Erowid meets J676: Digital Media Law and Ethics
Marketplace of Ideas: In my last post, I explained how erowid.org is legal and ethical. The question of the site’s content also falls under the protection of the marketplace of ideas by being unbiased and presenting information that highlights both positive and negative aspects of psychoactive drugs. Supporters of the marketplace of ideas would support Erowid’s extensive archive on psychoactive drugs. The site does not encourage drug use nor does it discourage. The choice is up to the observer, and here Erowid is partaking in the marketplace of ideas. However, there is a review process for the content on the site, and not everything that is submitted for review is published. And while this is to protect site visitors from receiving dangerously incorrect information, proponents of the marketplace of ideas would not agree and could argue that the site, then, is not fully participating in the marketplace, thus restricting others ability to participate as well.
Anonymity: On a site like Erowid, most everyone practices some sort of anonymity or uses a pseudonym. However, within the community of Erowid, I do not feel that anonymity presents an issue. The people whose reports are published all have online screen names, but they cannot be contacted and their work is always reviewed prior to publishing. The submitters do not have much control of their own work once submitted and any issue would be directed to the reviewers. The reviewers are usually volunteers, but the posting happens by a member of the senior staff. There is only one email address to use when contacting the crew, but they respond quickly and thoroughly while still keeping their online names. I do not feel there is an issue with anonymity and false identity here because the people behind the names hold themselves accountable for the site content. And some of the names are not fake at all.
Accountability as publisher: While Erowid does indeed publish things that could cause harm if used incorrectly and could be blamed (or maybe tried to be charged) for endangering lives through the information on the site, the creators include a disclaimer on their site, wiping them clean of all accountability to unethical or dangerous action taken with the information provided on erowid.org.
When I was assigned this project, I had no clue what I was supposed to be doing nor how to really approach tackling the assignment. In theory it sounded like a fun and interesting project, but one unlike I had ever done before, and I knew it would be a lot of work. I began researching tentatively, looking at the site here and there, trying to find some sort of issue to look into, some way to ask interesting and engaging questions to the members of the Erowid community. At first I thought I would be researching the people who submitted to the site, but that proved impossible to do. I took some time to create a survey to help spark ideas, and I started this blog, hoping that if I jumped right in, the ideas would flow. And not only did the ideas flow, but my first survey had 20 respondents in the first day and the crewmembers of Erowid answered my first email within hours that I sent it. I could not have been more excited at the sudden ease of the project.
It has been a fun journey getting to know the senior staff members of Erowid. Their different personalities shown through their answers to my questions, and I also observed the comfort level they felt in adding to and correcting people’s answers when they re-read all the responses. The community was receptive to my questions and answered them in much more depth than I had ever anticipated. I am happy with my Erowid ethnography, and I am confident that my conclusions about the care and devotion the community of Erowid puts into creating the site proves that it is a well-researched, reliable, legal and ethical site devoted to “documenting the complex relationship between humans and psychoactives.”
Have you learned something new or have something to add? Post a comment below!
Research Question One
Have there been legal concerns brought to the attention to the site’s creators? If so, how have those been addressed? If not, why is that? What did the creators do, if anything, to ensure entire website is legal?
Most of the concerns brought to the creators’ attention have been more ethically based. It is not a question of legality; the information on the site is considered legal by the protection of freedom of speech, expression and press granted under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. And while majority of the content on the site pertains to psychoactive drugs, of which most are illegal to use in some capacity, the creators and staff of the site make a conscious effort to keep a website of information and not one to promote drug use. As senior review staff member wrote in an online interview, “Erowid is in no way ‘pro-drug’; we are ‘pro-information.’”
The staff of Erowid have never been contacted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Association, and police officers, doctors and parents have found the site helpful to understand more about a drug that is affecting a love one or was involved with an overdose or death.
However, there are instances when Erowid is contacted by an angry or concerned individual. Earth Erowid, a co-founder of the site, wrote in the interview, “If anyone points out things that might constitute illegal activity, we take it seriously.” Because the staff wants to make the site accessible to law enforcement, they are extremely cautious of what information is on the site and how it is presented.
After looking over the site and chatting with the staff over a very long email thread, I have come to the conclusion that Erowid.org is indeed legal. The issue of ethics, however, brings about more debate, which brings me to my second research question.
Research Question Two
Is the mission of this site ethical? To its creators, its users and community, its viewers, and to random visitors?
Despite the assurance of legality, the ethical issues surrounding a site like Erowid are not so clearly defined. Ethics relates to things that are morally right. Although legal, is it morally right to provide information about harmful drugs in an unfiltered, uncensored space such as the Internet? Although the content is reviewed, is it right that only a few people have the final say in what is put on the site when the content could be used in a dangerous way?
