The First Sober Social Network

By Jamie Brickhouse 05/18/11

Intherooms.com allows addicts and alcoholics across the world to fellowship from the comfort of their living rooms.

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Livin' On the Edge: Ron and Kenny with Steven Tyler

Not long ago, addicts and alcoholics seeking friendship and  fellowship had to travel to off-site meetings at scheduled times. But a hot social-networking site named "In the Rooms" is allowing thousands of recovering addicts to confer digitally, without ever leaving their homes. Nicole, a 44-year-old former addict who works in education in Melbourne, Australia, found her first sponsor Mark in the site's virtual rooms. Santosh, a 61-year-old A.A. member from Mangalore, India who works in the wind power generation industry, has made over 10,000 friends there. A couple in Long Island, New York, both members of N.A. who met 20 years ago in early sobriety while in other relationships, reconnected and fell in love in the rooms. But none of these these far-flung addicts met each other in twelve-stop meetings. Instead, they hooked up in the biggest recovery room in the world—intherooms.com.

ITR, as it’s commonly known, was launched in October of 2008 and quickly became the largest recovery-related website in the world. Since then, it has been so popular that when the site's jovial co-founders—60-year-old Ron Tannebaum and 58-year-old Ken Pomerance—posted an April Fools joke this year announcing that it had been bought by Facebook for $22 million, more than a few members believed them.

With over 140,000 members in 17 different fellowships (including Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous, Emotions Anonymous and Self Mutilators Anonymous) hailing from 50-plus countries, ITR represents 405,500 years of recovery. The April Fools prank reflects the good-natured humor of Tannebaum and Pomerance—friends for 40 years who have both had successful careers in sales and marketing, and have each been sober for over 30 years.

“Kenny walked into my office and said ‘What do you think about a Facebook for recovery?’” Tannebaum explains of the light bulb moment that lead to the website's creation. “We started working on it that day.” With $300,000 in seed money from 10 friends, they launched six months later. Tannebaum and Pomerance set out to create a global social network for recovery that transcends the boundaries of all 12-step fellowships while maintaining the integrity of each by hosting individual fellowships groups on their site. “We believe that an addiction is an addiction, so we wanted everyone to feel included, no matter what their addiction was,” says Tannebaum.

“We chose In The Rooms as our name because it’s all inclusive and used in all 12-step fellowships,” adds Pomerance. “We didn’t want to limit our member base by only using words like ‘sober’ and ‘clean.’”

The main goal of ITR, according to its founders, is to help remove shame and stigma and put a positive face on recovery. “We want people and their families to stand up and yell, ‘We are in recovery and we are proud of it!’’ Pomerance says. (The other purpose Tannebaum and Pomerance wanted ITR to serve was to act as a virtual lifeline for people across the country who don't have regular access to meetings.)

While ITR isn’t the only social networking site out there for the sober set, it’s the only one not aligned with another organization. Onerecovery.com, founded in 2007, is now partnered with AETNA while sober24.com, which launched in 2000, is a service of Hazelden Foundation and friendsofbillw.net, which has been around since in 2006, is aligned with A.A. Also, these sites are geared mostly for alcohol and drug addicts and don’t have the global reach of ITR. According to a recent comparison of online behavior from Compete.com, ITR’s monthly unique visitors were over 88,500 as compared to sober24.com’s 3,636, onerecovery.com’s 1,660, and friendsofbillw.net’s 998.

Interventionist Ken Seeley, who has appeared frequently on A&E’s Intervention, has been a vocal fan of the site since the first day it went live. “For people who feel slightly  gun shy about showing their faces at meetings, ITR provides a safe entry into the recovery movement,” he says. “It's an excellent gateway to sobriety.”

That’s how Nicole from Melbourne used the site. After 20 years clean from prescription pills, her daily drinking was having a noxious effect on her life as she was grappling with the departure and then death of her partner of 12 years. She stumbled on ITR while scouring the Internet for help and began “talking” via IM and PM to four members who had welcomed her when she signed up. “They 12-stepped me into N.A. over a period of a month or so by gently showing me what worked for them,” she says. She has been clean for over a year now.

Yet addicts needn’t be falling down a slippery slope in order to find ITR useful. The near-bottomless well of web-based groups for sober folks run the gamut from “Jews in the Rooms” (362 members) to “Vegans in Recovery” (50 members) to “Star Wars Anonymous” (20 members). And the “Burning Desire” button, located below every member’s avatar, can be turned on when a member is near relapsing or  needs help at a difficult moment. Clicking it sends out an All Points Bulletin to every member who can then respond to offer support, guidance, and suggestions.

For Linda, a 56-year-old stay-at-home wife who’s been clean for 22 years, ITR has been an oasis in the recovery desert of her current home, Saudi Arabia. “Sadly, women have a difficult time of recovery here,” she says. “For most, to avoid family shame, addiction is either not addressed at all, or considered a mental illness. I only know about one women’s meeting and it was in a women’s prison.” Because of the huge time difference, she leaves PMs via ITR’s forums to stay connected with old recovery buddies and to meet new friends. Two of those new online friends even came to her 20th anniversary, which she celebrated in Utah .