Lessons from the unapologetic fringe

I have never had to make a decision about a job based on an ethical dilemma or consideration of “appearances”, though I know others that have.

Do I agree with that company’s line of business?

How much money would make it worth it?

How would it look to have that company’s name on my resume?

Yet over the last while I have been finding myself increasingly intrigued by the people who choose these paths, or blaze them. More accurately, I am intrigued by what they know — what they’ve learned to successfully build and run their companies and/or communities.

In a nutshell, there is an amazing amount to be learned about people and how and why they do things when you not only accept, but cater to, “impolite” society.

A recent catalyst of this pondering was Chris “moot” Poole’s TED talk. He’s the founder of 4chan. (Not sure one link can adequately sum up the site/culture phenomenon, but that’ll do.)

And while Chris’ talk was ostensibly about the value of anonymity online, he revealed a lot of insight into how people tick, what motivates them, how they self-govern (or accept — or not — external direction), and a number of other things. The exchange between the Chrises (Poole and TED chief Anderson) at the end is very telling.

The joke (no less potentially true for being a joke) about the 4chan populace’s ability to bring down the TED website. The power and risk in being able to “say anything”. How the site’s lack of memory affects its culture. The existence of offensive content torpedoing any chance of the site being lucrative (financially, anyway). But the part that got me the most was his comments about studying urban studies and urban planning — using what he’s learned in online communities and adapting it to physical communities. (Bless you for not saying “real”, Chris.)

I mean, really. The guy’s not even 25, and I suspect he knows more about community building, governance, and management than I ever will, not to mention psychology, interpersonal dynamics, and power. It’s a good thing that the on- and offline worlds are becoming aware of what folks like him know, what they represent, and what they are the face of. It’s not easy to understand or know how to deal with. Destructive hooligans or techy vigilante do-gooders? Both. Political activists or puerile pranksters? Both.

What I wouldn’t give to pick his hoodie-covered brain. 🙂

Even more recently, I attended Communitech’s annual Tech Leadership Conference. The third and final keynote speaker of the day was Noel Biderman, notorious head of Avid Life Media, parent company of such sites as AshleyMadison.com, HotOrNot.com, and CougarLife.com.

Based on a few things I’d heard, I didn’t have terribly high expectations for this talk, and certainly, it wasn’t much like the other keynotes of the day. However, that wasn’t a bad thing, since it got my brain chewing on a number of things.

Throughout the presentation, there was a slideshow of clips and headlines for mainstream media coverage that Avid Life, or, more specifically, Ashley Madison, has received. Biderman referred to himself several times, almost with invisible air quotes, as the “Kingpin of Infidelity”. Needless to say, it left no ambiguity as to how he and his company are perceived, and how they’ve been covered by the media.

However, Biderman didn’t focus on any of that, which I think is important. He made it clear how folks typically react to the company and what it facilitates… and then explained his career path before the Avid Life days that got him to the point where those sites seemed like a logical and lucrative idea.

Basically, for starters, he was immersed in a world where stuff like infidelity was anything but uncommon (OH HAI, professional athletes), and those people also often needed assistance untangling the messes they made of their personal lives when left to their own devices.

I won’t go into his entire career history, but basically, by the time someone came to him with an idea for a website that helped people have affairs, he knew very well how big and active a market this potentially was. And thus the Kingpin of Infidelity was born. His business, in his words, centres around “declared vs. revealed reality”.

Now, he didn’t go into any of the morality of running such a site, which I think is a good idea, since you’d get mired there all day, and obviously he’s okay with his line of business. But, to get back to that slideshow of media coverage, he provided some anecdotes about how the site (and its members) tick. Like his “interview” with Sean Hannity where he got “screamed at for half an hour”. The result of which being that the site’s servers crashed from 25,000 signups immediately after the show.

Or talking about their various attempts at advertising, both online and off, and all the run-around (and even questionably legal) roadblocks they face. There’s certainly a delicious irony in being denied advertising on public transportation in Toronto… by a guy later found to be prone to affairs himself. Oops.

Or the fact that their signups spike on Mondays, despite the fact that they don’t advertise on Sundays. Why? Because people go into the weekends with expectations of their social lives and their partners (particularly with respect to intimacy), and are often disappointed. Get disappointed one too many times, and…

Morality of it all aside, the talk got my brain chugging about the psychological practicalities of it all, which spurred my question in the Q&A portion about what hooks people who sign up (and keep using the site). To my mind, the initial trifecta would be:

  1. ease of signup – I imagine people waffle back and forth for a while, and then some last straw spurs them to “spontaneously” sign up for the site. If it’s not easy to do and they can’t successfully complete it and get going quickly, they’ll get scared off.
  2. safety and privacy – Whether you go home with lipstick on your collar or not depends on how careful you are, but there is plenty of other evidence of affairs that can be more carefully controlled. Pictures, messages, etc. — this stuff is all stored behind password-protection on the website where your partner can’t see it, unless you choose to take it out of there.
  3. prove that it works – Bottom line, if people sign up and aren’t getting laid, your site is a failure, and they’re not going to stick around. Ashley Madison actually guarantees — in a banner, no less — that you will have an affair.

To this list, Biderman noted that these “hooks” depend on which site you’re talking about, but indeed, everything he mentioned came back down to the psychology of the users and the culture of the sites. Success is in understanding what your users want, how they expect to proceed towards it, and how to best facilitate them getting it.

Doesn’t matter if that’s buying books on Amazon or seeking extramarital sex on Ashley Madison.

Of course, that takes me full circle to the “would I actually want to work on this?” question. Finding the right answers to building the best site — the UI, the copy, the marketing, etc. — would be absolutely fascinating and like being part of a science experiment on humanity, really. Actually being part of helping people cheat on their partners? Yeah…

I fully accept that there’s a demand for these services, and Biderman mentioned an anecdotal stat about countries where monogamy is less expected having rather lower divorce rates, which I knew. I guess the money’s to be made in the segment of the population who can’t or won’t “live out loud”. But then, that’s just another piece of the online consumers and communities puzzle. 🙂

Cross-posted to melaniebaker.ca

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