Goodbye to the real trip advisor: Silk Road's top LSD review team just retired

A group calling themselves The Avengers were a bit like the Yelp of buying acid online.

Drug users are just like everyone else - they want to know they’re going to get value for money. To that end, it was intriguing to watch the spontaneous growth of product review forums and sites in parallel to Silk Road’s rise.

Most of the reviews took the form of something like Yelp, where customers would review what they’d bought and discuss with other users whether products that were meant to be the same actually had the same effects. Sites like Pill Reports explicitly say they’re concerned with harm reduction, cataloguing the different ecstasy pills found “in the wild”, and giving users a chance to warn each other before they make a potentially life-ruining mistake.

When it came to LSD, a group calling themselves The Avengers took it upon themselves to act almost like restaurant critics, compiling detailed reports about the trustworthiness of Silk Road vendors and the accuracy of their product descriptions. Here’s Adrianne Jeffries at the Verge:

The Avengers were looking for sellers who stole customers’ money or tried to pawn blank pieces of paper. More often, however, they were looking to root out research chemicals that were being sold as acid. Those include DOx compounds (synthetic amphetamines), the 25x-NBOMe or 25x family (synthetic psychedelics that have only been around for the past few years), and ergoloid (a compound invented by the creator of LSD and used to treat dementia). These chemicals aren’t more dangerous than acid; they just have slightly different effects. They are also newer, so their cumulative effects are not well understood.

By the time Silk Road shut down, The Avengers had reviewed 60 vendors, rating them on factors like packaging quality, shipping time, and price. For example, “3JANE” was said to have “extreme Ninja-Spy stealth shipping” for their “quality LSD with appropriate dosages advertised”.

They’ve announced their retirement now that Silk Road is gone, but of course with the nature of the deep web there’s no way of verifying that. We’ve no idea how many people were in The Avengers or their location. We can’t even be sure that they haven’t just moved on to Black Market Reloaded or Sheep Marketplace - the two sites that have gained popularity since Silk Road went down - under different names.

Compared to The Avengers, and Silk Road's forums, sites like Erowid - which has been live since 1995 - offer educational materials about psychadelic materials in a way that is very much rooted in a 1960s-style subculture. Drugs get tied into a New Age aesthetic that, while undoubtedly useful for many, probably also puts off those who aren't as interested in spirituality. Effectively, this older peer-review drug culture was consumed by the more recent web reviews culture we see on sites like Yelp, and people acted like they were buying any other good online.

It's also interesting to see that drugs users managed to spontaneously create a harm reduction system that's a lot more sophisticated than anything you'll see condoned by the authorities in the UK. Right now there's a bad batch of ecstasy going around in the northwest of England, which killed one man at the Warehouse Project in Manchester and hospitalised 15 others. In response, the clubnight organisers have started testing drugs seized inside the venue and broadcasting the results to try and warn others.

Good, but it does nothing to help those who have already taken the drugs before trying to get in, nor for those buying bags of unmarked white powder off dealers inside the venue. This isn't to say that a bunch of people on a web forum are the perfect authority - it would be unwise at best to medical opinions from strangers online rather than a qualified doctor - but it compares favourably to having to buy drugs with a completely unknown history from dealers in the street.

LSD blotters seized by French customs agents in 2008. (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Forget “digital detoxes”. Spring clean your online life instead

Step one: remove the app on your phone which takes up the most time. 

In 2006, news broke that broke me. The British Heart Foundation unveiled a poster of a blonde girl guzzling a gallon of cooking oil. “What goes into crisps goes into you,” it read, as the charity declared that eating one packet of crisps a day equated to drinking five litres of oil a year.

I gave up crisps that Lent (an admirable act that was somewhat mitigated by devouring a six-pack of McCoy’s on Easter Sunday). Still, despite my continuing pack-a-day habit, the BHF’s statistic has never left me: 365 packets of salt and vinegar crisps are equal to five bottles of Filippo Berio. But other bad habits are harder to comprehend. Last week, I “liked” 36 things on Facebook, wrote ten tweets, and posted five Instagram pictures (two of which were selfies). What effect, if any, has this had on my mental and physical health? How much metaphorical cooking oil am I pouring into my body?

