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Erowid: 10 Years of History
by Fire Erowid
Jun 2005
Citation:   Erowid F. "Erowid: 10 Years of History." Erowid Extracts. Jun 2005;8:12-14.
2005 marks Erowid's ten-year anniversary. The site has come a long way in the past decade, from its roots in the early 1990s, when the web was in its infancy, to the present, when the internet reaches into nearly every school, library, business, and home.

Context of Creation #
In 1993, Earth and I moved to the Midwest. We had switched the year before from local bulletin boards and nation-wide networks such as CompuServe and Genie to a direct internet connection through a technology company Earth worked for. The net was already showing itself to be an eclectic, data-rich playground, though it was navigable largely through hierophantic ASCII interfaces that only a computer geek could love.

We both had an existing interest in psychoactives. We had just graduated from a small, very liberal college where the use of psychedelics and MDMA was relatively common, but we kept to the sidelines, watching and listening as others experimented. The combination of anti-drug scare stories and a lack of solid, accessible information made it difficult to come to any sort of rational conclusion about these substances.

I used a month-long independent study period to research and write about the plants associated with European witchcraft, but even this relatively well-documented topic was a challenge to research in our small college library. By late-1994, when we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, the web was starting to take hold. User-friendly graphical browsers replaced text-only interfaces, greatly expanding the possibilities for online data sharing. Hyperreal's Drug Archives, a centralized selection of FAQs and Usenet posts, became the most popular source of information about psychoactives on the new web.

Timeline
Apr 1995The Erowid.com domain name is first registered.
Oct 1995Erowid first becomes publicly available. 0 page hits a day.
Mar 1996Erowid is first submitted to search engines. 120 page hits a day.
Jan 1997Erowid receives 1,000 page hits a day.
Jan 1998Erowid moves to Hyperreal server. 4,000 page hits per day.
Oct 1999Fire begins working full time on site. 35,000 page hits a day.
Nov 1999Erowid incorporates Hyperreal Drug Archives. 90,000 page hits a day.
Jun 2000The Experience Vaults are launched. 120,000 page hits a day.
Oct 2000Visionary Art Vaults are launched. 150,000 page hits a day.
May 2001Erowid Extracts is first published. 200,000 page hits a day.
Jul 2001The EcstasyData project is launched.
Oct 2002The Hofmann Collection in launched. 315,000 page hits a day.
Jan 2003CBS News story on Erowid. 600,000 page hits a day for a few days.
May 2003Escottology is launched. 350,000 pages a day.
Feb 2004Begin upgrade of site to 3.0 design.
Apr 2005Launch of The Erowid Review. 435,000 page hits a day.
Jun 2005Sperowider released. 41,000 visitors a day.
Origins of a Name #
It was in March of 1995 that Earth and I first chose the name "Erowid". We had been searching for a name for several months--actively brainstorming and playing with words. We were looking for an umbrella name under which we could do various projects, an idea that came in part from the way my parents ran their own businesses when I was a child. We didn't know what the name would be used for, but we had a strong sense of what we wanted it to feel like. The creation of the name was part of the process of deciding what was next for us, and while we had no plans for a website about psychoactive plants and chemicals at the time, we had already begun gathering information in the form of scattered emails, URLs, books and journal references. Earth studied historical linguistics in college, so we started by digging around in foreign-language dictionaries and Calvert Watkins' Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. Then one day, during a brainstorming session in the car, a name just clicked--I remember writing the word several times, testing how it felt. "Erowid", based on its Proto-Indo-European roots, means approximately "Earth Wisdom" or the "Knowledge of Existence".1 We registered the Erowid.com domain name a month later in April 1995.

A Community Resource #
Although I'd made a website for the company I worked for in 1994, it was only a side project. In early 1995, I made a serious attempt to learn HTML. At the time, I didn't know what kind of job my humanities degree (history, literature, and women's studies) would bring, so I hoped to look for contract web design work. Meanwhile, the information Earth had been gathering about psychoactives was piling up in unorganized electronic stacks. This became an obvious dataset for me to explore with web design and data organization in mind.

And thus Erowid was born. By October, we had developed a small, publicly available website, though we did not publicize it or submit it to search engines. At this point we had no intention of making a large, public site. But the "practice pages" had useful and interesting information that other people wanted to access. Someone on Usenet or an email list would ask a question that was answered on one of our pages, so we would send them the URL. As people started suggesting links and topics, the to-do lists began to pile up.

