The distance skating scene: a miniature market oligarchy

To fully describe the scene, I probably need more than one post. Not only would a single post for that be too long, but also I would find it hard to keep it coherent. I’ve started compartmentalizing the whole thing by first of all writing my thoughts just on what the sport in question is (here). The conclusion of that piece was that we should be talking about a “distance skating” (not “LDP” or “distance skateboarding”) scene, because the ethic of the events seems to be more congruent with an endurance/distance sport ethic than with skateboarding. The fact that quad skating is also accepted as a discipline in major events corroborates to the notion that skateboarding is a secondary, though significant, influence on the scene.

Introduction

In this post, I want to outline the main groups of actors of the scene and their relationships, and to map out a plan for future posts. To do so, I will use an abstract model, a metaphor, to visualize the scene. In this case, my model is “miniature market oligarchy.” Is this model appropriate? I think it is, but like every other model, it leaves a few things out and makes too much of others. My goal is not to build a definitive model, but to evoke relevant concepts, which I can use to structure and communicate my observations. If you feel that the metaphor “miniature market oligarchy” obscures or overemphasizes crucial details, please do not hesitate to tell me in the comment section.

What follows is not documentary research. My sources are the material linked in the text and my own impressions after six years of observing the scene. It is a hopefully coherent opinion that the reader can evaluate for herself.

One more thing before I set out: I aim to make a descriptive, non-normative evaluation to begin with. Please notice that I won’t be arguing that any actor, activity, or outcome is good or bad.1 The plan is to make value judgments in following posts.

Three spheres, insulated

The distance skating scene (DSS) is, in my view, an insulated social world that includes all the main spheres and dynamics one sees in society. It has a body of civilians (the regular skaters, athletes, high-spending enthusiasts etc.), market organizations (the companies) and a governing body (the IDSA). Also, it has a public space where members of the DSS meet and discuss (social media platforms). This space is also where the companies communicate their products and the governing body announces events or regulations. So far, the “market” part of the model should be straightforward and agreeable.2

The DSS is remarkably insulated from external influence; at least that’s my impression. Legitimate criticism of false marketing claims and sham products leaves companies and skaters alike entirely unfazed. Relevant academic knowledge and improvements on similar products located in other markets are completely ignored. In a sense, the DSS inhabits a universe of its own. This insulation may not be that exceptional; indeed, it may just be a common characteristic of every social world (or “scene”) created around a serious leisure activity, e.g., a sport.3 At any rate, the fact that the scene is populated by a small number of geographically separated individuals, whose only means of communication, and therefore the scene’s only way of articulating itself as a “community,” is by and large just two Facebook groups and a forum, indicates that some insulation is to be expected. Controlled group membership further reinforces the insulation. I will come back to this, but for now the designation “miniature” hopefully also makes sense.

Interactions

The three groups of actors interact with each other in a number of ways: offline, in group rides and events; online, privately; and online, publicly. The overwhelming majority of interactions, because of the geographic separateness of the actors, is public and online and takes place within three centralized social media venues (two on Facebook and one forum).4 The venues collectively comprise 7000 users (albeit with significant overlap, we can assume) and they are all administered by former or current IDSA staff members.5

This is crucial: these three online groups mediate all important public interactions among and between individual participants and market actors. These interactions include: promotions by companies (directly, or indirectly) towards consumers; quality control and product ideas from skaters towards the companies (intentionally, or not). Marketing within those groups is orders of magnitude more productive than trying to reach consumers through more traditional means of advertising, so the importance which the groups hold for the companies cannot be overestimated. I will return to this in the future.

Other interactions include: the IDSA’s own promotions, announcements on events and regulations (public, online); coordination and negotiations between the IDSA and the companies (private); deals between companies and sponsored athletes/influencers (private); and countless private individual communications of less significance.

Communicative constitution

I will make a short point about how fundamental communication is in shaping the scene, before I talk about control over the DSS. Scholars maintain that “organization emerges in and is sustained and transformed by communication.”6 Public interaction-communication in the DSS social media can and does constitute the scene itself, because of the geographic separateness of the members. As far as the majority of the private individuals is concerned, that is the scene. These forums shape the social world in which they participate. The meaning and ethic of the sport, the performance goals and standards, the values, norms and language of the scene, are all shaped by and within these channels. The heavy reliance of participants, and hence of the scene itself, on the three groups administered by former or current IDSA members, cannot be stressed enough. The separateness of the individuals, along with their small number and the lack of other established networks (particularly after the disappearance of the Silverfish forum, in the wake of which community leaders had the opportunity to assemble their respective members under their own tents), render the groups vital, synonymous even, to the DSS.

How do individuals affiliated formally and informally with the IDSA intervene in communication? By employing their gravitas, reputation and status as important scene members. Consider for instance the admiration for James Peters, widely considered “the godfather of LDP,” or for Andrew Andras, a preeminent figure of the sport. When conversations in the groups take a turn away from the mainstream, members with elevated status intervene and re-calibrate the conversation. Those who veered away take note and, dreading conflict with orthodox members waiting for a signal in readiness to let loose and discipline trespassers,7 bring themselves back in line.8 Other interventions include promotions of sponsored products, company gatekeeping and product placement; all of which can be construed as unintentional, but their effectiveness for, and influence on, the public is indisputable. Prestige and gravitas shape communication the way gravity shapes planets, to use another metaphor.

I will come back to scene discourses in the future, but for now suffice it to say that commanding voices steer the DSS in the orbit of the IDSA. The prestige of these scenesters is, after all, what ultimately draws private individuals to the aforementioned platforms.

