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.
I wasn’t sold on the political angle. To determine if IMDb’s proffered reasoning made sense or if it was really trolls who ruled the day, I emailed Panos Ipeirotis, a professor with expertise on Amazon (which owns IMDb) at the Department of Information, Operations, and Management Sciences at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business of New York University.
“When a site has 250 million users, then even if a small vocal minority frequents the boards, it will feel that there is activity in the boards…if the user activity has been declining, and the monetizing potential was not there, then it makes sense that Amazon would let that activity migrate to Facebook and Twitter,” Ipeirotis said.
He elaborated on the potentially high costs of moderating such boards, and the possibility that Amazon could lose out on advertising revenue due to message board users that would no longer frequent the site: “I am very confident that Amazon/IMDb has considered these [factors] before making such [a] move.”
An IMDb representative declined to comment on the matter.
Though heartbroken, many fans reluctantly agree with the line of thinking Ipeirotis expressed.
Despite their circumstances, IMDb’s users did their best to keep things running per usual—which meant nothing short of unregulated chaos. So I decided to tour the boards and bask in the community one last time before this nearly 16-year experiment came to a crashing halt.
On the board of the popular Indian-American actress Mindy Kaling, conversations pointed to an annoying, yet classic IMDb trend: an obsession with [actor’s] body/love life/ethnicity. Unsurprisingly, the target was usually an actress like Kaling.
Yet, in the same conversation, message board users implied (correctly) that Kaling’s avowed preference for dating only white men highlighted troubling societal norms that prized certain racial standards of attractiveness above others.
Was wading through racist and misogynistic carnage to find that one meaningful comment worth it? Probably not. For those who stuck by the IMDb message boards, though, it’s just what you did.
Even the lovable Tom Hanks wasn’t immune to the withering gaze of IMDb.
Rising star Mahershala Ali of Moonlight fared slightly better, with message board users lauding his recent Oscar nomination. So IMDb users did have a heart after all.
Over at the Game of Thrones boards, a Putin avatar offered free counseling to the desperate and needy. Who wouldn’t seize the opportunity?
Another usual haunt of mine, The Bachelor board, largely stayed above the political fray to discuss more important matters: Nick Viall’s lurid encounters with the women vying for his heart. No earth-shattering revelations, but the lighthearted conversations here broke up the heavy tedium that often surrounded other boards.
Stranger Things kept it real with a timely discussion of love triangles, Eleven’s tresses in the new trailer and real talk about Barb. Normal conversations for the real world, but fairly tame by IMDb standards.
La La Land’s board brought the expected “overrated” comments that have been playing out in film reviews over the web, but the following exchange was so commonplace, yet so indicative of the hospitality that once pervaded the boards. Inspired by a movie, an eager soul wanted to try out jazz. A kind stranger responded.
Walking down memory lane, I perused the Friends and Home Alone boards. Trolls rarely lurked in the shadows of these older films and shows. There, I—and many others—often felt at home at IMDb.
The answer to question above should be an obvious yes, unless if Rachel was being compared to other TV mothers (I’m looking at you, Meredith Grey).
Phoebe did not have more net worth than Monica, but it’s good to know I wasn’t alone in wondering how the Friends cast lived in prime Manhattan real estate on their salaries.
Below: The guy who voiced what everyone was thinking. I’d make a case that Kevin is the film’s true villain, not Marv and Harry.
The real crime of Home Alone: Kevin never got a chance to eat his macaroni.
To cap off my final IMDb spree, I paid a stop to Rogue One, which is the type of popular action film board dominated by sexist drivel. There were the usual horrendous posts objectifying Felicity Jones, the lead actress in the film, but among the wreckage, there were badass female vigilantes, ready to clap back against ignorance. It was an example of users’ ability to counter hate with substantive discussion about critical issues of race, gender and politics. And that’s something that will surely be missed.
Ultimately, in spite of IMDb’s heavy politics, it was this simple post by user General_Ackbar that captured the eccentric IMDb that residents knew and loved:
For all the scum that populated the IMDb boards, at least there was this gentleman. He was the hero IMDb needed, but not the one it deserved—the ideal captain to steer this sinking ship to its digital grave, where thousands of other forums lie forgotten.