Thesis

In 2012, my PhD thesis was passed (with some minor revisions) and a few months later, I graduated and became Dr Barratt. I am now making my thesis publicly available. The thesis is licensed using creative commons (see Appendix A) which allows for redistribution with appropriate attributions.

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Suggested citation:

Barratt, Monica J. (2011). Beyond internet as tool: A mixed-methods study of online drug discussion. Doctoral thesis, National Drug Research Institute, Faculty of Health Sciences, Curtin University, Melbourne, Australia.

Abstract:

Internet technologies have changed the context within which illicit drug use occurs. Scholars have demonstrated how the internet and digital technologies can be used to better respond to drug problems and how people who use drugs utilise the internet to access drug information and to purchase drugs (mainly so-called legal highs) through web vendors. The limitations of this body of work are that it generally conceptualises the internet only as a tool, and the potential for internet use resulting in positive outcomes for drug users is only discussed in relation to formal online interventions and treatments. This thesis goes beyond this assumption of ‘technology as tool’ to frame the internet as (1) a tool (enabling people to consume and produce information), (2) a place (online sites within which discourses and meanings are reproduced, reappropriated and negotiated), and (3) a way of being (online sites that are incorporated into everyday/offline life and practices). Through these lenses, this thesis explores how internet use shapes drug practices in both positive and negative ways. I focus upon the lives of people who engage in the recreational use of psychostimulants and hallucinogens (‘party drugs’) and their use of public internet forums where drugs are discussed through the exchange of asynchronous text-based messages (‘internet forums’). I pose the following question: How has internet use shaped drug practices among an Australian sample of people who use party drugs and participate in public internet forums?

This thesis was designed as a qualitatively driven mixed-methods project, comprising: observations of, and engagement with, 40 public internet forums where party drugs were discussed over an 18-month fieldwork period (2006–2008); an online survey of 837 party drug users who participated in online drug discussion; and 27 synchronous online interviews with a subset of the survey sample. My interpretations of these complementary data are informed by social constructionism, a critical perspective on social research, virtual and multi-sited ethnography, and a critique of mixed-methods research. Analyses are grounded in an understanding of three models of drug use: the pathology model, the harm reduction or public health model, and consumerism. Descriptive statistical analyses of survey data complement thematic and discourse analyses of interviewee texts and internet forum content.

Considering internet forums as information tools, I demonstrate that some internet forums enabled the consumption, production and dissemination of folk pharmacologies or ‘underground’ drug knowledges. These knowledges can be understood as forms of resistance against the dominant pathology model of illicit drug use. Considering internet forums as places, I show how most online forum users engaged in discursive strategies in order to present themselves as informed and responsible drug-using subjects, thereby rejecting the portrayal of drugs users as irrational, irresponsible and ignorant as inscribed by the pathology discourse. While the folk pharmacologies and micro-level normalisation and neutralisation strategies are not new phenomena in and of themselves, this thesis demonstrates that they are now being facilitated and accelerated by internet technologies. Considering the internet as a ‘way of being’ and internet forums as part of everyday life, I question the oft-stated claim that the internet facilitates anonymity and is therefore attractive to people who use drugs who are concerned about the potential stigma of being identified as a drug user. While anonymity was certainly understood as a general benefit of internet use, online anonymity was juxtaposed with the increasing convergence of online and offline social worlds. The more online and offline networks converged, the less informants felt able to discuss their own drug use in public internet forums.

This thesis adds to our understandings of folk pharmacologies, drug normalisation, the constructed delineation of online and offline worlds, and the use of internet methods in drug research. The findings are also relevant to drug policy and practice, including the facilitation of online peer-driven drug-user action, the use of online pill report databases, the regulation of internet content, and online drug trend monitoring. Many questions have also arisen from this thesis which form the outline of a proposed research program to continue efforts to understand drug practices in internet-saturated societies.

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