At this time, the site was primarily a resource for a community of sophisticated data geeks. It was a place to look for the latest about N,N-DMT or ketamine, or to find updates on the personal research of others. It filled a very obscure niche, with data almost exclusively related to psychedelics, MDMA, and unusual psychoactives.

Early Growth #
In March 1996, we began submitting the site to search engines, and traffic grew, from about 100 daily page views in January 1996 to around 1,000 by the end of the year. As the site received more attention, the profile of our visitors changed. Many had no foundation of knowledge, no context within which to place the information they were finding on Erowid. We realized that these visitors needed more of the basics: summaries, FAQs, dosage and effects descriptions. We broadened our scope to include more general information and added sections about the more common (but arguably less "entheogenic") substances like cocaine, heroin, amphetamine, and alcohol.

In early 1996, we also helped a little with the launch of the Lycaeum, a psychedelic community website founded by online friends. Early disagreements about how the project should proceed led to our disengaging and, although we've been friends with the Lycaeum staff over the years, we haven't had editorial input since before it launched.

Coming of Age #
At Burning Man 1996 we watched an incautious friend try GHB for the first time. Because of differing concentrations between two sources, she subsequently passed out, vomited, and convulsed for several hours. Soon afterwards, we started adding more warnings and cautions to the site.

We also met a fellow riding around on a bicycle, wearing a long homemade coat covered in patches. Many of the patches were pockets, each containing different types of cannabis, acid, mushrooms, ecstasy, or less common chemicals such as N,N-DMT. He traveled around the United States, buying, selling, and trading novel materials: part salesman, part information resource, and part psychedelic bard ready with McKenna quotes and campfire trip tales.

A defining realization we made during this period was that the prohibition of recreational drugs creates a huge market pressure for new psychoactives that are not strictly illegal and, by virtue of their novelty, more difficult to detect. At Burning Man and other events, we met people who would sell or give away chemicals we'd only ever read about. While the resources available on the web were growing, most information about these uncommon chemicals still traveled by word of mouth, even among medical personnel. The classic message-garbling of the "telephone game" was a serious problem, not only among people buying, selling, and ingesting psychoactives, but also among those charged with treating overdoses or addiction problems.

We realized we needed to build lines of communication with experts and community members, talk with writers and publishers, physicians, researchers, drug treatment professionals, teachers, parents, and teens. Each has their own perspective that informs the work we do, in terms of both the information we should present and how it should be presented. Meeting Alexander and Ann Shulgin at the Entheobotany conference in San Francisco in October of 1996 was an inspiration. Sasha's lively genius and Ann's cautious advocacy were infectious, increasing our interest in the subject matter and in the diverse community studying the topic.

Legal Issues & Data Quality #
In 1996 and 1997, we took a serious look at what legal issues we might encounter running such a site. We wanted to make sure that it wasn't going to be shut down for some simple mistake that could easily be avoided. Happily, publishers, reporters, and libraries in the United States all enjoy a high degree of protection under the First Amendment. We determined that, given a moderately conservative editorial policy, we could publish information about psychoactives without breaking any laws.

Part of our process was to develop the editorial and review policies necessary to ensure a reasonable level of accuracy about topics obscured by complex social and legal issues. We settled on a process that required either Earth or me to read every article that was published on the site, rather than having an open forum system where visitors could post information at will. This limited the amount we could publish but helped maintain a higher degree of data integrity.

We began to think in terms of creating a resource with a consistently high level of quality, diversity, and availability, an active repository that could be relied on from year to year.

Money #
Over the next couple of years we worked on Erowid in our spare time, filling in the basics while continuing to keep track of the cutting edge. To pay the bills, we took on a variety of contract jobs, including technical and editing work for the Council on Spiritual Practices (CSP). This included helping to publish the online chrestomathy of books on entheogens as well as Huston Smith's Cleansing the Doors of Perception.

Meanwhile, Erowid continued to grow. Near the end of 1997, traffic reached 4,000 page hits per day and we were exceeding our bandwidth limitations. We had to find a new host, but costs were looking prohibitive.

Then a mutual friend introduced us to Brian Behlendorf, who ran the server that hosted the Hyperreal Drug Archives. Brian stepped up and generously offered to host Erowid on the Hyperreal server, allowing for the site to expand while actually lowering our costs. We moved Erowid to the Hyperreal server in January 1998.

At over 1,000 pages of information, we could no longer do the site justice while working other jobs. Our first donation came from Bob Wallace in April 1998 which prompted us to think seriously about working full-time on Erowid. In 1999, we began asking for donations to support the project; though we didn't receive enough to live on, it seemed possible that, with a little fundraising work, it could pay part of the rent.

