Category Archives: Research
Who is Erowid?
Erowid is run by several senior crewmembers and a group of volunteers. I talked to four of the senior members via email over the last week about the site, themselves, how they manage such an in-depth site, and what challenges they have met and how they work to resolve them.
The Erowid office is based in California, but crewmembers and volunteers come from all over the world. The community works together mostly through digital media. Sylvia, who has been working with Erowid for ten years said, “Crewmembers work collaboratively primarily in online contexts (email, IRC channels, wikis, other web-based software), and less frequently via the phone, to develop new content, handle incoming submissions from many sources, and answer inquiries.
Crewmembers are also sometimes able to meet in person, but it is not the most common way of working together. Fire Erowid, a co-founder of the site, said, “We all know each other very well, and most of us meet face to face once or twice a year, as possible. We live in different parts of the country and world, but ‘talking’ electronically every day can bring people quite close.”
But that is among the main crewmembers. The relationship with volunteers is slightly different. “As is common with many non-profit organization volunteer programs, participation by volunteers waxes and wanes depending on the demands of work, school (college or graduate school), and family or personal life obligations,” said Sylvia.
Because of this flexibility, “communications with volunteers are more loose,” said Fire. “Some volunteers really throw themselves into the project and over the course of months and or years…we get to know them well. Others are mostly just peripheral characters doing the tasks they have been asked to do.”
There is a lot of information on Erowid that requires thorough research and review before it can be posted online. To keep true to the ideals of the site, the crewmembers have needed to develop efficient ways for managing their site.
One way the Erowid community has done this is by keeping a “very small senior review staff,” according to Earth Erowid, a co-founder of the site. “Only Fire, Sylvia, an Earth have the ability to publish new content to the site other than in the Experience Vaults,” said Earth. Reviewers for the experience vaults must be trained, and Earth added that, “generally only those with years of experience are given that permission.”
Since 1995, the members of Erowid have worked to make sure the site is legal and ethical and keeps to the site’s mission and vision. “We live in the United States,” said Earth, “the First Amendment provides deep and broad protection for publishers and authors. We do not intend to break the law, and [we] have publishing policies in place to stop Erowid from being used to break the law.” The site is not designed to promote drug use and while some people may visit the site to make educated and informed decisions about trying a certain drug, the staff of Erowid has designed the website to also be accessible and useful for law enforcement, parents and medical professionals. “We want everyone working from the same set of information,” said Earth.
Erowid has never been contacted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to request any type of information about drug users or crewmembers be reported to the DEA for any reason.
Some staff members, like Jon Hanna, have been asked to speak at meetings and set up informational booths at various types of events. Hanna has been told numerous times in various ways that, “Erowid saved my life” when he has worked at booths at festivals, conferences and seminars that are geared partly to users of psychoactive drugs. The proof of Erowid’s intentions could not be clearer. “All of the primary staff at Erowid have a strong dedication to doing our best to provide quality data, as well as a desire to correct bad data,” said Hanna. Erowid once issued a warning about misidentified research chemicals that were for sale and the warning saved people’s lives, Hanna said.
“I have overwhelmingly been in contact—first hand—with people who feel that the site has provided them with dramatically beneficial information allowing them to use (or not use) psychoactive drugs in ways that are less dangerous and more healthy,” said Hanna. “Erowid is in no way “pro-drug”; we are “pro-information.”
Challenges for the Community
Despite Erowid’s efforts to create an unbiased and informative site, the crewmembers have had to face numerous challenges. While the site is perfectly legal in the U.S. and is protected by the First Amendment, psychoactive drugs are often considered inherently bad and dangerous, and some people may argue that providing information is unethical. “There’s no question that our ‘positive mission’ is tainted in the mainstream view because of the misdeeds of a small number of people,” said Earth. He gave an example of a CBS news clip from 2003 in which Erowid was explicitly blamed for causing an injury to a young man, but was also recognized in a much less explicit manner for being responsible for helping doctors and police understand what had happened to the man.
