Alcoholics Anonymous is now more accessible than ever. But will the Internet compromise the brand?
IN 2004, FOURTEEN YEARS after the suicide attempt she calls her rock bottom, Carol O., a government worker and recovering alcoholic, came down with an unidentified condition. It attacked her central nervous system, leaving her suddenly debilitated. “My whole world collapsed,” she tells me over coffee in her Ottawa townhouse. “I lost my speech, couldn’t write, couldn’t keyboard. Coordination completely went.” Most worrying, her regular meetings at Alcoholics Anonymous, crucial to her sobriety, became almost inaccessible. After months of trying to adapt — she used plastic letters to communicate at meetings, and members even met at her house — she discovered she could participate by email from home, through the program’s online inter-group.
Partially mobile now, she still does the bulk of her recovery work in two AA-sanctioned email groups, in addition to attending meetings in person once or twice a week. “I’m actually working my program harder in online AA,” she explains. She now spends four or five hours a day reading and responding to emails, sent by hundreds of fellow alcoholics from all over: from the nearby homes of other ill or disabled people; from overseas, where members are travelling, working, or deployed on military service; and from sparsely populated communities in Canada’s North, where addiction is common but treatment is difficult, if not impossible, to find. “I like having to think about being an English teacher in China: she’s maybe three months sober and faced with a New Year’s celebration — is it rude to turn down a drink?” she says. “Or a worker on an oil rig: everyone’s partying at night, there are no meetings, and he can’t leave. I used to travel a lot; I can’t do that now. But this opens up the world.”
On December 7, 2006, US Court of Appeals judge Richard Posner signed in to Second Life (a virtual world in which users interact through self-designed avatars, make transactions, and own property) to promote his new book on constitutional rights in the wake of 9/11. The event took place in a Grecian amphitheatre, where Posner’s avatar, a computer-generated representation of himself, was greeted by dozens more, including a woman with cat ears, an anthropomorphic raccoon, and a grey alien in a helmet. During the Q&A portion, users were more interested in virtual property rights than in American affairs. Linden Lab, creator of Second Life, has avoided drafting a legally binding constitution for its users, which has resulted in an essentially anarchic society: hackers can steal virtual goods that have real-world monetary value, free of punishment. Posner answered questions generously. As the session ended and audience members lined up to have him autograph virtual copies of his book with a digitized signature, firebombs began raining down on the venue, in a simulated terror attack initiated by a Second Life prankster. “I’m afraid I’ll have to go,” Posner exclaimed, “before I’m blown up.”
For AA, that world is vast. The foremost method for treating alcoholism, it counts over two million members in over 150 countries, and is the standard course of action recommended by doctors and mandated by courts. (In the US, where membership is highest, it is prescribed in 94 percent of private and public treatment and rehab centres; the concept of the twenty-one-day residential treatment is based on AA’s recommendations.) After seventy-six years, it is both a spiritual institution and a powerful brand, so its expansion to the web in the mid-’90s, when it first developed online bulletin boards, seemed natural. Maintaining its integrity on digital terrain, however, has proven to be a different story.