“You really don’t need to worry about the volume of your own social media interactions, based on the average digital user,” the founder of the digital detox specialists Time To Log Off, Tanya Goodin, told me. Goodin says that we “tap, click and swipe” our devices over 2,617 times a day and that the average person will post 25,000 selfies in their life.

Though these statistics seem shocking, what do they mean? What does swiping thousands of times a day do to our minds – or, for that matter, our thumbs? The experts are divided. In 2015, national newspapers spread stories suggesting that using an iPad would damage a toddler’s brain but the research didn’t mention the term “brain damage” once. In fact, as the Guardian pointed out in its debunking, studies produce mixed results: some say iPads help improve child literacy, others say they are distracting.

The studies about adults’ screentime are similarly hard to decipher. Heavy Facebook usage has been linked to depression but there isn’t any apparent cause and effect. Do depressed people use Facebook more, or does Facebook make us depressed? “Internet addiction disorder” (IAD) was a term originally coined as a hoax, but many now see it as a real and treatable problem. Yet it does not feature in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and experts still struggle to set diagnostic criteria for it. How much internet is too much?

These academic ambiguities haven’t stopped the idea of the “digital detox” taking off. Detoxers refrain from using any electronics for a period of time in the hope that this will improve their mental health and real-world relationships. At the time of writing, if you search for “digital detox” on Instagram, you’ll find 25,945 people talking about their personal attempts. There are pictures of bike rides, sunsets and children playing, each posted – apparently without irony – to extol the virtues of getting off social media and turning off your phone.

Digital detoxing is also big business. Goodin runs workshops, retreats and camps where no electronics are allowed and the daily schedule consists of yoga, walking, swimming and drinking smoothies. The next one, in Italy, costs from £870 per head for a week. A multitude of such camps exist, as well as books, websites and guides on how to detox by yourself. To connect, man, you have to disconnect, you know?

All of this has made me a digital detoxing cynic. I don’t believe I need to switch off my phone to “live” better, because I believe my phone itself contains life. On Reddit, I can speak to strangers living hundreds of thousands of miles away about their lives. On Twitter, I can keep up to date – in real time – with news and events. If I want to learn yoga or make a smoothie, where will I go to find my local gym or the correct strawberry-to-spinach ratio? Technology can even inspire us to “get out more”. Last summer, the gaming app Pokémon Go spurred people to walk 2,000 more steps a day, and I’m willing to bet that brunch sales figures have skyrocketed since the invention of Instagram.

Digital detoxing relies on the vague idea that tech is somehow toxic. Even without scientific studies to back this up, most of us know from our own, anecdotal evidence how spending too much time on our phones can make us feel. We get down if our latest status doesn’t have enough likes, or our eyes hurt after the sixth “EXTREME PIMPLE POPPING” YouTube video in a row. So, at core, digital detoxing isn’t “wrong”: it is merely misguided. Instead of trying to cut out all technology for a week, we should be curbing our existing habits; rather than a digital detox, we should have a digital spring clean.

Delete – or hide – anyone on your Facebook friends list that you wouldn’t talk to in real life. Remove your work email from your phone (or ask your boss for a separate work phone if you absolutely need access). Delete the app that takes up most of your time – be it Facebook, Twitter or YouTube – so that you are forced to get to it manually, through your browser, and therefore become instantly more aware of how many times a day you open it up. Tanya Goodin also advises me to use my phone less at night. Essentially: go mild turkey. If this is too much and you believe you are addicted to your smartphone or laptop, then, of course, you should seek help (speak to your doctor or call the Samaritans on 116 123).

But most of us just need to get smarter about our internet use. Even if scientists proved that technology was damaging our brains, a week-long detox wouldn’t be the cure. Rather, we should focus on our bad personal habits and try to curb them. Do you get into too many arguments online? Do you ignore your partner because you’re staring at a screen? Do you post opinions you regret because you don’t think them through first? These behaviours are problematic – the internet itself isn’t. To control our lives, we shouldn’t switch off: we should get more switched on.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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