Infidelity in the Digital Age

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Ashley Madison, the web site that uses the tagline "Life is short, Have an Affair" is in the news for a hacking incident whereby the names and email ids of its 32 million registered users have now been exposed to the public.

The whole episode brings to focus a simple reality: large numbers of people are discontented in their relationships.

This has always been true, from the beginning of time. That it is still true should not come as a surprise to anyone.

In this digital age, there are convenient ways to explore various levels of extramarital intimacy. Ashley Madison and its competitors have simply tried to cater to that need in human beings. The "customer need" is amply validated by the site's very large number of registered users. That they have failed to provide a solution that they promised - a private match-making service - is really what will potentially kill the company at this point, not their inability to identify a widely felt consumer need.

In studying the literature that throws light on the nature of adultery, what stands out for me is how much of it is a 'craving'. For chocolate. For a bag of chips. Taken to extremes, craving can easily transition to 'addiction'. If you look around, most people cannot really resist that many cravings, or else, we wouldn't have such a big junk food industry.

As a matter of fact, even people in happy relationships have cravings. Some are bored, and although contented with their general relationship framework, could use a little spike. A bag of salt and vinegar chips, so to speak.

The form this craving is taking in the digital age is texting, sexting, WhatsApp, Facebook, Messenger, Snapchat, and a whole range of modern communication tools facilitating connections and interactions. While physical affairs may entail crossing certain moral and societal boundaries, emotional affairs are lower risk, easier to hide, and ubiquitous. Virtual worlds and avatars are 'safe' ways to explore erotic fantasies otherwise inaccessible.

From what I can see, the trend is irreversible. Whether or not Ashley Madison causes outrage and disgust, the basic human need exists. And the digital age makes it easier to explore this ubiquitous human need. In fact, Ashley Madison's 32 million registered users point to a potential consumer base of at least 10 times that many for whom this craving is a fact of life.

By the way, Ashley Madison, in contrast to most web businesses who struggle to make money, charges $250 a year in subscription. Last year, 460,000 people paid this charge. 2014 revenue stood at $115 million, with $55 million in profit. Investors have made public statements that they are standing by the company through this fiasco.

I imagine, other entrepreneurs, especially those with a better understanding of web security, are conjuring up ideas to cater to this market. Not all of them will move forward. After all, facilitating adultery would not be a business that will garner any prestige. In fact, it is likely to leave the entrepreneur feeling empty and disgusted within.

I wonder, though, could creative, harmless ideas emerge in this process that can cater to the needs of this population? Can this energy be harnessed in constructive ways? Can meaningful outcomes be facilitated, rather than sordid, soul-destroying ones?

Photo credit: Amickman/Flickr.com.