The Vanishing History of Roller Derby

Posted: by aoanla [Source]
Tags:  articles dnn in the news international international derby open wftda

(Whilst we've been concerned by archiving the history of roller derby for several years, this particular article was inspired by the following threads on twitter: )

Modern Roller Derby is a product of, and inescapably shaped by, the Internet, as is much of culture produced since the mid-1990s. Whilst this has positive effects, it also can have profoundly negative ones, especially regarding the transient and ephemeral nature of our cultural records and history.

For most of time, records have been made with physical marks (scratches in clay, ink on paper, papyrus or animal skin, and so on; or even the physical structure of vinyl records or CDs), and mostly permanently. Secret physical records are kept secret by locking them in a safe, rarely by encrypting or enciphering them.

As information technology became more prevalent, over the 20th century, and predominant over the early 21st, more and more of our records - which are our history for future generations (or even ourselves a few years later) - have no physical, human-readable representation. Documents, and photos, and forum posts, are patterns of bytes on a server which we often don't even own, or have direct access to. Secret documents are encrypted patterns of bytes on a server we don't own, and are completely unreadable if the key to decrypt them is lost.

As a result, it is now much harder to maintain a historical record of the recent past - the recent culture - than it was even two decades ago. This worrying phenomenon is sometimes referred to as a Digital Dark Age , and we should be more concerned about it than we are. In previous periods, some level of archiving and historical preservation happened "for free" - if you don't deliberately destroy a piece of paper, it will last a fairly long time. In the modern period, records from that old forum your league had before you updated are gone forever unless you deliberately copied them and saved them elsewhere.

Roller Derby's entire modern culture is stored mostly on electronic documents - there are very few physical artefacts, outside of bout programmes, to cover the history of the sport. (It's also important to preserve those physical artefacts - and projects like the UK-based National Museum of Roller Derby are working on that.) We currently have volunteer-run operations preserving some statistical records, for example, Flat Track Stats is an open repository of all the bout scores, and bout stats, uploaded to it, and this is a more important social and cultural role than the ratings and rankings it produces for subsets of those stats. However, these are both volunteer-run, and patchy in their coverage: for various reasons*, much of Latin America ignores FTS and does not upload their records there, so we don't even have a good historical record for games in Latin America (Mexico maintains its own website for game results, which does not sync with FTS, for some reason). Similarly, attempts to record the status of leagues across the world, but is also very much dependant on engagement by leagues and the community itself. (And it's not clear to us how well it records historical changes.) There are also several other sites which have tried/are trying to do a similar thing - derbyposition, for example, and fragmentation of effort here makes things much harder.

In the next page, we'll talk about the harder problem of recording our shared cultural heritage - the stories of Roller Derby.

*The most important reasons being lack of volunteer effort in some regions, because:

  • FTS still talks about, and displays, mostly WFTDA branding on itself, even though it takes records from all flat-track derby, not just WFTDA-member, or even WFTDA-rules, leagues (the MRDA branding, which it also has, is not visible on the front page - and only WFTDA is actually mentioned in the site's description of itself). Several leagues we've talked to in the past were under the impression that they simply couldn't use FTS if they weren't WFTDA members, or if they were, they couldn't use it for anything but their A teams.
  • FTS doesn't have a rating or ranking scheme for Latin America. FTS's popularity in Europe is driven by (ironically, in contrast to the above) the fact that it provides a ranking and rating for all European teams, regardless of their WFTDA membership or if they're an A or B (or even C) team. This is the carrot part of the FTS system, and it simply doesn't exist (officially) for Latin America.
Strictly, it does, as SRDRank is a rating and ranking system for the entire world, using FTS's records; but we're not anywhere near as visible as FTS, and we are acutely aware that the SRDRank site needs updates after resources devoted to it were diverted to the Roller Derby World Cup for several months. Lack of resources is a problem everywhere, sadly.

Recording Culture and Stories

Statistics are easy to record.The situation for more complex cultural records - forum posts, discussion threads, the entire contents of online magazines or journals - is both more subtle, and also more difficult to resolve. Members of the Roller Derby community who joined post-2014 may not even recognise the name "DNN" - Derby News Network, but that titan of Roller Derby reporting and bout streaming was a central part of the Roller Derby community for the seven whole years - almost two fifths of the entire time Roller Derby has existed - before it died. We're extremely lucky that the owners, and community, came together to keep the servers holding the site running - albeit with reduced resources - and to archive its valuable historical records. Because of this effort, we can still, for example, look back at how Texas fared against Detroit back in 2008 (and their rosters at the time!).

For public sites, there is at least the hope that you can pretend it's someone else's problem - the Internet Archive exists explicitly to combat the loss of history due to the ephemeral nature of websites by trawling the web and taking archival, historical snapshots of sites it can access. This isn't perfect: the Archive can't check every site every day - or even every site every year; and it tries to focus on the websites with the most interest and links, as they're likely to be the most important. But it does give a certain minimum insurance against total loss - something, albeit possibly a tiny fragment, will possibly survive, even if you don't care to take precautions yourself. When the next site with a huge chunk of Roller Derby culture dies - and sites die all the time - we may not be so lucky.