In addition, Erowid will also get the occasional blame letter from a family member or friend of someone who suffered a drug-related injury or death. “We take all such accusations very seriously and try to gently address the concerns and accusations raised by the family members,” said Earth. “We have always had a policy of being polite and serious whenever anyone contacts us in anger.” Erowid does not accept responsibility but acknowledges the complexity of the situation and will try to work the concerned family member in any way they can.
A site, like Erowid, can be as unbiased and accurate as it wants, but that will never abolish the chances that someone may misuse the information and hurt him or herself. Some people may argue that what is written about in the vaults is too detailed and encourages people to try the drugs. However, it could be equally argued, that presenting so much information could help deter users from making poor decisions. “There will always be some contingent of people who use psychoactive drugs in negative or less healthy ways,” said Hanna. “But it seems to me that providing accurate information…is the best thing to TRY to do.”
Another challenge comes in the form of dishonest submitters, but that is a prime example of why anything submitted to Erowid goes under such strenuous review. The Erowid community has discussed the idea of a public forum or chat for years, but it would be nearly impossible to regulate, and letting anyone post anything onto the site could create legal and ethical issues the community has worked so hard to alleviate.
The community also faces restriction on funding to constantly improve and expand the site.
Read the full Erowid Interview.
What is Erowid?
Before one can delve too far into exploring the community, one should understand what constitutes their digital world. Click on the link below to watch a brief tutorial of erowid.org for an overview about what can be found on the site.
Experience Vaults: Here, visitors can read first-hand accounts about a drug of their choice. They fall into many categories, as can be seen in the caffeine and cannabis screen shots (below). The experiences reports can be searched by substance, author and category, or a combination. Experiences are submitted by individuals and are then reviewed by the Erowid crew and volunteers. According to Fire Erowid, “We reject approximately 50% of all experience reports for a variety of reasons.”
Earth Erowid elaborated on some of those reasons, saying, “There is always the possibility that someone is fabricating their experience report and that’s part of the reason for the review system as it stands. The main reason for the review is that much of the content people produce is poorly written, somewhat incoherent, and of dubious value as data.” There are guidelines listed on the site on how to submit an experience report.
Event Calendar: On erowid.org, there is also a calendar that lists site-related events.
Ask Erowid: Visitors can submit questions to the. The crew of Erowid request the uses take the time to search through past questions and articles throughout the site for the answer to your question, as they cannot always answer all of them. Click on the image below to take you to the “Ask Erowid” page.
Erowid Crew: The crew is made up of four to six people and they also manage a group of volunteers to help go through submitted articles and reports. According to Earth Erowid, “The main crew (4-6 of us) communicate on a daily basis by email, IRC, and phone. We’re in close contact, have weekly phone meetings, and are planning and working on ongoing projects together.” Erowid is based in California, but the crew and volunteers come from all over the world.
The focus of my research is erowid.org, a site filled with information about psychoactive drugs and their relationship with humans. Because the subject of drugs is often considered taboo in some way, I felt that it was important to not only look into the community of Erowid, but also look at a sampling of the community outside. I conducted two surveys. One focused on how people felt about the discussion of drugs, how often and in what way did discussion of drugs happen, and I ended with a question asking if people thought a site that presented information on drugs was ethical. My second survey focused on people’s experience and knowledge with erowid.org and focused on how often people went on the site, what they used it for, and what they thought about the site in general. While the surveys were being conducted over one week, I was also in contact with the crew of Erowid, and throughout my presentation of my research, I will be integrating my survey results in various ways with the information I received directly from Erowid. I approached the project in this way because the site is an informational site, and while the people behind the scenes are the focus of my ethnography, the site itself is designed to inform a different community, and I felt it was my responsibility to look into the general populace as well.
Survey One: “How do you feel about discussing drugs?”
Seventy-one people took this survey, and I broke that number down here into gender.
