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Plugging In 

Three different approaches to online loving


02.10.10


A Good, Honest Affair

When it comes to the business of cheating, Noel Biderman is boss. His website AshleyMadison.com—named, he says, after the two most popular monikers for baby girls—functions like any other dating site, with profiles, searches, messages and photos. But at Biderman's site, the dating pool comes with baggage: namely girlfriends, boyfriends, wives and husbands.

"We offer a good, honest affair. Guaranteed," says site president and founder Biderman, a husband of seven years and father of two. "We're no eHarmony, that's for sure."

AshleyMadison, Biderman says, is a place where people can go to fulfill needs that aren't being met at home, a human buffet line where all the dishes know they'll never be the main course. Users and fans say it's a website that makes open what's happening in secret on dating sites already. Critics say it's an online cesspool that breeds infidelity, a 24/7 computerized home-wrecking service that should be shut down for good.

Biderman says they just wish they'd thought of it first.

"We looked at data that showed 30 percent of the people on other dating sites were cheating or looking to cheat," Biderman says, speaking from his New York office. "We thought to ourselves that all these people posing as single is risky. Why not come to a community where people can confess that they're looking to cheat? We're creating an honest community for cheating."

Biderman's "honest community" was launched in 2001 and now boasts more than 5.2 million users. A media-savvy seeker of controversy, the well-dressed, balding 38-year-old has braved booing from audiences on The View and The Tyra Banks Show to plug his site and preach his "it's only sex" spiel. The cavalier gentlemen's-club approach translates to the online dynamic. On the site, women play mostly for free. Guys buy "credits" that are used for sending digital "gifts" to other users and accessing private data. Everyone creates a profile that lists a photo, some stats on appearance and a list of things they're into: spanking, threesomes, schoolgirl outfits or Polynesian albinos in football pads. A juicier collection of pics and stats are available when a user sends someone a "key" that provides access to his or her "private showcase."

"Brie," a 32-year-old wife of five years, says she joined because things just weren't working out at home.

"To me, it was either this or get a divorce. And getting a divorce is more drastic," says the woman, who asked that her real name not be used. "I wanted an alpha male, someone who really gets it done. I don't think my husband suspects."Brie says she met her current fling six months ago. Before that, her dalliances amounted to "kissing a few guys, but that's it." The man, she says, is older and married as well. Their dates typically consist of dinner and drinks followed by a motel-room pit stop, then a long, occasionally guilt-ridden ride home to their spouses. "It can't go on forever," she admits. "It's fun while it lasts, though."

Biderman insists that cheating can be a sort of marriage therapy and that American culture puts too much importance on monogamy, which he maintains is "against our DNA."

As lovers nationwide stock up on chocolates and flowers for Valentine's Day, adulterers on AshleyMadison will be stocking up on motel reservations and alibis for the day prior, one Biderman heralds as "Mistress Day." Of course, philandering men and scandalous women have been around a lot longer than Biderman and AshleyMadison.com.

"There are millions of people that are suffering through a sexless marriage," Biderman says. "I say, don't go visit a prostitute, don't lie to someone else about whether you're married or not. If you need that sexual element, come to AshleyMadison, and you can get it."—C.C.


Private & Social

A site that's horny but high in spirit, BlackboxRepublic.com is built on an idea that today's single men and women are always changing sexually and looking for something new. Blackbox's goal is to help people find other members who want the same things they do—and right now. Marketing to sex-positive people, this alternative social networking site is striving to develop a successful dating reputation.

Based in Portland, Ore., the site came online about a month ago. Blackbox is a private social networking site, where names and personal information are not shared with other users. Luring what are called "followers" is how site members get to know each other without exposing their personal information. Potential members have to be "vouched for" by another user in order to gain full access to the site's functions and other member's profiles, or personas. Blackbox won't release its exact membership count, but they claim to be well over a thousand and growing. Their heaviest member areas are Portland, Seattle and the Bay Area.

Blackbox allows members to talk freely about sex and lust in ways that other social networking sites, like Facebook, don't. A sliding bar allows users to make moment-to-moment updates on changing preferences, which makes for a freeing sense of unfastening your sexuality.

Site founders label Blackbox as a second Facebook, and are open to criticism of its content. The site is so fresh that founders are looking for feedback to set it apart from other networking sites. The set-up and navigation are very similar to Facebook, but I found the content and social acceptance offered is very different.

