Illicit drug use

Online information sharing amongst users of illicit drugs: a qualitative and media theoretical analysis.



Our research looked at the ways in which people use the internet to share information, knowledge and experience relating to illicit drug use and risky drug taking practices, and how this online sharing mediates the meanings associated with such drug use, the perception of the risks involved and strategies adopted by users for mitigating those risks, and at how trust in information and empathy amongst sharers of it figure in these communications.

We looked at information sharing in relation to addictive, recreational and experimental use of both ‘traditional’ drugs (such as cannabis, cocaine and heroin) and new psychoactive substances (‘legal highs’, or ‘research chemicals’), as well as at non-medicinal uses of prescription drugs.

There are many acknowledged reasons for engaging in a wide variety of forms of drug use – such as addiction, pleasure and thrill seeking, curiosity, managing aspects of daily life and emotions, or in connection with peer relations and a sense of belonging, to mention just a few. And there is an equally wide array of online sources of information, advice and discussion surrounding drugs and drug use, which is dynamically interlinked and constantly evolving. 

We aimed to try to understand better how trust and empathy figure in this scene of drug-related online communication as a whole, and how it influences the judgments and the decisions of drug users as well as those who are affected by drug use in various indirect ways.

We were especially interested in the ways in which ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ sources of information figure in construction of forms of popular knowledge surrounding drugs and drug use, and especially in how these develop, are shaped and facilitated by new media forms and online platforms and their affordances.

We analysed text, visual and video material posted on a range of drug use information websites, blogs, wikis and social media platforms. This information had been posted by people who were directly engaged in drug use, were perhaps ex-users, or concerned relatives or friends of users, as well as by those who were otherwise motivated to contribute information on drugs and drug use and to engage in such exchanges, discussions and conversations.

We aimed to evaluate the role of such information sharing in the day-to-day survival of, or continuance with, such drug use and assessed the place of trust in information and empathy amongst providers of information and resources for participants in such communications, across a variety of digital media platforms.

We focused primarily on drugs-related online content and looking at the ways in which a variety of information sources are shared – interlinked, cross-referenced, recommended or critiqued, and so forth – and thus contribute to the overall open, publicly available resource of drugs and drug use information on the internet today.

This growing and evolving, international, hyperlinked ‘drugs infosphere’ has numerous points of access and modes of contribution, and many elements of this communicative environment are both archival and searchable. One of the premises of this study, was therefore, that trust and empathy in this new cultural context can be considered as media phenomena themselves; they are as much functions of what is said and shown and is retrievable via search engines, as they are characteristics of the actual subjective experiences of the individuals ‘behind’ the postings.

Trust and empathy, therefore, were researched within the primary data of online communications themselves, and in the ways in which these are dynamically linked and render exchange, engagement and response possible in the first place.
This relatively new phenomenon of the online ‘drugs infosphere’ is both the space and the means by which many users and other interested parties satisfy their information needs and turn to – whether they are experienced drug users, individuals contemplating experimenting with drugs, or concerned relatives or friends of drug users or potential users. 

From a media theoretical perspective, we were particularly interested in exploring the ways in which trust and empathy figure in (or are absent from) online communicative exchanges around drug use and drug practice. And we were interested to explore questions surrounding the techno-cultural manifestation and expression of responsibility and ethical subjectivity.

By addressing these issues within the context of an in-depth qualitative analysis of drug use information exchanges across various platforms and media contexts, we hoped to produce new knowledge of how trust and empathy figure in, and are a function of, on the one hand, the perceived usefulness, veracity, efficacy and origin of such communications, and on the other, the differing technical affordances and capacities of a number of different platforms.

