Author: Sam Brady, 29th July 2021

In my research, finding accessible sources of information has been really important, and this has been an even bigger concern during the pandemic. Whilst traditional archives and museums have been closed, I’ve needed to continue my research. Moreover, I was keen to connect to more potential interviewees for the oral history aspect of my project – finding suitable and willing interviewees is often harder than expected! Surprisingly, these two issues had the same solution. Thankfully, early on in my research I was put in contact with a number of Facebook groups about wheelchair sports, ran by and for ex-athletes and others with an interest in this history. These groups have provided great way to recruit new participants, been a fantastic resource for images I would otherwise have no access too, and overall are a wonderful way to understand this history in greater detail. However, I’ve noticed that these groups have almost served as a new type of community for ex-athletes whilst physical events could not take place. At this same time, the use of information on these groups raises some interesting questions about privacy, storage and sharing for research and archival purposes, due to the nature of social media platforms like Facebook. 

On October 27th, 2007, a Facebook group known as Wheelchair Sports' Veterans was established for retired wheelchair athletes to post their memories and achievements, as well as share any old photos taken at prior Games. Nearly seven years later, on February 10th, 2014, the group History of Wheelchair Racing was created. This group had a similar purpose, but (unsurprisingly) with a dedicated focus on the history of American wheelchair racing. Seemingly, both groups came about as people wanted to use social media to connect with each other and share stories about their chosen sports. However, activity in these groups can be fairly general purpose, as members will, for instance, post about current events in the world of wheelchair sport, share their own historic research/websites, and advertise video-based fitness or sports classes during the pandemic. Most importantly, these groups have acted almost like a Q&A page, allowing people to engage in discussions and ask questions about specific people or events.

Moreover, the topic focus of each group is relatively broad, including the sport specific pages. The History of Wheelchair Racing group, for instance, started to featured posts about other adaptive sports, despite its seemingly narrow scope. As a result, in December 2020, a new spin-off group was made, History of Adaptive Sports. One reason for this development was the popularity of posts about the Move United Hall of Fame nominations, which features individuals – athletes and contributors, which included administrators, coaches, or event directors - important to the history of adaptive sports. From the latter half of 2020, until early 2021, contributor and page admin Gregg Baumgarten worked to create digital plaques for the Hall of Fame entries and posted the biographies on the History of Wheelchair Racing group. This, in particular, was a wonderful way to learn more about the developmental history of these sports, with biographic information and personal achievements of a range of athletes highlighting the vast and rich history of these sports. These posts were moved to the History of Adaptive Sports page after its establishment, as this broader focus aligned with the range of people and histories in the hall of fame. Notably, commenting on the establishment of this new group Baumgarten wrote on December 13th, 2020:

This site could become a valuable resource for people researching the history.

Although, the availability of this history on Facebook is not limited to such groups. For instance, New Zealander and ex-Paralympic wheelchair racer Evan Clulee runs a community page titled History of Wheelchair Racing New Zealand. I contacted the page for my research, and after connecting with Evan, I was able to interview him for my research – bringing in a new geographic perspective which has been of great use for my understanding of these sports’ wider history. Regardless, the creation of multiple new groups, and the general frequency of posts across said groups, suggests there is a lot of enthusiasm around this history, and many are keen to share and learn. Furthermore, these groups arguably maintain their appeal as a type of communal experience, as members are able to connect - or reconnect - with each other in this digital space. This has been especially valuable during the pandemic, or simply due to the international nature of such sporting events, as social media facilitates virtual, global connections. Anecdotally, I’ve often seen interactions on posts between old friends in different cities, states or countries, as these posts become an easy way to reconnect. In fact, the interactive opportunity presented by social media potentially replicates the social and communal aspect that was so important to the early days of the Paralympics and other disability sporting events. These groups, in a way, recreate this important aspect of adaptive sports in the digital space. 

As mentioned, I have found these pages to be a wonderful resource for my research. When recruiting participants, for example, I was able to advertise my research or find contact details of those I already knew about. This has led me to a number of fantastic interviews with participants keen to share their stories. Further, there have been many great images shared on the groups, uploaded either from personal collections or shared from old issues of magazines like SPORTS N’ SPOKES. I even used these images in previous blogposts and presentations, highlighting how useful these visual sources are for researching this history. Furthermore, there are times where I have used these groups to directly ask questions about my research. Most recently, about a Swedish athlete named Lars Löfström, who I was unable to find much information on. I asked in the group about Löfström and his racing chairs, and thankfully, a commenter who knew him shared some fantastic details about adaptations he made to his racing equipment and the years he was active. In this sense, these groups give me a huge advantage in my research, as I can literally just ask about what is otherwise often hard-to-find information.

Yet, the use of these comments or visual sources posted on the group does present some potential issues in terms of quotation, accessibility, and retention. For example, do users consent for their comments or posts to be used in any capacity outside of Facebook? My oral history interviews require participants to consent to their data to be used, but Facebook posts do not come with said checks - although I personally normally message posters if I can draw on their comments, if I choose to use them. Those who approach these groups more casually, however, may not consider how others use content they posted. Furthermore, if I quote or reference a comment or post in my research, and someone wants to access it in the future, will they be able to? Unlike a traditional resource – books, articles, etc – the digital landscape can be easily altered or lost to the void of social media. Facebook comments or posts can be easily removed or edited and will be automatically removed if a user’s account is shut down. For future researchers, would this information be accessible? If Facebook disappeared overnight, or if one of these groups was deactivated, so too would these stories and information. And this issue is just in regard to Facebook as a platform – when thinking about broader ‘social media archiving,’ each platform, website and app presents its own considerations and challenges.

And this all said without evaluating the experience of using Facebook as an ‘archive.’ In looking at old posts for this blog, I found navigating these groups to be pretty infuriating – even finding the oldest post in a group is bizarrely hard to do. As well, the organisation and presentation of information is not intended for this type of historical or archival use. Therefore, there is a need to develop better tagging and organisational tools to make information more accessible - although this is an issue with Facebook’s design and algorithms, not individual groups. Searching and accessibility issues might impact their usefulness for newcomers to these groups – although groups such as History of Adaptive Sports do use hashtags to sort some posts into topics, suggesting a possible solution to some of these concerns. Vitally, these posts have legitimacy as historical resources in their own right, allowing individuals to share their stories in an accessible and social way. These concerns are ultimately not to comment on their value or content, but to consider the role of Facebook as a platform for the dissemination of historical information.

Digital archiving is a growing space and presents many enticing possibilities for the future of seemingly niche historical topics. Facebook and other social media platforms are already accessible and popular among many people, and so this presents an easy way for people to share their histories and ‘archive’ them in a more informal way. This additionally involves the community already part of these sports directly and avoids the formal context of a traditional archive. As well, these Facebook groups are certainly more accessible for those wanting to find this history, requiring nothing other than access to the website and group itself, as opposed to physical archival access. As noted, virtual collections are increasingly important in a digital world, where physical access cannot always be guaranteed. Yet, there may be concerns around this resource as a source information for ‘traditional’ academic work. Nevertheless, these groups have been an invaluable source of information for my research and present a wonderful and unique way in which this history becomes alive, becoming part-archive, and part-social network. 

If this topic interested you, I would recommended looking at this study by Katie Green and Kieron Niven:

However, there are many more conversations to have about this type of content, and available research. I am a newcomer to this topic, so I would be interested to hear from those more knowledgeable!

Links for the groups spoken about in the research are listed below. All are public, so I would encourage joining and learning more about the history of these sports, and their communities!