Logging in meant poking around for a few hours on stranger's sites and reading public conversations about Avatar and Lady Gaga. One user pointed out her ability to use the word "cock" freely, but admitted her dismay at not being able to connect locally for off-line dating purposes. Moreover, Blackbox doesn't serve those looking for a committed relationship; its edgy and racy content instead is all about people who just want to get naked online. The site is still trying to figure out whether it will water the seed of sexually over-explicit content, or flirt with a sexually conservative user.

Being in a committed relationship made me an unlikely person to join Blackbox, or so I thought. I soon found that the temptation to discover more about the site was irresistible, and I met some interesting and entertaining people in my few weeks of registration. Because the site really can't generate meet-ups, it is easy to share fantasies here without the threat of being tracked down.

Blackbox provides a personalized corkboard is an original way to help describe "you." My corkboard says that I'm a colorful hippie with a love for such natural lakes as Tahoe. The lollipop image on my corkboard, which I meant as a girly detail of my personality, was mistaken by site members as a phallic symbol, and provoked some tainted interpretations. An image could truly lead to anything on this erotic site.—M.C.


Love in the Time of Robots

Did you know that women are nearly twice as likely to respond positively to an unsmiling man as a smiling one? That a greater percentage of people in California would date someone just for sex than in South Carolina? That nonwhite men are around 8 percent more likely to respond to a woman's advances than white men?

If you're an avid reader of OkTrends, the math geek blog from the programmers of the online dating website OkCupid.com, you'd be able to rattle off these statistics and more. But can understanding these numbers and statistics actually lead to love? As a new member to OKCupid, I'm still sorting that question out.

Since 2006, OkCupid has been one of the fastest growing dating websites around. Today it has over 1 million members in the United States and abroad. Part of the site's appeal may be that, unlike eHarmony.com or Match.com, it's a completely free service. Furthermore, there's a playful irreverence in OkCupid's operation, making it marginally amusing for online dating newbies like me.

Rather than relying on the professional personality assessment tests of other online dating sites, OkCupid takes a casual approach with personality quizzes that you might find in the back of Seventeen, stuff like "The Nerd, Geek or Dork Test" or the "The Which Character of True Blood Are You Test." Matches are based on how you respond to these various quizzes and how important you rate the desired response from an ideal match.

The whole process of finding a date through OkCupid involves lots and lots of math. Through a complex statistical process using members' answers to these quizzes site recommends potential matches. On the site, OkCupid includes an article called "Frequently Asked for Answers About Questions" that details the algorithms it uses. It's a statement of operations that would make any statistics professor clutch his chalk in excitement.

In its recently inaugurated OkTrends blog, the site's programmers revel in the massive amounts of data they've gathered. A recent post examined the facial expressions of 500,000 OkCupid members and analyzed their relative rate of receiving messages from other members. Turns out women who use the quintessentially cheesy "MySpace shot" for their profile picture—the one with the arm outstretched holding the camera above the face with pouting lips and out-thrust chest—get much more new messages from men then women pictured holding pets, having fun with friends or lying in bed.

As if to underline the insistent presence of math and stats in its match-making, OkCupid features a gray mechanized mascot with a patch of little red pixels where a heart should be, aptly named Staff Robot.

If you're like me, the idea of outsourcing your romantic endeavors to a robot sounds vaguely dystopian. I've always been someone who worries about how we give too much power to machines and systems and not enough to chance and human intuition. But over the last year, I've had more and more friends say they've had positive experiences using OkCupid. They've gone on dates, they've had great sex, they've been in long-term, meaningful relationships. Keep in mind, these are young, attractive, socially well-adjusted people in their 20s. Online dating isn't just for perverts anymore. As more of our lives go online, it suddenly doesn't seem that weird to have our romantic lives there as well.

Given that so many of my friends had given themselves over to the OkCupid's bots, I decided to try it out, more out of curiosity than anything else. In my few months on, I've messaged and been messaged. Staff Robot has suggested some good-looking matches and some less good-looking ones. For the past week, I've been in an exchange with a girl who seems an excellent match, according to both OkCupid's and my own judgment. We've even had some half-decent online repartee. Have we met in person? Though we have tentative plans to maybe make plans to make plans, nothing has materialized yet.

Though the robots might offer good tips for flirting and suggest potential matches, it seems like it still takes human effort to seal the deal. At least, until they invent a machine to do that for us.—D.H.





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