Community and practice in two generations of online illicit drugs discussions

  • Peter Oskar Enghoff

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis examines the recent migration of online illicit drugs discussions from specialist discussion forums to mainstream social media platforms in order to reassess the current impact of online platforms on global illicit drugs trends. Specialist discussion forums have played an important role in the indigenous development and dissemination of illicit drugs practices since the 1990s, especially as platforms for online harm reduction. The mainstream social media platforms where online illicit drugs discussions are taking place today entail very different online environments with many more participants, and new research is thus needed in order to determine their impact on global illicit drugs trends. To address this, this thesis develops an analytical framework for comparing the development and dissemination of illicit drugs practices on two online discussion platforms - reddit, a mainstream social media platform where illicit drugs discussions have proliferated dramatically during the past decade, and Bluelight, an important example of the older, specialist discussion forums which were previously the main locations of such discussions. A quantitative methodology based on social network analysis and unsupervised learning is used to compare the social structure and topical contents of an extensive data set of user submissions gathered from these platforms. Structural and semantic features of this data are brought together in an analysis of the social embedding of the online development of illicit drugs practices, drawing on Etienne Wenger's community of practice framework to provide a theoretical account of the relationship between social structures and the development of practice. The findings indicate that the development and dissemination of illicit drugs practices known to take place on Bluelight and similar specialist discussion forums is embedded in a particular online social environment characterised by community-like interaction and participation, and that this does not reflect the interaction and participation on reddit. Correspondingly, the findings also indicate a lower prevalence of discussions of practice on reddit. This suggests that illicit drugs discussion on reddit has a limited capacity to facilitate indigenous development and dissemination of illicit drugs practices, including online harm reduction, and will thus not impact global illicit drugs trends in the same way as older specialist discussion forums. However, the much more exposed discussions on reddit have a different potential to impact on widely adopted discursive and cultural representations of illicit drugs.
Date of Award1 Aug 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJudith Aldridge (Supervisor), Lisa Williams (Supervisor) & Reka Solymosi (Supervisor)


  • reddit
  • Bluelight
  • Social network analysis
  • Digital text analysis
  • Harm reduction
  • Online communities
  • Illicit drugs
  • Social media

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