Around this time, donations began to increase and we started to receive some larger contributions which helped with the sustainability of the site. We also began working with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies on a variety of educational and informational projects. In October 1999, with the site now at 2,500 pages of data, I began working on Erowid full-time. Earth joined me in March 2000.

Hyperreal Archived #
Several years earlier, Lamont Granquist, the primary editor for the Hyperreal Drug Archives, had stopped actively updating his collection. In mid 1999, he suggested the archives be incorporated into Erowid and together we decommissioned them in October 1999. With existing links to the Hyperreal Drug Archives redirected to Erowid, traffic doubled from 50,000 to more than 100,000 page hits per day.

Becoming a Library #
It was around this time that we began to settle in to our role as librarians. The site was large, traffic was growing, and it was clear there was a great need for a well-managed collection of this information. We realized that we needed to avoid rhetoric and the political gravity well, and seek the fine middle ground of neutrality. Through the model of a library, we wanted to create a shared resource that could help bridge gaps between the various groups and individuals who needed psychoactive-related information.

Organization Building #
During this period, volunteers began to take on increasingly important roles. Several key crew members with needed skills (including Scruff, Psilo, Bo and others) helped review and respond to the increasing flood of data. In May 2001, after looking in to a number of options, we launched our print newsletter Erowid Extracts, in order to give Erowid a physical presence and offer people a recurring reason to join and support the site.

Christopher Barnaby joined the volunteer crew in October 2001 to become the curator and director of the new Visionary Art Vaults. Starting from very humble beginnings, the Art Vaults soon became an important online venue for visionary artists to share their work.

Then, in July 2001, Sylvia Thysen joined us, working part-time on everything from document editing and site updates to volunteer management. We were asked to step in to manage DanceSafe's Ecstasy testing program as they went through organizational difficulties. The program was reconstructed and became EcstasyData.org, a collaborative project between Erowid, MAPS, and DanceSafe.

In 2001, Erowid received its first two mentions in peer-reviewed journals, in two different articles discussing the growth of online information about disapproved psychoactives.2 We were also invited to speak publicly for the first time, a somewhat uncomfortable experience since we perceived ourselves more as archivists and librarians, than "experts" on psychoactives. While we've gathered quite a bit of knowledge over the years, we consider ourselves first and foremost to be experts in the collection and publishing of data about psychoactives. We continue to try to balance these roles.

Reality Strikes #
In January 2002, we hit an average of 250,000 page views per day. In May we were invited to speak at a small National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) conference. This was one of the first very clear acknowledgements that Erowid was a resource not only for psychoactive users, but also for people in the fields of health care, law, and public policy. Then, in September 2002, our good friend and largest funder, Bob Wallace, died unexpectedly. While we were able to continue our work, this single event led to the loss of nearly half our yearly support. Many ongoing projects were substantially interrupted as we were forced to focus on fundraising and rethink our funding model. Over the next two years we worked hard to expand our membership base.

Settling In #
Both Earth and I continued to work full-time on the project. What began as a hobby had turned into a crowded home office: seven computers, a living-room full of books, a shipping room for managing membership gifts and newsletters, and a garage full of supplies. Several large projects were completed during this period, including the digitization of the Hofmann Collection of LSD & Psilocybin References, a joint project with MAPS and the Albert Hofmann Foundation. Sylvia became an integral part of the team. Recently we hired another part-time contractor to help process data. And although volunteers have always been a major part of Erowid, they are now more involved than ever in the editing and publishing process.

Current Projects #
This spring, we began the work of becoming a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. We've considered this move many times before, but now the time is right. The first step is to form a corporation, choose a board of directors, and write bylaws. Then we apply for both federal and state 501(c)3 status. We're working with lawyers to move through this and, with some luck, we'll finish the process by the end of 2005.

We've just completed a significant site upgrade, updating the front page and all of the substance indexes. In April we also launched The Erowid Review, an online book review forum for the review of books related to psychoactives (see page 8). This is only one of several major additions to the site slated for this year.

Our biggest current task is looking ahead to the next phase of the Erowid project. Many of our initial goals have been met and the state of the web has changed radically since we began. We are now serving more information than we would have ever guessed possible: 450,000 page hits to more than 45,000 visitors each day. We estimate that more than 10 million unique people visited Erowid in the last year.

With the site having achieved a truly global reach, and with ten years of experience under our belts, we're excited to both reflect on our history and look ahead to the future of the project.