When hacker group Impact Team released the Ashley Madison data, they asserted that “thousands” of the women’s profiles were fake. Later, this number got blown up in news storiesthat asserted “90-95%” of them were fake, though nobody put forth any evidence for such an enormous number. So I downloaded the data and analyzed it to find out how many actual women were using Ashley Madison, and who they were.
What I discovered was that the world of Ashley Madison was a far more dystopian place than anyone had realized. This isn’t a debauched wonderland of men cheating on their wives. It isn’t even a sadscape of 31 million men competing to attract those 5.5 million women in the database. Instead, it’s like a science fictional future where every woman on Earth is dead, and some Dilbert-like engineer has replaced them with badly-designed robots.
Those millions of Ashley Madison men were paying to hook up with women who appeared to have created profiles and then simply disappeared. Were they cobbled together by bots and bored admins, or just user debris? Whatever the answer, the more I examined those 5.5 million female profiles, the more obvious it became that none of them had ever talked to men on the site, or even used the site at all after creating a profile. Actually, scratch that. As I’ll explain below, there’s a good chance that about 12,000 of the profiles out of millions belonged to actual, real women who were active users of Ashley Madison.
When you look at the evidence, it’s hard to deny that the overwhelming majority of men using Ashley Madison weren’t having affairs. They were paying for a fantasy.
The great philosopher Homer Simpson oncememorably described alcohol as “the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.” Internet advertising is a bit like that — the funder of and terrible nuisance baked into everything you do online.
Advertising sustains pretty much all the content you enjoy on the web, not least this very newspaper and its handsome, charming technology columnist; as I’ve argued before, many of the world’s most useful technologies may never have come about without online advertising. But at the same time, ads and the vast, hidden, data-sucking machinery that they depend on to track and profile you are routinely the most terrible thing about the Internet.
Now, more and more web users are escaping the daily bombardment of online advertising by installing an ad blocker. This simple, free software lets you roam the web without encountering any ads that shunt themselves between you and the content you want to read or watch. With an ad blocker, your web browser will generally run faster, you’ll waste less bandwidth downloading ads, and you’ll suffer fewer annoyances when navigating the Internet. You’ll wonder why everyone else in the world doesn’t turn to the dark side.
America’s next president could be eased into office not just by TV ads or speeches, but by Google’s secret decisions, and no one—except for me and perhaps a few other obscure researchers—would know how this was accomplished.
Research I have been directing in recent years suggests that Google, Inc., has amassed far more power to control elections—indeed, to control a wide variety of opinions and beliefs—than any company in history has ever had. Google’s search algorithm can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more—up to 80 percent in some demographic groups—with virtually no one knowing they are being manipulated, according to experiments I conducted recently with Ronald E. Robertson.
Given that many elections are won by small margins, this gives Google the power, right now, to flip upwards of 25 percent of the national elections worldwide. In the United States, half of our presidential elections have been won by margins under 7.6 percent, and the 2012 election was won by a margin of only 3.9 percent—well within Google’s control.There are at least three very real scenarios whereby Google—perhaps even without its leaders’ knowledge—could shape or even decide the election next year. Whether or not Google executives see it this way, the employees who constantly adjust the search giant’s algorithms are manipulating people every minute of every day. The adjustments they make increasingly influence our thinking—including, it turns out, our voting preferences.
The company has long been aggressive in its pursuit of alternative delivery strategies for its products, including perhaps most infamously its proposed use of delivery drones. In June, Amazon announced that it may incentivize people to deliver packages to their neighbors, whose schedules make face-to-face delivery with mail carriers difficult. There’s nothing wrong with some neighborly assistance, but, like Uber in its early days, Amazon is proposing to pay people for an activity that is typically thought of as an ordinary part of community life.
Most people are happy to take care of packages for their neighbors once in a while, and don’t feel the need to be paid for these things or even necessarily want to be paid for them. But it’s not a stretch to imagine capitalizing on this willingness by transforming people into entrepreneurial mini-distribution hubs, and depriving us of one of the few remaining opportunities for serendipitous, selfless interaction.
Another of the company’s recent innovations, Echo the “personal assistant” (also known as “Alexa,” the name given to the Siri-like voice that responds to user queries), raises similar concerns. Echo is an always-on listening device consumers willingly place in central areas of their homes. By saying the name “Alexa” (or “Amazon”), users activate the device, which is then capable of executing any number of tasks related to Amazon’s business, information generally available on the internet, or a limited range of media devices connected to the user’s home network.
Alexa will answer the kinds of questions whose answers might be found on Wikipedia (“Alexa, what is the capital of North Dakota?”), can play music, can manage devices to which it has access, and most importantly, of course, can initiate product purchases on Amazon itself.
In order to do any of these things, Echo must be listening all the time, to everything that goes on in its environment, waiting for the keyword to tell it to take an action. That means it isn’t just listening to and processing things users say after the keyword — it is always listening, always processing. Amazon has been evasive, at best, about whether or not it is collecting and analyzing that data and what it is doing with it.
It’s a balmy night in Manhattan’s financial district, and at a sports bar called Stout, everyone is Tindering. The tables are filled with young women and men who’ve been chasing money and deals on Wall Street all day, and now they’re out looking for hookups. Everyone is drinking, peering into their screens and swiping on the faces of strangers they may have sex with later that evening. Or not. “Ew, this guy has Dad bod,” a young woman says of a potential match, swiping left. Her friends smirk, not looking up.
“Tinder sucks,” they say. But they don’t stop swiping.
At a booth in the back, three handsome twentysomething guys in button-downs are having beers. They are Dan, Alex, and Marty, budding investment bankers at the same financial firm, which recruited Alex and Marty straight from an Ivy League campus. (Names and some identifying details have been changed for this story.) When asked if they’ve been arranging dates on the apps they’ve been swiping at, all say not one date, but two or three: “You can’t be stuck in one lane … There’s always something better.” “If you had a reservation somewhere and then a table at Per Se opened up, you’d want to go there,” Alex offers.
