signed up for a free account, they would immediately be shown profiles of what internal documents call 'Angels,' or fake women whose details and photos had been batch-generated using specially designed software. To bring the fake women to life, the company’s developers also created software bots to animate these Angels, sending email and chat messages on their behalf."

"To the Ashley Madison 'guest,' or non-paying member, it would appear that he was being personally contacted by eager women. But if he wanted to read or respond to them, he would have to shell out for a package of Ashley Madison credits, which range in price from $60 to $290. Each subsequent message and chat cost the man credits. As documents from company e-mails now reveal, 80 percent of first purchases on Ashley Madison were a result of a man trying to contact a bot, or reading a message from one. The overwhelming majority of men on Ashley Madison were paying to chat with Angels like Sensuous Kitten, whose minds were made of software and whose promises were nothing more than hastily written outputs from algorithms."

Much of the story revolves around a man in Orange County, California, who got suspicious at all the “Are you online?” notes he was getting from purported women who had never viewed his profile. After playing around on the site a bit, he filed a complaint with the attorney general, and after the office contacted Ashley Madison, Newitz reports the site’s lawyers went into overdrive:

"Though Ashley Madison told the California attorney general’s office that its own bots were actually the work of random fraudsters, management struggled internally with the legality of what they were doing. Users complained about bots regularly, and there are several email exchanges between [site founder Noel] Biderman and various attorneys about how to disclose that they have bot accounts without admitting any wrongdoing."

The site also listed a long, weasel-ish disclosure, later retracted, explaining that “The profiles we create are not intended to resemble or mimic any actual persons.” Ah, right.

It’s bad enough that Ashley Madison is the Internet version of those creepy rubber dolls made to look and feel like real women. But the way the company tried to dodge admitting what was going on is truly despicable.

Three fun facts: 1) Actual women seemed to make up about 5 percent Ashley Madison members. 2) The most common passwords men used on the site were “pussy” and “secret.” Very imaginative. 3) The prevalence of fembots was something just about everyone at the company knew about.

Like a Real Doll modeled on the body of some actual woman somewhere, some fembots were built from the profiles of women who’d been on the site and quit. “So any women—fraudulent or otherwise—who posted pictures before June of 2011 … appear to have been fair game for bot conversion. Her words and images … would be turned into a host account, and used by engager bots to entice men into buying a conversation with her,” Newitz reports.

So the moral complexity of it all is dropping out for me: This seems like blatantly illegal, very deliberate fraud. Newitz writes that “future generations will have to grapple with what we’ve done here, in the early twenty-first century, to manipulate each other with fake beings.”

Somehow, it’s hard to be surprised that a company would try to exploit people’s loneliness. But it makes me wonder: If 40 million people are either so tone-deaf they can’t tell that their purportedly romantic relationship is with AI, or are too besotted by the technology to care, just where did 21st century society go so wrong to make so many of us so pathetic and alienated?

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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