By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Earth and Fire started going out after high school, when both of them attended a small university in Florida where they majored in humanities. (Earth, who later designed scientific databases, had no interest in doing computer science; the computers he had at home were much better than those at school.) It wasn’t until after they graduated that the couple took acid — or, in Earth’s typically more exacting description, “a random piece of paper that I was given and told was LSD.” They briefly returned to Minnesota, where they felt self-consciously freaky in their embroidered jeans and long hair. So they decided to move to the Bay Area, where they could be, as Earth puts it, “somewhat conservative normal people.”
It was 1994, and the Bay Area was riding high on the combined energies of the Internet boom, the rave scene and an increasingly self-conscious psychedelic revival. Earth and Fire met large numbers of psychedelic users who broke the usual stereotypes. Earth once again confronted the lesson of his student-council year. “I encountered people who were dynamic, interesting and creative intellectuals — successful people who told me that I should try taking these things. This was dissonant with the government’s information.” (This, by the way, is how Earth talks.)
In order to resolve that dissonance, Earth and Fire started researching, and soon found themselves hooked — not on the drugs, but on the work. “The world is full of psychoactives,” says Fire. “When you see that it’s not just LSD and heroin and cocaine, that there are plants everywhere, you start to realize how deep the field is, and how much information there is to keep track of. You also realize how lacking the government information is. Not only was the minimal data we were getting on the Web contradictory to government sources, but it was contradictory to itself.”
Their desire to organize and provide access to such a vast and multifaceted field of data led them to found Erowid in 1995. “Each person on the planet has something that fits them,” says Fire, who serves as Erowid’s designer and information architect and writes many of the site’s basic pages. “Very quickly after starting this project, it became clear that it fit me. In college I found it difficult to get excited about focusing on one discipline for the rest of my life. Erowid is extremely interdisciplinary, so it has allowed me to follow my interests in chemistry, botany, history, anthropology and law.”
Earth explains that Erowid satisfied an archival urge he traces back to Dungeons & Dragons, which he once played religiously. The role-playing game exploits the fetish for mapping and collecting stuff and presents, like drug lore, a curious balance of the fantastic and the technical. Fire also used to write stories with her friends and draw detailed pictures of the floor plans of the characters’ homes. “It was very D&D but from a different angle.”
“From a girlie angle,” Earth adds.
“It wasn’t that girlie.”
But it was geeky. Earth calls the commonality “an idle-ish, paperwork, detail-oriented kind of systems thinking — a kind of externalization of memory. That’s a huge part of what Erowid is. There is no way to keep track of that amount of information without a robot assistant.” In other words, arranging and programming a good database actually makes the information more intelligent.
Initially, the Erowid robot had the modest goal of supplementing Hyperreal, then the largest purveyor of drug data online. The couple were particularly drawn to obscure and highly technical information about extraction techniques, alkaloid contents and improvements in psilocybin cultivation. In 1996, the administrators for Hyperreal ceased maintaining the site, and within two years, Erowid moved onto the Hyperreal server and absorbed the older site, instantly doubling its traffic. Though another site, called the Lycaeum, also provides a healthy, if wilder, brew of data (at www.lycaeum.org), and scores of sites devote themselves to individual compounds, Erowid comes closest to a comprehensive archive of contemporary psychoactive-drug information.
It’s not an easy place to be. The couple are perpetually overwhelmed by the need to manage, update and publish a torrent of information. “It doesn’t take an informed person five minutes to find huge gaps,” says Earth. Their tobacco and caffeine vaults are tiny, and the MDMA FAQ is horribly out of date. Large tracts of their site lie fallow. “Areas like ‘Ask Erowid,’ where visitors can ask questions that aren’t addressed on the site, are a source of unending suffering,” says Fire. “Months go by without a question being answered. If I think about that, I start to feel sick.”
But Erowid now has more-pressing demands. E-mails from emergency medical technicians and physicians attest that Erowid has saved lives, and scores of health professionals have made the site their primary online source when dealing with unfamiliar drug problems. And young adults are turning to it in droves. “When we first started, we were interested in documenting the cutting edge of information about psychoactives,” says Fire. “That had to change as it became clear that people were using Erowid in a way we had not originally intended. Not having the basic background information seemed dangerous in some ways.” The flip side of this public service is a mountain of responsibility — pressure that makes for the sort of high-minded workaholism that, combined with empty coffers, can easily lead to burnout. Paranoia also waits in the wings. Though the couple keep the site free from the sort of tasty bits useful to law enforcement, and will literally turn away from conversations that tell them more than they want to know about individuals involved in manufacture and supply, Earth and Fire sometimes fear they will get harassed simply out of spite.