“Guys view everything as a competition,” he elaborates with his deep, reassuring voice. “Who’s slept with the best, hottest girls?” With these dating apps, he says, “you’re always sort of prowling. You could talk to two or three girls at a bar and pick the best one, or you can swipe a couple hundred people a day—the sample size is so much larger. It’s setting up two or three Tinder dates a week and, chances are, sleeping with all of them, so you could rack up 100 girls you’ve slept with in a year.”
Answer: No one knows.
Two months ago, ESPN unexpectedly, unceremoniously dumped Bill Simmons, one of the network’s biggest and best-known personalities. When they did, Simmons was forced to abandon Grantland, the sports and pop culture website he created and edited; more specifically, he was forced to abandon dozens of writers, editors, podcasters, and contributors. Now, with the site’s future in doubt and in the hands of a new editor, many of those staffers are eyeing the door.
Nothing ESPN has done since firing Simmons has given anyone much reason to be confident in the site’s future. John Skipper, ESPN’s president, fired Simmons without even telling the site’s staff, and three weeks later, he named Chris Connelly—best known as that one movie guy from ABC—the interim editor-in-chief. The staff, again, found out when everyone else did. If Simmons’s firing came as a shock, Connelly’s hiring felt familiar. This was, many at Grantland figured, just the new way of things.
In private, Grantland writers and editors give contradictory appraisals of Connelly’s performance during the month and a half he’s served as EIC. Some say he’s been just fine as a band-aid; others describe him as a company man and unabashed star-fucker who just doesn’t grasp the purpose of the site. (Multiple staffers have told Deadspin of times that Connelly has meddled with pieces; while one person’s meddling is another’s editing, we’re told that articles are invariably worse off for his participation.) Either way, Connelly was screwed from the start. Simmons personally hired everyone on staff, many of whom are young and haven’t worked under anyone else. They were close with Simmons; he supported them, and gave many of them their first shot at a national audience. Whoever came in was going to face some skepticism.
The theory always went that BuzzFeed couldn’t be all cat GIFs, because it would very quickly wear out its welcome. But that theory was wrong in one crucial aspect — with the rise of social media, a site’s brand identity is a little less important with every year. Gawker is important to those of us in the media because it’s Gawker, with its strong institutional voice. But to someone not entrenched in the world of the media (which is the vast majority of everybody), it’s just another Facebook content provider. Social media has, essentially, turned every content provider into a syndicator. Vox’s own Ezra Klein argued something very similar recently.
And the best syndicators were always those who could take the most crowd-pleasing stuff and get it before as many eyeballs as possible. Think about, say, comic strips or advice columns — fun to read and ultimately disposable. That’s precisely the philosophy a site like ViralNova, which essentially only collects fun little things and repackages them, operates upon. And its growth has been phenomenal, so far avoiding the pitfalls that eventually took down earlier contenders like Upworthy.
And if you work in online media, that’s terrifying.
Seven months ago, I sat down at the small table in the kitchen of my 1960s apartment, nestled on the top floor of a building in a vibrant central neighbourhood of Tehran, and I did something I had done thousands of times previously. I opened my laptop and posted to my new blog. This, though, was the first time in six years. And it nearly broke my heart.
A few weeks earlier, I’d been abruptly pardoned and freed from Evin prison in northern Tehran. I had been expecting to spend most of my life in those cells: In November 2008, I’d been sentenced to nearly 20 years in jail, mostly for things I’d written on my blog.
But the moment, when it came, was unexpected. I smoked a cigarette in the kitchen with one of my fellow inmates, and came back to the room I shared with a dozen other men. We were sharing a cup of tea when the voice of the floor announcer — another prisoner — filled all the rooms and corridors. In his flat voice, he announced in Persian: “Dear fellow inmates, the bird of luck has once again sat on one fellow inmate’s shoulders. Mr. Hossein Derakhshan, as of this moment, you are free.”
WE search for doctors at 8:20 a.m., recipes at 4:52 p.m. and enlightenment at 3:16 a.m. So far, the Google data that analysts have worked with has been daily, weekly or annual, but Google recently released the same anonymous, aggregate data down to the minute. I looked at this data for New York State for four weekdays, a small sample, certainly, yet the patterns were very sharp.
Google search rates for “unblocked games” — those that are not blocked by school administrators — peak at 8:04 a.m., stay high through 1:30 p.m., and drop precipitously afterward. (Score one point against cellphones in schools.)
Search rates for “weather,” “prayer” and “news” peak before 5:30 a.m., evidence that most people wake up far earlier than I do. Search rates for “suicide” peak at 12:36 a.m. and are at the lowest levels around 9 a.m., evidence that most people are far less miserable in the morning than I am.
It was seven o’clock on a cold January evening when Orhan, a taxi driver for Uber, first realized he had a problem. Well into his second shift of the day, he tried logging on to the mobile app that connects him with his customers but found himself shut out and staring blankly at the words “network error.”
Just an hour earlier he’d been on Twitter arguing with disgruntled Black Cab driverswho he says were racially abusing him. One of the “trolls”—upset at Orhan’s choice of language—had reported the exchange to Uber, and Orhan had been blocked from accessing the system.
Parked up in his gray Toyota Prius in the suburbs of North East London, a text came through from the company asking him to come in the following morning to “discuss the account.” He arrived on time, if a little nervous, expecting to have his case heard and quickly get back onto the system. Two minutes later he left the office without a job. In the cold, dystopian language of cyberspace capitalism, he’d been “deactivated.” And there was nothing he could do to contest it.