We're taking some steps to combat this, starting with a small thing today: we're working on an archive, to be public, of Roller Derby collective culture - the stories that make up the history of the sport from 2001 onwards - collected from the community itself. You can submit your stories to our Google forms - we have one version in English and one in Spanish for more accessibility - in any language you want, and about any event in roller derby you can relate. (We're especially interested in making sure we get stories from the early days of the sport before they are lost, and from regions and leagues who aren't often covered... but all stories are welcome.) In the near future, we'll be talking about how we'll make this archive available.

In the next page, we'll talk about the issues recording the history of Roller Derby's governance.

Recording Our Sport's Governance & Transparency

Much of the existing Roller Derby cultural history isn't even public - it's in private silos across the internet. The majority of governing bodies in Roller Derby maintain almost entirely private spaces, as do the majority of leagues. (Even when those spaces are not private, the use of restrictive copyright may also inhibit preservation - as several digital archiving projects have discovered; this is another reason why using better, more open licenses - Creative Commons, or otherwise - enriches the community.) We can trust that WFTDA, or MRDA, say, keeps a full and complete backup of all of their forum discussions. But we have to trust, because we have no way to have an independent record of any of that contents - both because of technological walls (the forums are private, password-protected spaces), and legal ones (the WFTDA, etc, NDAs prevent public disclosure of those contents by anyone who does have access to them). This is not to pick on WFTDA alone, as we're hopeful is clear - all Roller Derby governing bodies have this problem to various extents, even when they've committed to more open and transparent communication. For example, UKRDA has made some positive steps towards this - making minutes of Board Meetings public - and have shown interest in working towards further transparency, but they're still working towards them.

We should note that problems of transparency have dogged many Sports Governing Bodies in the last few years - and there are calls (and reports) from those in the wider sports governance community for all SGBs to become as transparent as other democracies already are. WFTDA** does do better than a great many SGBs; but some SGBs are particularly opaque (FIFA comes to mind).

Transparency is sometimes hard, but it doesn't have to be this way. The British Government, which has not been an exemplar for good transparency over most of its existence, still manages to publish and archive a completely public record of all debates in Parliament*, since around 1800. This Hansard system is also used by many other democracies across the World - New Zealand, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Singapore - and other similar systems are used by, for example, the United States of America (in fact, the Constitution of the USA requires that Congress keep such public records), and the European Parliament. In all of these cases, these records required a lot of effort to generate - they're hand-stenotyped transcriptions of verbal debates, with post-editing for readability and references - but because they exist, we know much more about the history of those institutions, their culture, and how this changed over time. (And because they're almost all public, copyright-free records, other copies can be made of them, so the risk of them being lost to the world is negligible.)

By contrast, almost all of the debate in Roller Derby happens online, in text conversations on forums and chat rooms. Making available an "MRDA Hansard", or a "WFTDA Congressional Record" is almost trivial - the data already exists in written form, it just needs to be published somewhere, and with the correct level of access for the community. (We'd argue that if national governments can manage to make their debates Public to the World, it shouldn't be a big deal for any Governing Body of a sport whose founding ethic is "For The Skater, By The Skater").

There is obviously a trade-off here between transparency and the right to privacy. All organisations need private spaces - for grievance committees, embargoed information from other sources, and so on - but they need much fewer private spaces than they often create for themselves. Organisations also need to protect the rights of individuals to privacy of personal information - for example, any organisation in Europe needs to comply with the GDPR on this topic - and this will require some secrecy in some areas.

It's also important to note that just because a space is publicly accessible does not mean that it has to be open to public's input - only Members of Parliament may speak in the British House of Commons, but the entire world can see (and hear, nowadays) what they say. In the case of roller derby, records around 1800 leagues playing under WFTDA/MRDA rules - even though the majority are not members of either organisation, they do have some moral rights to know what the community has coming for it, in return for the legitimacy they lend the organisations merely by adopting those rules. (Transparency can also be a good way to engage your community in the present, as well as allowing your record to be preserved in the past!)

With more of our history and community in the public domain (both visible, and licensed to distribute more rights), maintaining our history becomes a shared possibility for the entire roller derby community. We at the Scottish Roller Derby blog are also looking a hosting some smaller-scale public resources to help encourage transparency and community - we'll be writing more about the technology side of this in the near future.

*The British Government also, since 2000/2002 commits to making a lot more of its internal documents and records available to the public of the world, via the Freedom of Information Acts (2000 - England & Wales, 2002 - Scotland), after consultation started in 1997 ("Your Right To Know"). Many other governments have committed to similar levels of free access to the public - not just their own citizens, but the world; Sweden may hold the record for first raising this issue in 1766!

**WFTDA deserves credit, for example, for the amount of material it does publish, when out of NDA, on officiating the rules; for making its rating calculations completely public (something MRDA does not do, by contrast); for (albeit without a good interface other than sending an email) making bout stats for all Sanctioned Games available to anyone who asks.