Key findings

  • There is clear evidence of broad, and to a large extent consistent and coherent, harm reduction ethos across the diverse variety of fully public ‘virtual environments’ that are dedicated to and concerned with illicit drug use.
  • The sharing of experiential knowledge contributed in such contexts is widely considered by participants to be highly valuable and is trusted, but the need for caution is often clearly articulated in relation to level of experience (or naivety) of possible ‘readerships’; and cautions and warnings (e.g. of varieties of experience) are a typical feature of communication and exchange.
  • Hierarchy and ‘authority’ in such communities is closely related to both frequency/quantity of posting and contribution – for example to forum – and influenced by the sense of ‘drug use(r) identity’ associated with the specific online ‘milieu’ (that is, place). So, ‘welcome’, or hospitability and the expression of and role of ‘empathy’, are typically (themselves) mediated by the culture of the environment.
  • In other words, the ‘filter bubble’ phenomenon is clearly at work: participants exercise boundary management (or ‘groupthink’, arguably) and have a clear sense of ‘who’ they are as a group as users of specific categories of drugs, and as ‘members’. Belonging ‘here’ (in a specific online place), rather than somewhere else, is socially controlled. This is particularly true of those who see no, or little ground for concern with respect to their drug use – typically identifying with ‘experimental’ or ‘recreational’ notions of use of whatever drugs are being discussed. But at the same time (elsewhere) habit-formation, addiction, cessation, and openness about these sentiments, vis-à-vis the same substance use, is likely to solicit a more empathetic response.
  • There is evidence that in some such shared spaces there is a culture of the crossing-over and mixing up experiential knowledge and conventional forms of authoritative or ‘expert’ (scientific) knowledge: the hypertextual medium facilitates easy cross reference to the findings of ‘proper’ scientific studies amongst the panoply of other sources of information available across the internet.

    (In some places drug users consider themselves, not entirely wrongly, as ‘guinea-pig’ empirical experimenters – and it was not lost on us that we, as empirical social scientists, are a part of the same shared world (which exists neither fully on- nor offline) watching, not them, but their online activity.

    Our methodological reflections and discussion of the changing epistemological status and understanding of the ‘empirical’ in online research were presented in papers and discussed in publications.

    Theoretical findings of the WP revolve around contextualized discussion of the online life of drug culture itself, and how socio-technical dimensions of culture and lived experience within the processes of communicative mediation, give cause to fundamentally rethink our conceptual understandings of ‘trust’ and ‘empathy’.

    We have argued in papers and publications to date that internet-based research and research of internet socio-cultural phenomena, as it was evident in our study, are the obverse and reverse of each other. For example, we were obliged to acknowledge to ourselves that studying the content, activity and structures of online communications, could not be simply conceptualized as ‘nonparticipant observation’.

    In other words, non-directly-contributing participation was really what we, as researchers were arguably engaged in. (So-called ‘passive participants’ – viewers/ readers/ consumers/ users of this drug culture were, to all intents purposes, functionally and empirically ‘doing’ something comparable to what we ourselves were doing: engaging in making new knowledge (for instance about the workings and behaviours of online drug scenes.)

    Our publications were destined to become part of the shared landscape of drugs information. We were inevitably ‘lurkers’, albeit lurkers with an unusual intent. This approach was a methodological decision, driven in part by the time frame as well as by theoretical considerations regarding the identification of the object of inquiry in online social research.



Boothroyd, D., & Lewis, S. (2016a). Online Drug Scenes and Harm Reduction from Below as Phronesis. Contemporary Drug Problems, 43(3), 293–307.

Boothroyd, D., & Lewis, S. (2016b). Rethinking evidence in online social drug use research. In A. O’Gorman, G. R. Potter, & J. Fountain (Eds.), Evidence in European social drug research and drug policy (pp. 69–84). Pabst Science, Lengerich. Retrieved from

Conference papers and invited talks

Boothroyd, D. & Lewis, S. Who’s data, or whose data? Researching online drug culture. European Society for Social Drug Research, Glasgow 2015.

Boothroyd, D. Boothroyd, D. & Lewis, S. The mediation of drug culture: Emergent digital networks of drugs ‘expertise’ and user-generated drugs knowledge as a form ‘practical wisdom Contemporary Drug Problems/European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Lisbon, 2015.

Boothroyd, D. & Lewis, S. Mediation, individuation and encounter in digital milieus NECS, Potsdam 2015. (This was a project-related related media theory paper).

Boothroyd, D. & Lewis, S. The one, the two and the many: the ethico-politics of individuation and encounter in participatory digital milieus. Political Agency in the Digital Age: Media, Participation and Democracy Conference, Copenhagen Business School (2016).

Boothroyd, D. & Lewis, S. Flat ontologies’ and the world(s) of drugs: how are drug problems constituted, or, what constitutes a ‘drug problem’? Contemporary Drug Problems, Helsinki, 2017.

Boothroyd, D. & Lewis, S. Empathogens and empathy: the online life of drug culture and the ends of prohibition Invited Keynote. Theorising the Drug War Conference Essex University Centre for Law and Human Rights (2017).


Co Investigator / Lead investigator for research area

Professor Dave Boothroyd
University of Lincoln
+44 (0)152 283 7339

Research Associate

Dr Sarah Lewis

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