Silk Road, infamously known as the eBay of drugs, is back. But will the site ever be the same?
The majority of Americans will probably never buy an illicit recreational drug over the Internet. We have made our peace with the rhythmic intake of those already allowable: caffeine in the morning, alcohol in the evening, and sugar or nicotine at all points in between. Yet, the story of Silk Road has become a peculiar news fixation.
Silk Road became a spectacle largely because of how similar its deviancy was to the quotidian bustling of the non-deviant. That scrolling through a list on a website and selecting an item to buy could have such dramatically different social and legal interpretations made the story of Silk Road a naughty pleasure for people who will never buy a drug online to read about. And the more of an Internet legend it became, the more certain its fate.
Last week, Silk Road came back online, triumphantly overwriting the FBI’s landing page “This Hidden Site Has Been Seized” to proclaim the site has “Risen Again.” The site’s founder Ross Ulbricht remains imprisoned and will attend a bail hearing on November 21. Australian reporter Eileen Ormsby estimates the newly re-opened Silk Road is operating at around a hundredth the number of listings.
After fame, it’s hard to imagine Silk Road becoming anything other than a tourist destination, like Bourbon Street or Craigslists’ Missed Connections page, places people go for the pleasures of voyeurism and defanged repudiation of their own lifestyles.
For those who do venture back, there is no certainty about what sort of environment they’ll be entering. It’s just as likely the service will become a data trap infested with law enforcement, or else it’ll remain a desolate silhouette version of itself, dampened by the self-perpetuating exploitation merchants selling the most obvious good to people on stunt-buying trips.
After fame, it’s hard to imagine Silk Road becoming anything other than a tourist destination, like Bourbon Street or Craigslists’ Missed Connections page, places people go for the pleasures of voyeurism and defanged repudiation of their own lifestyles, where they can feel safe without actually being obliged to a community that would need them to renounce some part of what they are.
The news media plays an essential part in creating the narrative character of these magically alien places, fixing their identity in an impersonal atmosphere instead of a complex series of human relationships. It creates the illusion that networks as complicated and open as Silk Road, which both sold illicit drugs and hosted a comprehensive and welcoming drug addiction support community in its forums, can be understood through observation rather than participation.
Acting out this uneasy illusion through media consumption instead of forming human relationships or just trying a drug, ensures a certain stability for the status quo, in which it becomes noble, wild, and daring to defy laws of murky origin for the sake of personal experience. It creates a mean against which deviations can be measured, identified, and contained.
In the spectacle surrounding Silk Road’s dissolution and revival, one can see a grand schism the Internet has wrought onto culture, both a system that can be used socially with little care for what media objects that process leaves behind, and one that can be used anti-socially, as a pure distribution channel for objects. The more attention drawn from those who intend only to watch, the more exposed the communities they’ve gathered to watch become, and the more vulnerable to punitive action.
By following the attention trail of the things that scandalize us, those things we’re vulnerable enough to obsess over but not brave enough to participate in, we become snitches against those living out our fantasies. And this too is comforting, by reinforcing the truth that those fantasies come with to high a price, making the compromises we’ve made with our present conditions seem rational and necessary to preserve our own safety.
It’s thrilling to imagine there are people less afraid of the law than us, and a calming truth to see the enforcement mechanisms that make those humble acts seem thrilling still in place, ready to act at the slightest uptick of traffic.
Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.