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  • The Internet and the Future of Sport History: A Brief Commentary
  • Holly Thorpe

The internet has a relatively short history. In November of 1969, the internet’s predecessor, the Arpanet, consisted of just two specifically designed communications computers located in Los Angeles and Palo Alto, California. Its initial users were scientists and technicians, particularly those with Department of Defense connections.1 But in the 1980s and 1990s the internet rapidly became a broadly accessed medium that, according to the Washington Post, began to rival the telephone and post office in importance.2 In 1993 there were only 130 websites in the world; today, there are more than 644 million active websites on the internet. Recent estimates suggested there were more than three billion internet users in the world in March of 2012—45 percent of whom were under the age of twenty-five years; Facebook boasted more than 800 million users; Twitter hosted 225 million accounts; and there had been more than one trillion video playbacks on YouTube by this date.3 Clearly, the internet and new social media have become an integral part of the personal and professional lives of many around the globe.

As the internet gained momentum, many expressed their skepticism of what these changes might mean for knowledge production and consumption. During the 2012 North American Society of Sport History (NASSH) conference in Berkeley, California, a session [End Page 127] entitled “The Wiki World of Sport History,” organized by Gary Osmond and Murray Phillips, highlighted some important considerations for sport historians. The session consisted of three papers from four scholars—Mike Cronin, Stephen Townsend and Gary Osmond, and Tara Magdalinski—who explored some of the possibilities and limitations, the allures and dangers of the World Wide Web and new social media for the field. Each of the presenters took care to highlight both the potential and perils of the internet and new social media for the production and consumption of sport history knowledge. The underpinning message seemed to be, however, that if used critically, reflexively, and creatively the internet might offer a valuable resource for sport historians and our students. In this research note I want to make three key points that build upon, and extend, some of the arguments made by the presenters in this session, as well as in Murray Phillips’ Maxwell L. Howell and Reet Howell International Address entitled “Storying the Sporting Past in the Digital Age: Multiple Histories of the Paralympic Movement” held earlier in the conference.

Electronic Sources and the Archiving of Virtual Artifacts

Let’s start with the basics. How do we find the sporting past in “cyberspace?” Typically, we begin with the Web’s many search engines, which often provide an overabun-dance of digital sources. Say, for instance, I type in the keywords “history,” “Olympics,” and “1936” into a basic Google search; in just .29 seconds I am presented with fourteen million “results” ranging from academic books to virtual museums to personal blogs. The openness of the Web means that our job of cataloguing and searching is becoming considerably more complex. As Michael O’Malley and Roy Rosenzweig quite rightly note, search engines “cannot tell one page from another or rank the number of hits in any but the crudest way; they cannot tell political Left from political Right, freshmen from grad students, professors from plumbers.”4 But, of course, with a little creativity and persistence, one can use search engines to turn up a great deal of information on the sporting past, not all of it what we might expect.

Websites, blogs, and other interactive forums can provide qualitative researchers with valuable insights into the thoughts and feelings of individuals and groups on an array of issues, ranging from the excitement of an upcoming sporting match, to debates surrounding a controversial sporting event. In my previous research, electronic sources have been an integral part of my transnational ethnography of snowboarding culture.5 Critically engaging online sources, such as niche sporting websites, blogs, and YouTube videos, in conversation with other sources (e.g., newspapers, television coverage, movies, flyers) and methods (e.g., interviews, participant-observations), helped deepen my understanding of snowboarding’s cultural complexities. More recently, I...


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pp. 127-135
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