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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Why Twitter is dying, in ten tweets

It's ironic that the most heated discussions of the platform's weaknesses are playing out on the platform itself. 

Twitter has been dying since 2009, and commentators have pre-emptively declared it deceased pretty much every year since. To declare that it's on the downturn has become a bit of a cliché. But that doesn't mean that it isn't also, well, true.

Grumbling among users and commentators has grown to a roar over the past few days, thanks in part to a Buzzfeed report (refuted by Jack Dorsey, Twitter's CEO) claiming the service will move away from a chronological timeline and towards an algorithmic one. Users coined the hashtag #RIPTwitter in response, and, tellingly, many of their complaints spanned beyond the apparently erroneous report. 

They join a clutch of other murmurings, bits of data and suggestions that things are not as they should be in the Twitter aviary. 

Below is one response to the threat of the new timeline, aptly showing that for lots of users, the new feed would have been the straw that broke the tweeters' backs:

Twitter first announced it was considering a new 10,000 character limit in January, but it's yet to be introduced. Reactions so far indicate that no one thinks this is a good idea, as the 140 character limit is so central to Twitter's unique appeal. Other, smaller tweaks – like an edit button – would probably sit much more easily within Twitter's current stable of features, and actually improve user experience: 

While Dorsey completely denied that the change would take place, he then followed up with an ominous suggestion that something would be changing:

"It'll be more real-time than a feed playing out in real time!" probably isn't going to placate users who think the existing feed works just fine. It may be hard to make youself heard on the current timeline, but any kind of wizardry that's going to decide what's "timely" or "live" for you is surely going to discriminate against already alienated users.

I've written before about the common complaint that Twitter is lonely for those with smaller networks. Take this man, who predicts that he'll be even more invisible in Twitter's maelstrom if an algorithm deems him irrelevant: 

What's particularly troubling about Twitter's recent actions is the growing sense that it doesn't "get" its users. This was all but confirmed by a recent string of tweets from Brandon Carpenter, a Twitter employee who tweeted this in response to speculation about new features:

...and then was surprised and shocked when he received abuse from other accounts:

This is particularly ironic because Twitter's approach (or non-approach) to troll accounts and online abusers has made it a target for protest and satire (though last year it did begin to tackle the problem). @TrustySupport, a spoof account, earned hundreds of retweets by mocking Twitter's response to abuse:

Meanwhile, users like Milo Yiannopolous, who regularly incites his followers to abuse and troll individuals (often women and trans people, and most famously as part of G*merg*te), has thrived on Twitter's model and currently enjoys the attentions of almost 160,000 followers. He has boasted about the fact that Twitter could monetise his account to pull itself out of its current financial trough:

The proof of any social media empire's decline, though, is in its number and activity of users. Earlier this month, Business Insider reported that, based on a sample of tweets, tweets per user had fallen by almost 50 per cent since last August. Here's the reporter's tweet about it:

Interestingly, numbers of new users remained roughly the same – which implies not that Twitter can't get new customers, but that it can't keep its current ones engaged and tweeting. 

Most tellingly of all, Twitter has stopped reporting these kinds of numbers publicly, which is why Jim Edwards had to rely on data taken from an API. Another publication followed up Edwards' story with reports that users aren't on the platform enough to generate ad revenue:

The missing piece of the puzzle, and perhaps the one thing keeping Twitter alive, is that its replacement hasn't (yet) surfaced. Commentators obsessed with its declining fortunes still take to Twitter to discuss them, or to share their articles claiming the platform is already dead. It's ironic that the most heated discussions of the platform's weaknesses are playing out on the platform itself. 

For all its faults, and for all they might multiply, Twitter's one advantage is that there's currently no other totally open platform where people can throw their thoughts around in plain, public view. Its greatest threat yet will come not from a new, dodgy feature, but from a new platform – one that can actually compete with it.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.