I sent this survey out over Facebook to over 150 of my “friends” on Facebook. The individuals varied in age, gender, and location in the United States. I encouraged people to share the survey with other friends, and it was also posted here on the erowidethnography. I understand that this is not a true random sampling, but I feel that the voices in the survey at least cover a wide range of views through gender (see left), age and political orientation (see below).
What do you talk about when discussing drugs and drug use? Are these discussions face-to-face, online, or through another medium (and what other medium is it)?
“I try to explain to my children how drugs not only affect you when you take them—they can effect you the rest of your life”
“I have these discussions face-to-face about the frequency that other students on campus use them and how they affect my personal relationships.”
“I do think it is important, as the more this subject is ignored due to taboo or controversy, the more people will go behind closed doors and abuse these drugs without being informed. Information may be the best defense against overdose and irresponsible usage.”
Do you feel that a website dedicated to presenting information about psychoactive drugs (most of them illegal to use, but many being legal in the U.S) is ethical? What would cause you to think it was unethical versus ethical?
“I wouldn’t say it is unethical. If it would be informational, what the reader does with the information can be judged as ethical or unethical, but not the act of providing information.”
“I think such a website would be morally permissible, but not morally praiseworthy.”
Survey Two: “How do you feel about the website erowid.org?”
Only 16 people took this survey, but I expected it to be lower as its purpose was to survey people who are familiar in some way with erowid.org. A link to the Erowid site accompanied the invitation to take this survey, and I encouraged people to look at the site and then take the survey, or take the survey if they already knew about Erowid. I again sent the link to everyone who had been invited to the Facebook event for the first survey (note: if the other survey had been sent to others via Facebook without my knowledge, they too would have been included in the second survey invitation). Again, I felt that although it was a smaller number of respondents, I was impressed with the balance of gender (see below). I did not inquire about age or political orientation in this survey.
When visiting erowid.org, what types of things do you read and look into and why?
“I think it’s a useful tool for people who are interested in psychoactive drugs and their effect on humans. If people are going to use these substances, they should at least be knowledgeable about them (or have the chance to be). Erowid.org serves this purpose well.”
“it seemed informational, but I felt like I was doing something wrong when I was reading it.”
Questions? Comments? Please post below!
Thank you to everyone who took the time to take the survey about discussing drugs. While my research is centered around the exploration of the legality and ethics of erowid.org, I wanted to also get a sense of how a random sampling (random in personality, age, gender, and hopefully political orientation) thought about drugs in general. What sort of feelings surround drugs and discussion about them, as that is really what erowid.org is. I have now since created a follow-up survey that inquires about the usage of erowid.org. Click here to take the survey if you have visited erowid.org and would be willing to share your feelings and experiences with the site. To visit erowid.org again or for the first time, click on the banner below. All information provided will remain anonymous.
My preliminary findings have shown that the site is simply a thorough guide through the complex, and often misunderstood, world of psychoactive drugs. The user community has been proven difficult to contact as the names of contributors are mere usernames to provide privacy and there are not email addresses linked to them. The behind-the-scenes crew of the site, however, was extremely responsive when I contacted them, and my work is beginning to shift towards the community of the people who work on the site instead of those who use it.
The members of the crew come from various backgrounds and countries from around the world. It is apparent through many of their mini bios that they care about the mission of the website, and each of them provides a personal passion and vision to the upkeep of erowid. I hope to gather and publish more information about them soon!
Don’t have time to take the survey? Share your thoughts about erowid.org below!
To help spark more research, I thought it would be interesting to see what a general audience thought about the simple discussion of psychoactive drugs. I created a short anonymous survey for individuals, like YOU, to take. It is quite short, with only ten questions, and most of them are multiple choice!
I hope that the results will provide complimentary data to the whole of my ethnography project. There may also be a follow up survey that ties in specifics about erowid.org, but for now I am just curious about the various mindsets and stigmas that people may have about illegal (and even legal) drugs as well as conversations about them.
Don’t have time to take the survey? Share your thoughts about the importance of and your comfort level with the discussion of drugs below!