Oligarchy

So, the only social space where the scene exists, apart from events such as the IDSA’s Ultraskate, is these three groups (see also “Ultraskate amidst a pandemic“). The IDSA claims to represent the DSS and to be the governing body of distance skating (see here). A handful of individuals, who as former and current IDSA staffers obviously share the goals of the IDSA,9 have also absolute control of the only platforms which the scene uses. Precisely this is the impetus to add the designation “oligarchy” to the “miniature market” model. Were this a full-scale society, the analogy would be that the government controls all the media, all the telecommunications and all public events and gatherings. Further, it has total control of membership. It has the final say on who’s in and who’s out, who’s a citizen and who’s not, who can speak and what can be said (and it uses it at its own discretion e.g., see here and here). It obviously has the power to appoint itself, and remain indefinitely, the de facto governing body, whether others would like to try something different with the sport or not. The persons involved with the IDSA are not electable, nor accountable to anyone and their positions are not revocable.10

The IDSA sets the rules of the sport and has a gatekeeper role in the community. Hence, it is in a position to steer the sport in a direction of its choice (within realistic limits). Like any government, it sets the environment for consumer/producer relations and the playing field for brands. It has at least some power to control, with a semblance of impartiality, which brands can promote their products and a lot of control over which ones have good reputation.11 The IDSA also has every reason to share strategic goals with the brands active in the scene (the latter being sponsors for its events, to name just one), which could potentially create market distortions (though I’m not saying it does). At any rate, this should give pause to “invisible hand” liberals: the conditions for a free market are not met. I will return to this in the future, when I ask what the interests of the brands might be.

Conclusion

In sum, the DSS relies existentially on social media communication. The social media networks, administered by former and current board and staff members, are under the IDSA’s total control. The IDSA has put forth a claim to represent the DSS, a claim which can shape, in a very real, material sense, its object, the DSS, through communication.12 And it puts that claim forth with absolute powers over the DSS: it accepts that claim on the DSS’s behalf. The IDSA represents the scene, because it says it does. In doing so, it takes control over the market environment within the scene. It is conceivable also that it is in close cooperation with the companies. Membership in the scene is solely within the IDSA’s purview. The IDSA itself is, as far as we know, as undemocratic as the DSS/social world it constitutes. For all these reasons, I believe “miniature market oligarchy” is an apt description.


In this post, I explained how the IDSA is in a position to instrumentalize the DSS for its own private ends, should it wish to and if the skaters are not vigilant. In the future I intend to probe further the relationship between the IDSA and the companies. I have some notions about possible strategic goals the IDSA may have and about how the companies avoid overstepping too much in each other’s share of the small market. I wonder whether the companies have formed a cartel-like structure and, if they have, how to show this to you, the reader. Also, I’m fascinated by certain discourses in the scene, such as the “support the small companies13 discourse, which reminds me of adoration for independent music labels. I think that ought to be a separate piece.


1. When something is undemocratic, it does not necessarily follow that it is tyrannical. At least in theory, oligarchs can be benevolent, enlightened leaders. Whether that’s the case here is not within the scope of this essay.

2. I intended to use the word “capitalist” instead, but that word evokes also productive forces, such as labor, and that over-complicates things. In “market,” there’s mainly buyers and sellers, so that’s good enough.

3. These terms are loans from scholar literature on sport, artistic, political, etc. activities that bring people together in social worlds (or “scenes,” or “communities”), each with their own norms, values and dynamics. I talked a bit more about that in the previous post in this series. I recommend The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner No More by Robinson et al., if you’re keen.

4. A number of users are on other platforms (such as Twitter and Instagram, where interactions are less centralized, and Reddit, where a DSS subreddit does not exist) and I assume that only a small number of this subset never visits the main venues to get the pulse of the scene. Therefore, I consider the content (i.e., discussions, group knowledge and language) on other platforms as a reflection of the core, centralized content, so these less centralized interactions are orbiting the main venues and are of less importance for my abstract little model.

5. Screenshots: facebook group admins, Pavedwave admin, IDSA staff page, former IDSA.

6. Heath, R.L., Johansen, W., Vásquez, C. and Schoeneborn, D. (2018). Communication as Constitutive of Organization (CCO). In The International Encyclopedia of Strategic Communication (eds R.L. Heath and W. Johansen). https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119010722.iesc0024

7. Context of screenshot: A member had asked in the Facebook group for unused discount codes for GBomb. That instigated bullying by a mob against that person. The screenshot is from one such post.

8. James had the foresight to delete from “his” forum (his own wording) one of the most pertinent examples of this kind of conversation, the case against Bennett. James’s contribution was not content-full enough for me to include it in my abridged version of that conversation (it was a mere restatement of his adoration for the truck), but it was a prime example of what I’m describing here. I’ll be keeping an eye for other examples.

9. Which is true, even if we assume they can perfectly separate their professional and personal relationships from their group admin responsibilities. This capitalist structure might be a miniature, but there’s still space for what would be deemed “conflict of interests” and “revolving doors,” if it were not so insulated from real-world knowledge.

10. If you, the reader, know whether the IDSA holds internal elections for the various positions and responsibilities, please let me know. I’ve found no reference of the sort on its website or elsewhere. As a matter of fact, the organization’s statute is missing and it is unclear how the organization should be categorized.

11. It could do so by, for instance, promoting the latter through its staffers’ personal accounts, or by means of product placement (in which case it’s impossible to know if it was intentional).

12. Every claim to represent an object constitutes that object. The extent to which it succeeds depends on whether the claim is accepted, and that depends on the relative power between the claim maker and the audience. Very illuminating, and accessible, is the Representative Claim by Michael Saward.

13. Context of screenshot: A member had asked in the Facebook group for unused discount codes for GBomb. Other members, such as the one in the screenshot, accused the aforementioned of greed. Incidentally, not only is it absurd to accuse people of greed for asking about codes, but it is not even factually correct that GBomb does not offer them. It’s right on its website.

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