Here’s Why Ashley Madison’s “37 Million Users” Claim Is Misleading

The affair website, like most dating services, has far fewer active users

Aug 20, 2015 at 10:29 AM ET

The massive data bump revealing the most intimate, personal information of Ashley Madison’s 37 million users undoubtedly has its members panicking. The rest of us, though, are thinking, “Thirty-seven million?” That is a whole heck of a lot of people who are looking to have affairs—roughly equivalent to the entire population of Poland.

But here’s something few people seem to be mentioning or understand: only 2.3 million of those members are active users, as of April of this year. (Think: The population of Queens, New York.)

Disparities between total members and active users are typical with dating sites. PlentyOfFish boasts 100 million registered users, according to a spokesperson, but 3.6 million active daily users. Tinder doesn’t release overall member numbers, but has said its users left- or right-swipe 1.2 billion profiles a day, while the app has an estimate 50 million active users. OkCupid has 10 million active users, according to a spokesperson who did not respond to requests for further figures—but in 2013, a former employee of the company said the site had 30 million total users.

This gap can be blamed in part on the estimated one in 10 dating profiles that are fakes made by scammers or spammers. The rest are users who joined a given site and are no longer active—maybe they found love or just gave up on the whole proposition. That could be true in the case of Ashley Madison, which has been around since 2002—and surely many users have second thoughts about pursuing an affair. Of course, that distinction won’t matter much if the hackers release member names. “But honey, I’m not an active user” is unlikely to be a successful defense.

This story has been updated from previous version.