I have long written about how AshleyMadison.com, the infidelity-centred dating site, is centrally (though through deep obfuscation) concerned with selling women’s desires for adultery to men willing to pay for them: a gross neoliberal take on Howard Rheingold’s notion that the business of commercial virtual communities—or, as we could update his sentiments to reflect current terminology, commercial social media—is “selling users to each other.” In Rheigold’s formulation the sentiment is fairly benign, in that he is expressing wonder that the majority of the desired and sought-after content of a commercially accessed virtual space is the content generated by its users, the enthusiastic and dedicated co-creation of virtual universes to share and explore. The value added was people.
But even here we could see a mounting critique. Precarious and unpaid labour has always haunted such virtual spaces, whether or not it was acknowledged. And, as I have written elsewhere about the generally warm and friendly relations between the users and management/owners of h2g2.com in its various ownership configurations, tensions arise between content creators and those “holding the code” (as it were), even in the best of arrangements. As Leslie Regan Shade discusses in “Gender and the Commodification of Community: Women.com and gURL.com,” unpaid labour has long been a pillar of virtual community maintenance, and its commodification a problematic underside to the techno-enthusiasm and oft-accompanying utopian rhetoric of digital democracy and equality, where even intentionally feminist virtual communities can get corrupted and co-opted when corporate sponsors, partnerships or take-overs suck them into the circuits of the neoliberal culture industry.
And in the case of AshleyMadison.com, such rhetoric is merely the baseline. One of their early slogans was “For Women Seeking Romantic Adventures and the Men who Want to Fulfill Them” (See Fig. 1), a catchphrase radically out of step with the fact that the ratio of men to women on the site was 70 percent male and 30 percent female in 2009 (ABC News). This obvious ploy to try to attract women to the site to sell their attention and the willingness of some to engage in affairs to eager men is borne out by every aspect of their website and auxiliary media presence: their different user experiences for women and men, their advertising and infomercials, their talk show–framing of the business, and their monetization system—more of the websites’ “premium” features are free for women and cost for men. But according to this CBC.ca report, a former employee alleges that even this rhetorical use of feminist framings (for women, women-focused, committed to women’s empowerment and equality)—what Angela McRobbie has called “faux feminism”—was not enough for the site and they also precariously employed at least one woman to write 1000 fake female profiles to further entice men to join the site:
Merit of the lawsuit aside—and personally, I hope she bleeds this insidious company for the full 21 million—there is something important in this intersection of material precarity (a low-paid immigrant worker damaging her wrists from the repetitive strain of typing 1000 fake profiles), digital precarity (the actual women on the AshleyMadison site whose wholly unpaid intimate labour underwrites AshleyMadison’s business plan), race/ethnicity (trying to break open the Brazilian and Portuguese markets through expanding Portuguese content), and sexuality. That Internet-mediated intimacy changes the potential shapes and flows of connection and closeness is clear, but what happens when such digital intimacies are shot through with questionable labour practices, targeted exploitation of racialized groups and neoliberal logics where the bottom line is always maximizing profit.