Now and then there are shortsighted decisions companies make that seem innocuous internally, but when announced, end up causing a massive ripple effect that can turn their customers away for good. On Friday, the Internet Movie Database’s (IMDb) statement on the decision to shut down their message boards might join Netflix’s “Qwikster”, Starbucks’s “Race Together” cups, and Microsoft’s “AI Twitter Bot” as another entrant on an ever growing list of business initiatives that totally misinterpret their audience’s interests.
It’s true the toxicity of content seen on IMDb’s boards is an unacceptable embarrassment to the site. It’s also true that between throwaway posts from trolls, there’s been a wide wealth of valuable dialogue exchanged among passionate film fans that help further our collective interpretation of different films. Some of these posts are simple questions from people who didn’t understand a plot point but other posts can be unique interpretations of film that can make us look at a work in an entirely different way. Regardless of how enjoyable the experience is, what can’t be disputed is that for over 25 years, IMDb’s message boards have served as the Internet’s premier agora to hold conversation and debate on the art of filmmaking.
IMDb’s decision to shut down the boards isn't just woefully shortsighted; it’s degrading to the entire film industry. If you think this is hyperbole, I’d ask you to consider the following three points:
1. The Message Boards Are the Best Part of the Site.
If you are anything like me, one of the first things you do after viewing a film is check IMDb to see what everyone else is saying about it. This is a common practice for film fans, and even people in the industry, to gauge the general temperament surrounding a movie. It doesn’t matter how good or bad a film is, and in actuality, sometimes the worst off a film is the more fun it is to check the film’s board. For instance, take a look at 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine board and soak in all those posts about how awful people thought Deadpool was. Don’t think for a minute many of those comments weren’t considered when producing last year’s Deadpool film because the reason why it was such a hit was that it responded to that very criticism.
Of course IMDb has other functions, such as being the primary database of all things film. But the truth is that today when you search for a film online, the top results include links to show times, the film’s wiki page, Rotten Tomatoes listing, and whatever latest news is related to it. Unless you are searching for detailed information, chances are you don’t need to visit IMDb anymore if you can’t access the one part of the site that made it unique from other websites. One of the greatest things about the message boards is that regardless of how old a film is, there was always a dedicated corner of the web reserved for discussion of whatever you saw.
Sometimes days would past by before someone responded to a post, but no matter how obscure a film was, there was always a response. Back in IMDb’s early days during the 90s, it was one of the first experiences ever where I felt part of the larger online community in a digitally connected world. Part of my fear is that now unless a film is new or popular, there may not be a place to come together and discuss it online. For example, I saw Child’s Play 3 for the 17th time the other night and took notice of how intricate the opening sequence was. It never struck me before, but when I checked IMDb, there was a three-page thread on it from others that also took notice to it. From this I learned some interesting stuff about a ridiculous old movie I love that I never knew before and wouldn’t have known without reading through threads. This kind of thing won’t happen without IMDb’s board.
2. Social Media Isn’t a Proper Substitute
IMDb’s official statement mentioned that more customers have migrated to their assortment of social media channels to engage as a reason why the boards have outlived their purpose. To me this sounds like lifeless marketing speak because I’ve seen these networks and “engaged” wouldn’t be the word I use to describe its audience.
When it comes to discussing films, social media is not the form I want to use for that. In fact, like many people today, I’ve become much less overt with what I post on social media because I value my privacy and don’t find Twitter or Facebook as a practical means for breaking films down. It’s also embarrassing for everyone on my social media feed to see my thoughts on how 1997’s Mortal Kombat Annihilation could have been fixed with a few tweaks. I would rather be a random user name on a board for that than having that attached to my actual social media networks.
By the way, have you seen the comments on Facebook as of late? They are just as flippant and offensive as what you would see on the boards. If IMDb’s goal is removing vile content, directing users to comment on social media instead doesn’t solve this. To me, it serves as encouragement to not post anything at all and further disengage with IMBb as a site or brand entirely.
3. Why Won’t IMDB Invest in Mods?
What is preventing IMDb from bringing on actual message board moderators to manage the content being posted? Part of what makes Reddit so successful is that essentially, it’s one large message board of anonymous users with unique interests that can immediately find a forum to engage with others. The reason why it works is the same reason other message boards work: moderation. While some subreddits have better mods than others, some like r/history, r/movies, and r/personalfinance are shining models of how moderators can keep trolls away and keep a meaningful conversation flowing.
It’s no secret that fighting trolls has become a headache for any website that has a comment section and has even convinced many reputable sites to get rid of their comment sections altogether. I don’t think it’s good policy to allow a handful of obnoxious posters dictate how a company should leverage its website’s best feature. These dozen or so problematic posters could be filtered out through proper moderation and allow IMDb to keep it’s boards for the millions of other visitors that use the boards in the spirit they were intended for.
The lack of decorum people have for strangers on the Internet is obviously a major problem today, and it’s only gotten worse since the election. I don’t know if you can remove ignorance, racial intolerance, or homophobic attitudes from someone’s heart, but you can remove them from being published on a site through professional moderation and effective reporting mechanisms. Doing so might be the only way to fight back against this cancer that’s overtaken comment sections and social media, but it’s going to take resources, not hiding from it.
IMDb has given its boards two weeks to operate before it closes for good on February 19. I do feel that there is still a chance for this decision to be reversed if enough people make their voice heard so here’s my suggested call to action:
Skip making another useless online petition and contact Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos ([email protected]) and IMDb’s CEO Colin Needham (http://www.imdb.com/helpdesk/contact) yourself. Make it known how you feel and show them that there are more IMDB users that care about keeping boards alive than there are trolls. Even better, if you have experience with message board moderation and community management, offer your ideas on how the site can improve.
It's been suggested that the real reason why IMDb is closing it's boards is because they can't be monetized. That's a fair assestment but without a forum, what is the point of being a registered user? If IMDb cares about their site's health, there's one other thing you can do to capture their attention: show them how much you care about the message boards by deleting your account since there isn't much of a point of having one after February 19.