Friday, 24 July 2015

The Strange Case of Ashley Madison in Ottawa

The Strange Case of Ashley Madison in Ottawa

Recently, the big news in Ottawa surrounds information pertaining to the website Ashley Madison, a website that facilitates sexual encounters and romantic relationships.

The key distinction between Ashley Madison and other dating/"hook-up" websites is that it is explicitly aimed at people within marriages (or, presumably, other committed relationships) who are seeking to have affairs. If you are looking for some action on the side, Ashley Madison is here to help you.

While the information in question may have been available publicly in the past, it has been thrust into the public eye again following revelations that Ashley Madison was subject to a massive hack, and the hacker (apparently someone with inside access to the site) purloined credit card information for many millions of the site's subscribers.

But the hacking alone is not what's making headlines in Ottawa. Rather, it's the information about Ottawa that has come to the fore.

Ottawa, it seems, is a city full of aspiring adulterers.

According to news reports (such as I have linked to, above), not quite 190 thousand accounts for Ashley Madison are registered in Ottawa, making it one of the largest account bases in Canada (if not the largest). What's more, it seems an extraordinarily large number of accounts, given the municipality's approximately 880 thousand residents (as of the 2011 Census), and especially its approximate number of people in marriage or common-law relationships (411 thousand).

Depending on the growth of the population of people in married or common-law relationships, then, the number of user accounts would seem to consist of about 40-45% of the married population of Ottawa. This seems remarkably high, given that surveys appear to suggest that nationwide the proportion of people who commit adultery is closer to 20% (if you consider the people who prefer not to answer as tacitly admitting to infidelity), or even as low as 12% (if you don't).

What makes the number of accounts more extraordinary is that in all likelihood, the number of people engaged in adultery, as a whole, would be greater than the number of people setting out to use formal Internet services meant to facilitate same.

One begins to wonder whether the real minority is the number of married Ottawans who aren't having an affair!

However, before we start imagining that the entire population of married people in Ottawa are like the protagonist (and partner) in that awful earworm "Escape" (also known as the "PiƱa Colada song"), we have to consider some additional factors:

How many account-holders are actually residents?
The National Post coverage of the issue suggests that the phenomenon is common to national political capitals: being at the centre of national politics, it seems, is a common way to get involved in affairs: for Ottawa, specifically, the greatest concentration of accounts is around Parliament Hill. I don't think this is especially surprising.

I'm not certain whether all MPs, Senators, and their staffs count as residents of Ottawa for the purpose of the Census, although I dare say that is unlikely. So, a non-trivial proportion of Ashley Madison accounts in Ottawa, I dare say, belong to non-residents working at the Hill.

Other accounts may well belong to people who are not, strictly speaking, residents of Ottawa, but who are in Ottawa often, and/or for extended periods of time, for various reasons, and prefer to look for flings in Ottawa, where they are at some distance from their spouses or partners, than to risk such activities closer to home. Of course, how many such people are Ashley Madison account-holders is beyond my ability to determine.

Finally, some accounts may belong to people who were former residents of Ottawa, and have not changed their residency on the website, but no longer live in the city.

How many account-holders are actually married?
Another interesting question, which I don't believe is addressed in news articles (and I don't believe Ashley Madison's data could determine) is how many people with accounts on the site are married or in common-law relationships?

It's possible some reasonable proportion of people with accounts are divorced, widowed, or were never married in the first place. Divorced account-holders may well have formerly been counted among the married users, and remain account-holders afterward (active or not).

How many accounts are actually real, or active?
Both news articles I have quoted so far on the subject note extenuating circumstance of this sort: "They don’t say how many of those accounts are active, so some could be toss away accounts or fakes [sic] ones created out of curiosity" reports the National Post. The Wikipedia article on the site mentions that a number of fake accounts exist that can interact with real accounts (in such a way, it seems, as to suck money out of people unaware of their fakery). How many of these fake accounts are based in Ottawa? Does Ashley Madison bother not to count fake accounts?

The bottom line of all these considerations is that while it's reasonable to suppose Ottawa has a somewhat higher rate of adultery among people in marriage or committed romantic relationships, owing to its being the national capital, when compared to the national average, it's quite unlikely it will be as high as 40%. It follows that the prevalence of Ashley Madison accounts in Ottawa, while providing an interesting (if sobering) snapshot on the health of not a few marriages in the region, is unlikely to be a measure of rampant cheating by Ottawa's own married couples, as such.

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