The Vanishing History of Roller Derby

(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.


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