Erowid’s mission states: Their vision states:To the creators and staff of Erowid, as one can see from the site’s mission and vision, they believe the site to be ethical. The crewmembers are the community and they devote many hours reviewing and fact checking articles and experience reports that are submitted (see question three). I was not able to contact authors of the experience reports but as they have their writing posted, I am going to make an assumption that they generally do not have an issue with Erowid. I did, however, conduct a survey to see what people thought generally about a site like Erowid, and then specifically what they thought about erowid.org. The survey was anonymous and I do not know how familiar the respondents were with Erowid.
Here are some quotes from the surveys and I have analyzed their messages to relate to my conclusion about the ethics of Erowid.
“What the reader does with the information can be judged as ethical or unethical, but not the act of providing information.”
-I believe this individual makes a valid point in targeting the user of the information as the one who is subject to scrutiny over ethical behavior. Information is information and it does not become unethical until it is presented in an inaccurate way or is used in another mode of behavior that is considered unethical. If humans did not share information, no matter how touchy it may be, we would never be able to advance in society. Erowid presents clear, balanced, and accurate information so that on a subject that is so often taboo, there is a way to learn about a complex part of humanity and human experience. Jon Hanna wrote in his email to me, “As someone who grew up in those days before the Internet was widely available, there was a dearth of reliable, factual, information available about psychoactive drugs when I was a child and young adult.” The amount and diversity of information related to psychoactive drugs on Erowid is astounding, and while people may it in unethical ways, it is important for the information to be out there. I would argue that not providing information in fear or because the subject is drugs and drugs are illegal is unethical. Providing information like a healthy drug dosage helps more than damages. If the information was not allowed to be somewhere, who would ever know how to stay safe while using drugs? As the next quote hints at, denying information will not stop drug use.
“I think it is the epitome of ethical behaviour. Of course, these drugs are illegal. But in reality, that fact is not going to end drug use, as it has not.”
-Drugs have been around probably longer than humans, if you follow the theory of evolution. Psychoactive drugs, although oftentimes dangerous, have been known to spark creativity in some of the world’s most influential people. Humans are generally curious and have the capacity to understand things larger than them and it makes sense the mystery of drugs and altered states would be appealing to many. Because of the inherent dangers of using drugs without knowledge of how, it is important, again, for the information to explain how to use, where to use, what’s normal and what isn’t, what is safe to eat or drink while using is extremely important to help drug users stay safe. Erowid acknowledges drug use and by providing information and talking at conferences, they are “the epitome of ethical behaviour.”
“Only ethical for adults or with supervision.”
“The website should be able to talk about what ever it wants as long as it is to the appropriate aged group and does not break any laws.”
-These quotes touch on, perhaps without knowing it, one of the largest issues of digital media today. How and should the Internet even be censored? Could Erowid be considered ethical if it was only observed by adults or the “appropriate age group”? While I understand the argument for information about drugs being kept from children or even young adults, I do not think it makes the site more or less ethical. The information will remain the same. Is it unethical for a ten-year-old to read but ethical for a sixteen-year-old to read? What happens in those six years for information to suddenly be ethical to read? If, however, one is saying that having the content available to young people is unethical, I think there may be more of an argument. But, I would argue on the flipside that young people are generally more experimental and more willing to take risks. They may use drugs anyway even if they are not allowed to see the information on a site like Erowid. Websites are only part of the Internet. There are databases for professional journals, Facebook, chat rooms, friends, and one could even find a book in the library to search for information about drugs. It could be argued that it is almost more dangerous to keep facts about drugs from the age group that is one of the more likely to experiment haphazardly. I find that these two quotes are almost invalid when discussing the ethics of Erowid. Adults can make terrible decisions about drugs, so why should it only be ethical for them to see the site? Any age group can read a website unless it is blocked by a filter set by a parent or a school. Furthermore, Erowid does not break any laws.
Research Question Three
What is the criteria to post recreational experiences or scholarly research on the site? Have some been rejected? If so, for what reason?
“We reject approximately 50% of all experience reports submitted for a variety of reasons,” wrote Fire Erowid in an online interview. The reasons include inaccuracy, poor writing and reports that are obviously faked.
“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,” wrote Earth. “We take the issue of faked reports very seriously.” But reports are not the only things that are submitted. “For other types of submissions, we have a very rigorous review process, most original documents people send us for publication we just reject without putting it to any other reviewers.“
This part of my research is easy. The criteria for having something put on the web is that it must make it through a rigorous review process and only a senior review staff member may post to the site. Reviewers are trained and fact check stories to make sure the information is accurate. The effort the Erowid crew puts in to ensure that the content on the site is admirable and considerably ethical.
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!