Kathy Sheridan: Why share your secrets with Ashley Madison founder?

Biderman styles himself ‘the Google of cheating’ and wants to share back all that sociological data with researchers

 Ashley Madison CEO Noel Biderman. Photograph: SCMP

Ashley Madison CEO Noel Biderman. Photograph: SCMP


Would you tell your secrets to Noel Biderman? The 43-year-old founder and chief executive of website Ashley Madison – slogan: “Life is short, have an affair” – says strangers keep doing it. There are respectable studies that suggest we are more likely to confide in the hairdresser than the all-purpose, best friend-lover-spouse of the modern, romantic ideal. But really, would you pick Noel?

Noel runs a lucrative business that actively encourages married people to have affairs. He denies that. People are going to have affairs anyway, he says, “so why not build a community for them and let them figure it out for themselves”.

The internet lexicon is a wondrous thing. Take the word “community”. It implies a fuzzy, caring kind of vibe. Noel’s is built on the credo “We’ll help you meet someone and not get caught”. And when you want out, he waves you off with a wistful “good luck”? Not. This is where Noel turns from agent of your treachery to double agent. Now he demands money to have your full details erased. Sweet.

Noel of course, argues that he and the “community” are separate entities. It’s that other great internet cop-out : “We’re just a platform.” Yet in interviews, he asserts, with classic Silicon Valley swagger, that entrepreneurs such as himself “shape a society”. “Controversy is just society reshaping its values,” he argues.

So all the activity facilitated by “the world’s leading married dating service for discreet encounters”, all those mobile updates reminding members to “Have an affair and be discreet”, all that promotional stuff that underpins the billion-dollar Biderman enterprise ? Nothing to do with Noel, guv. He’s just a platform. Yet, Noel’s business premise is to “help” you meet someone. He is also a heavy advertiser. Advertising often flies under the radar of conscious attention but it plant ideas. Otherwise why bother?

He claims he has never cheated on his wife, though he would for sure if there was an intimacy problem. They sound like the words of a straight-talking man. Noel, though, would be damn sure not to get caught. Never mind the morals, feel the contradictions. In one interview he argues it’s monogamy that’s the problem; in another, he says the problem is getting caught. It’s fine if you don’t get caught, he says, explaining the distinction between “discovered infidelity” – with all that shouty fall-out for your partner, children, home life and inconvenience to yourself – and “undiscovered infidelity”, which is “like a drug” and feels mighty good.

How he knows so much about this drug is a mystery since he hasn’t experienced it, but for a mere platform, he sure knows how to push it. Anyway, he’s tired of being misunderstood. He styles himself “the Google of cheating” and what this 21st-century Albert Schweitzer wants to do now is share back all that sociological data with researchers, about his “community” (that’s the same one that is paying him for the privilege and whose details cannot be erased without paying up, remember). It’s for the good of mankind.

He must have punched the air when he came up with that one. Because quite apart from that nasty business when hackers were threatening to reveal names, financial details and sexual preferences of his 37million subscribers – cheaters can’t even trust cheating websites anymore – Noel has been having bother with his image. He tried to take the company public in his native Canada but investors balked. In April, he was touting around stockbrokers and investment banks for a London IPO.

He had already tried to establish a European gateway in Ireland but had to shut down when he encountered difficulty hiring staff. “I’m running an infidelity service and culturally in Ireland that’s a bit of a problem,” he told the Sunday Business Post in June 2014. “It was my naivety. I remember the first law firm I approached [who turned down the business on moral grounds]. I said, ‘But you’re lawyers. You defend criminals!’ I didn’t really realise the religious vein ran so deep.”

A two-minute chat with a friendly native would have told him the vast majority of Irish people take their morals from anywhere but religion. Or – strewth – maybe he distrusts his own membership figures. Last year, the company claimed the website had more than 125,000 members in Ireland, compared to about 57,000 in Sweden, which has nearly twice the population. If you trust those figures, that’s a lot of cheating in a little country with an allegedly deep religious vein.

It seems Noel is so confused by his own patter he forgets the whole point of Ashley Madison. He thinks the brand is comparable to McDonald’s – which people don’t question, he says, “even though it sells unhealthy food”. But too many Big Macs just make you fat. Ashley Madison promotes serial betrayal. To say this is not to be judgmental about human choices.

People are drawn into affairs for all sorts of complicated reasons. It could be several kinds of loneliness, neglect, desperation, abuse, tragic circumstance or simple happenstance. But once you sign up to a service that pings a daily reminder to “have an affair and be discreet” to your mobile, it’s time for a look in the mirror.

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