Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Infidelity and the Internet: The Geography of Ashley Madison Usership in the United States

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Infidelity and the Internet: The Geography of Ashley Madison Usership in the United States

Article excerpt


In July 2015, an anonymous hacker group self-described as "The Impact Team" accessed the user account database of the online dating website and stole internal documents and private customer records. The hacker group demanded the website to cease operation on ethical grounds and threatened to publicly release the entire database of over 30 million user account records if it failed to do so. Ashley Madison did not meet the demand and the data was publicly released via file-sharing sites in August 2015.

Ashley Madison is an online dating service designed to connect individuals seeking extramarital affairs. The website is owned by Avid Life Media, Inc., which operates an assortment online social networking and dating services. The company rebranded themselves as "Ruby Corp" after the Ashley Madison breach.

The type of matchmaking offered on the site was the main reason the breach was scandalous. Many ordinary and celebrity spouses were exposed as seeking discreet extramarital affairs. Further, Ashley Madison offered users the option to delete their account for an additional fee, but did not actually delete the user information from their internal database; thus, revealing the identities of particularly vulnerable customers.

Shortly after the breach, the user data was released freely on file-sharing websites. Many media outlets produced and released maps for articles that examined user concentrations. However, we doubt the usefulness of most of these maps because of their coarse spatial resolution (for example, national-level heat maps, state-level user counts) and unclear data-processing methodology (Cain 2015; Chan 2016). In two instances, the maps included every individual who signed up for an Ashley Madison account, ranging from paying subscribers and curious lurkers to the now-notorious automated text-bots programmed to simulate interested women, for which the Ashley Madison has been probed by the FTC (Pagilery 2016; Sharp and Martell 2016).

Ashley Madison has been the market leader in online infidelity matchmaking from its founding in 2008 to the data breach in summer 2015. The multimillion dollar, global enterprise gained notoriety from its aggressive marketing techniques, most notably the media attention gained from a bawdy television advertisement Fox refused to air during the 2011 SuperBowl (Hill 2011; MacNichol 2011). The business model is not based on subscription fees rather, users purchase credits in exchange for the ability to instantaneously chat or exchange email messages with other users. Despite the success of Ashley Madison and online dating in general, the market characteristics for these services are not well understood. This paper seizes the unique opportunity provided by the Impact Team's data breach to analyze the spatial distribution of a large and robust sample of individuals who paid for a service to facilitate finding an extramarital partner.

Using the stolen Ashley Madison user account information as a dataset for academic research raises several ethical concerns. The dissemination of user identities compromised an unknown number of relationships, tarnished the reputation of several public figures, and even triggered several suicides (Associated Press 2015; Baraniuk 2015; Ocamb 2015; Segall 2015). Individuals revealed to be seeking homosexual partners faced capital punishment in countries where homosexuality warrants severe physical punishment or the death penalty (Cain 2015; Gallagher 2015). Therefore, we handled and processed these data with the utmost concern for personal security and privacy. No individual user identities or locations can be derived from the information presented in this article.

The initial section of the article characterizes the market for Internet-facilitated infidelity using past empirical research findings on infidelity and Al Cooper and other's continuum model, which postulates the accessibility, affordability, and anonymity of the Internet serves as a means for individuals who would otherwise repress their sexual compulsions to act upon their desires (1999). …

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