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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The internet makes writing as innovative as speech

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms.

Many articles on how the internet has changed language are like linguistic versions of the old Innovations catalogue, showcasing the latest strange and exciting products of our brave new digital culture: new words (“rickroll”); new uses of existing words (“trend” as a verb); abbreviations (smh, or “shaking my head”); and graphic devices (such as the much-hyped “new language” of emojis). Yet these formal innovations are merely surface (and in most cases ephemeral) manifestations of a deeper change a change in our relationship with the written word.

I first started to think about this at some point during the Noughties, after I noticed the odd behaviour of a friend’s teenage daughter. She was watching TV, alone and in silence, while her thumbs moved rapidly over the keys of her mobile phone. My friend explained that she was chatting with a classmate: they weren’t in the same physical space, but they were watching the same programme, and discussing it in a continuous exchange of text messages. What I found strange wasn’t the activity itself. As a teenage girl in the 1970s, I, too, was capable of chatting on the phone for hours to someone I’d spent all day with at school. The strange part was the medium: not spoken language, but written text.

In 1997, research conducted for British Telecom found that face-to-face speech accounted for 86 per cent of the average Briton’s communications, and telephone speech for 12 per cent. Outside education and the (white-collar or professional) workplace, most adults did little writing. Two decades later, it’s probably still true that most of us talk more than we write. But there’s no doubt we are making more use of writing, because so many of us now use it in our social interactions. We text, we tweet, we message, we Facebook; we have intense conversations and meaningful relationships with people we’ve never spoken to.

Writing was not designed to serve this purpose. Its original function was to store information in a form that did not depend on memory for its transmission and preservation. It acquired other functions, of the social kind, among others; but even in the days when “snail mail” was less snail-like (in large cities in the early 1900s there were five postal deliveries a day), “conversations” conducted by letter or postcard fell far short of the rapid back-and-forth that ­today’s technology makes possible.

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms. Many online innovations are motivated by the need to make written language do a better job of two things in particular: communicating tone, and expressing individual or group identity. The rich resources speech offers for these purposes (such as accent, intonation, voice quality and, in face-to-face contexts, body language) are not reproducible in text-based communication. But users of digital media have found ways to exploit the resources that are specific to text, such as spelling, punctuation, font and spacing.

The creative use of textual resources started early on, with conventions such as capital letters to indicate shouting and the addition of smiley-face emoticons (the ancestors of emojis) to signal humorous or sarcastic intent, but over time it has become more nuanced and differentiated. To those in the know, a certain respelling (as in “smol” for “small”) or the omission of standard punctuation (such as the full stop at the end of a message) can say as much about the writer’s place in the virtual world as her accent would say about her location in the real one.

These newer conventions have gained traction in part because of the way the internet has developed. As older readers may recall, the internet was once conceptualised as an “information superhighway”, a vast and instantly accessible repository of useful stuff. But the highway was a one-way street: its users were imagined as consumers rather than producers. Web 2.0 changed that. Writers no longer needed permission to publish: they could start a blog, or write fan fiction, without having to get past the established gatekeepers, editors and publishers. And this also freed them to deviate from the linguistic norms that were strictly enforced in print – to experiment or play with grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Inevitably, this has prompted complaints that new digital media have caused literacy standards to plummet. That is wide of the mark: it’s not that standards have fallen, it’s more that in the past we rarely saw writing in the public domain that hadn’t been edited to meet certain standards. In the past, almost all linguistic innovation (the main exception being formal or technical vocabulary) originated in speech and appeared in print much later. But now we are seeing traffic in the opposite direction.

Might all this be a passing phase? It has been suggested that as the technology improves, many text-based forms of online communication will revert to their more “natural” medium: speech. In some cases this seems plausible (in a few it’s already happening). But there are reasons to think that speech will not supplant text in all the new domains that writing has conquered.

Consider my friend’s daughter and her classmate, who chose to text when they could have used their phones to talk. This choice reflected their desire for privacy: your mother can’t listen to a text-based conversation. Or consider the use of texting to perform what politeness theorists call “face-threatening acts”, such as sacking an employee or ending an intimate relationship. This used to be seen as insensitive, but my university students now tell me they prefer it – again, because a text is read in private. Your reaction to being dumped will not be witnessed by the dumper: it allows you to retain your dignity, and gives you time to craft your reply.

Students also tell me that they rarely speak on the phone to anyone other than their parents without prearranging it. They see unsolicited voice calls as an imposition; text-based communication is preferable (even if it’s less efficient) because it doesn’t demand the recipient’s immediate and undivided attention. Their guiding principle seems to be: “I communicate with whom I want, when I want, and I respect others’ right to do the same.”

I’ll confess to finding this new etiquette off-putting: it seems ungenerous, unspontaneous and self-centred. But I can also see how it might help people cope with the overwhelming and intrusive demands of a world where you’re “always on”. (In her book Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, Naomi Baron calls it “volume control”, a way of turning down the incessant noise.) As with the other new practices I’ve mentioned, it’s a strategic adaptation, exploiting the inbuilt capabilities of technology, but in ways that owe more to our own desires and needs than to the conscious intentions of its designers. Or, to put it another way (and forgive me if I adapt a National Rifle Association slogan): technologies don’t change language, people do.

Deborah Cameron is Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Worcester College

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times