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Ethnography Study: part three

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.

Photo capture courtesy of erowid.org.

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.”

Photo capture courtesy of erowid.org.

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.”

Managing Erowid

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.

Photo capture courtesy of erowid.org.

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.

Photo capture courtesy of erowid.org.

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

Click on the image to watch the CBS news clip.

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.

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