Legions of online film fans wept as the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), the most popular film and TV review site with upwards of 250 million users, announced that it’s shutting down its message boards today, February 20. I was among them: For the past five years, the IMDb message boards have been my go-to spot for reading up on film and TV.
It wasn’t just new movies; I’d check out classic forums like The Breakfast Club and be swept back into memories of high school sleepovers with John Hughes and popcorn. Facebook, Reddit and Twitter were no substitution for the rich—and yes, often trollish—discussion on the IMDb forums.
Facebook certainly fosters passionate conversations, but what if you don’t have any John Cusack loving friends within your social network? Or what if you don’t want them to know about your My Little Pony obsession? Twitter would be another option, but discussion on Twitter is usually contained to trending topics—not suitable for intense discussion of say, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Reddit, arguably the best alternative to IMDb, has limitations in its interface. Not all films and TV shows have their own subreddit, and more casual users might not take the time to create one.
On IMDb, users could click on the page for any program, scroll down to the message boards, and engage in a heated debate. It was user-friendly and anonymous. It contained a community for fans with niche film and TV interests—something that I lacked in the real world as a young adult but found on IDMB. Clearly, I wasn’t alone.
Most sites covering IMDb’s decision, such as Gizmodo, were superficial to the point of being blasé, saying good riddance to forums overtaken by online haters. And while the decision to shut down IMDb’s message boards makes sense given both the rise in hate speech and fiscal challenges of maintaining it, it’s important to recognize that no other forum was able to replicate the same amount of fervid discussion of every single TV show, film and actor on a single site—and, more importantly, create the same community as IMDb did once upon a time.
The demise of IMDb’s message boards marks a new milestone in the cultural decline of online forums, which once occupied an indisputable role in mainstream digital technology. Founded in 1990 by Col Needham, IMDb predated even the first web browser. IMDb’s message boards arrived later, in 2001, according to one of its developers, Colin M. Strickland. While IMDb’s was not the first message board to grace the web, it was one of the most prominent for film buffs. Nowadays, message boards remain an ancient relic to all but the hardcore geeks of the web.
Since IMDb periodically purged boards of old threads, it wasn’t possible to go back in time and relive their heyday. But a glance at the IMDb message boards today is enough to paint a picture of the forums in their dying glory—heartfelt exchanges, pointless banter, trolls and all.
Message board users reacted to IMDb’s abrupt announcement with a mixture of shock, anger, ultra-specific homage and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. It was theater of the absurd for the digital age.
A moment, please, for the fellow who posted in Jar Jar Binks speech with a matching profile picture.
Others decried IMDb’s decision as a political restriction on free speech.
Several users reacted by sharing emails and Tumblr accounts—IMDb’s private message system will also be disabled starting today, February 20—looking to new sites to re-establish communities. The unofficial IMDb 2.0 was one such forum. The post by user Madpac on that forum was titled “Looking for a new home.”
Other users channeled their rage into positive action, starting a petition to save the boards that garnered nearly 10,000 signatures. But for the most part, individuals settled into an unpleasant acceptance of their imminent doom.
IMDb’s primary reason for shutting down the boards was based on reduced “data” and “traffic,” but that was an explanation many users were not willing to stomach. They questioned the potential loss of revenue for IMDb, and instead attributed the decision to a rise in politically motivated hate speech on the boards that cast a stain on their already rocky reputation.
Boards for films with leading black actors were largely on the receiving end of this vitriol. The Hidden Figures board received so much hate that users resorted to mathematical defenses to validate the characters’ work. Never before did I think I would read the words “Vasicek model” on a film forum.
One commenter, nchi9, supported the decision with a comment: “...hate is now the order of the day and I don’t think the owner of IMDb will be able to keep the trolls and hate out.” Fed up with the litany of racist diatribe, many users applauded IMDb’s move.