Were you to visit the personal website of Noel Biderman, the landing page would present you with the following facts: Biderman is an entrepreneur and consultant from Toronto, holds a law degree from Canada’s York University and is married with two kids. It is a portrait of a man boiled down to scarcely more characters than a tweet.
Left off of this abbreviated bio is the bullet point for which Biderman is undoubtedly most well-known. His website has been scrubbed of any mention of his former life as an “infidelity expert,” a title he once eagerly embraced. Until last year he was the CEO of Ashley Madison, the dating website that made a fortune promoting adultery and then got hacked last summer, resulting in the outing of millions of its users.
Since the hack, it appears Biderman has been employed in the business of erasing his past, through the creation of lots of new websites, a reborn Twitter account, and Google ads on his name that seek to steer users toward websites about the newer, nicer Noel, and away from Noel the self-proclaimed “most hated man on the internet,” fallen catastrophically from grace.
Now that algorithms determine which bits of information about us rise above the rest online, it’s almost impossible to control which version of our selves the world gets to know. Five seconds of your life can become the entirety of your online identity, especially if those five seconds go viral. While wiping one regrettable photograph from the internet might be achievable, can you really disappear eight years of your life?
Biderman, who became Ashley Madison’s CEO in 2007, appears to be trying to. During his time as chief executive of the company, he cultivated a particularly loathsome image, appearing in publicity images wearing lipstick-stained shirts and surrounded by attractive, scantily clad women. He penned a book titled “Cheaters Prosper: How Infidelity Will Save the Modern Marriage,” arguing that cheating is “a fact of life.” All the while he claimed his own happy marriage was free of it. On the old NoelBiderman.com, he boasted that he was a “successful entrepreneur people loved to hate” and claimed to have founded the company. (In fact it was founded in 2002 by a man named Darren Morgenstern.) He encouraged people to give in to their most hedonistic selves, unabashedly upfront about his plan to profit off of it.
When moralistic hackers unleashed the company’s files onto the internet, Biderman’s downfall was swift. Alongside membership information for millions of users were internal emails that portrayed Biderman in light unflattering even for a man who bragged about how many people hate him. Leaked emails showed Biderman discussing hacking a competitor and instructing an employee to build an app called “What’s Your Wife Worth?” that let men submit their wives to be rated by other users. Most personally damning, the emails revealed that despite his public claims of marital fidelity, Biderman had engaged in multiple affairs.
Just ten days after company documents leaked online, Ashley Madison’s parent company announced that Biderman was stepping down. Not even a year later, his online presence suggests an extreme personal transformation. Gone are images of Biderman lounging under pink velvet bedding, replaced by photos of Biderman fishing, coaching football, and palling around with his wife.
The ability to erase our own unpleasant past is something mankind has long fantasized about. In Ancient Rome, the senate would declare traitors condemned from memory, an effort to purge their existence from the historical record. In Europe, an internet-era version of damnatio memoriae allows users to request outdated or irrelevant information be deleted from search results.
Most people, though, seeking to purge the internet’s memory turn to “reputation management” services like Reputation.com, which offer, for a hefty fee, to game Google’s search algorithms in order to tidy up a person’s online reputation. By flooding the internet with new Tumblrs and Twitters, such services aim to relegate our least flattering moments to page two or three of Google’s results. Unfortunately such algorithmic trickery often doesn’t seem to work, as U.C. Davis found when it shelled out $175,000 to scrub the web of negative content after a 2011 pepper-spraying of students; it back-fired when news about the reputation management attempt made the years-old incident surface again.
Biderman didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment including an inquiry as to whether he hired a reputation management firm.
His new websites are a fascinating look at the exercise of digitally erasing life events. On his professional website, NoelBiderman.com, a lengthy bio mentions that Biderman has “occupied roles as President, CEO, COO” but fails to mention Ashley Madison or its parent company Avid Life Media as the places where he occupied those roles. Instead, the site details his pre-Ashley Madison career as a sports agent and an executive at a real estate website, and his philanthropic community work, including coaching Little League.
A separate website, NoelBiderman.org, expands on his community involvement. NoelBiderman.ca tells browsers all about Noel the Canadian, who loves Florida stone crab and the movie Zelig. Still another website, NoelBiderman.net, promotes his consulting business. All four websites are crammed with photos of Biderman smiling widely alongside various sports teams and his lovely wife. Ads on Google search results promote all four.
The only direct reference to Ashley Madison is cryptic. “In hindsight,” he writes, his biggest professional mistake was, “putting the degree of trust that I did in our lead technologist.”
Biderman’s Twitter account relaunched last October, sans Ashley Madison references, though the new Noel has yet to decide what to tweet about. Last fall his Wikipedia page, too, appears to have gone through several edits to make the entry more flattering.
The irony here is that few of the Ashley Madison hack’s victims will be afforded the same opportunity to forget their online past. The hack forced the personal lives of millions of people into the open. And while Avid Life Media has asked that the leaked documents—its own dirty secrets—be kept under wraps during court proceedings, it has at the same time pushed that the lives of users be further exposed by forcing them to use their names in lawsuits against the company.
Of course, when you are the CEO of the company responsible for the most intimate data breach in history, no amount of Google ads can really scrub your past clean. In a Google search of Biderman, the top result is still a story about his rise and fall as Ashley Madison’s CEO. Despite all those family-friendly pictures he’s posted to his site, the top images are still all those ones of Biderman smiling creepily, a single, shushing finger placed in front of his lips. Biderman may be a new man, but the internet isn’t likely to let go of the man he used to be.