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

Our research will be looking 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 at 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 will be looking 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.  This research will 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 are 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. In the course of our research we will be analysing text, visual and video material posted on a range of drug use information websites, blogs, wikis and social media platforms. This information will have been posted by people who are directly engaged in drug use, are perhaps ex-users, or concerned relatives or friends of users, as well as by those who are otherwise motivated to contribute information on drugs and drug use and to engage in such exchanges, discussions and conversations. We will aim to evaluate the role of such information sharing in the day-to-day survival of, or continuance with, such drug use and to assess 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 will be focusing 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, therefore, is 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, will be 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 are 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 are 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 hope 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.


Contact us:

Prof. Dave Boothroyd

Sarah Lewis
Dr. Sarah Lewis


[columns] [span6]