What happens to a virtual community once it ceases to exist? Is there an afterlife? Do the friendships and flame wars live on, dormant, on some dusty, unplugged back-room server? Or does the information, and the minds that took pains to provide it, simply scatter back into nothingness?
The Internet Movie Database killed off its message boards on Feb. 19, a development that probably doesn’t mean much to you if you’re not a rabid film or TV junkie. But to the tens of thousands of people who had populated those boards for the better part of three decades — sharing one’s thoughts about movies and movie stars goes back to the service’s very roots in pre-Web Internet culture — the scrubbing of the boards represented a betrayal of what the IMDb was always about, which was the care and feeding of a robust community of people with opinions, information, and passions to share.
Of course, plenty of people will tell you that the IMDb message boards had long been taken over by the worst kind of trolls and that the plug should have been pulled ages ago — that their failure represents a particularly blatant example of the tragedy of the Internet commons, in which user anonymity encourages only the nastiest, angriest, jerkiest aspects of human nature.
The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle, or, rather, it depends on where you went in the IMDb and what kinds of movies you preferred. For those who still have no idea what I’m talking about: The Internet Movie Database is a crosslinked reference tool of (almost) every movie and TV show ever made and all the people who made or appeared in them. It began in 1990 as an online bulletin board list of movie stars, maintained by Col Needham, a student at the University of Cardiff in Wales.
Needham began by ranking actresses with “beautiful eyes,” others chimed in with more encyclopedic lists, and by the time the project moved to the nascent Web in 1993, it was on its way to being a one-stop-shopping resource for information on movies and ultimately TV shows of all sorts. People in the film industry or (like myself) in related fields quickly found the site indispensable.
Amazon bought IMDb.com for $55 million in 1998, spun off a subscription-based Pro version to separate the industryites from the fans, and beefed up the user forums around the turn of the millennium. If you had an opinion on the second “Star Wars” trilogy — and, guess what, many did — or the relative worth of, say, “Twilight” star Robert Pattinson, the boards were where you went to make your case or vent your spleen.
But that just makes them sound like a mosh pit for fans and haters. On the contrary, below the roiling surface of people talking about newly released blockbusters was a far more thoughtful community of film-lovers trading nuanced opinion and verifiable information relating to the entire history of cinema. The great thing about the IMDb message boards wasn’t that they served all movie lovers but all the different kinds.
If you were a newbie wondering why “Citizen Kane” was supposed to be the greatest movie of all time, you could find counsel and counter-arguments aplenty. If you were a devotee of (or newcomer to) the Italian horror subgenre known as giallo — or 1930s Hollywood musicals, or silent Soviet cinema, or Roger Corman biker movies, or the collected oeuvre of Mae West, Werner Herzog, or splatter-film pioneer Herschell Gordon Lewis — there were knowledgeable souls to guide you or to spar with. It was a great place to hash out your theories about “Lost” or “Mad Men.” The existence of an IMDb board on what the hell was going on in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” justified the system all by itself.
Of course, you had to put up with a fair share of blowhards and know-nothings, as in life. And even a partisan had to admit that the more populated precincts of the boards, those forums dealing with new releases and current movie stars, had long since gotten out of hand, with adolescent idiocy vying with out-and-out racism and hate-speech for a can-you-top-this vicious cycle of nastiness. Announcing the discontinuation of the boards, Amazon admitted in a statement, “After in-depth discussion and examination, we have concluded that IMDb’s message boards are no longer providing a positive, useful experience for the vast majority of our more than 250 million monthly users worldwide.”
Well, any sane onlooker now understands this is the price one pays for anonymous user content. Speaking as someone who puts his name on everything he writes and thus takes accountability for it — as do all of my colleagues, happily and proudly — it’s clear that online anonymity is a Platonic ideal that has its necessity as a means of speaking truth to power but that also unleashes the worst in human behavior as a matter of common online reality. The positive effects of the Internet revolution are nearly infinite. The corrosive effects on our daily discourse, the unleashing of anger and fear and vitriol that happens when one is free to make statements without being personally held responsible for them, have yet to be fully confronted and dealt with. The consequences in our physical reality — certainly our electoral reality — are there for the taking.
You can see that ugliness in any online comment forum, because, really, why should one be constrained from intemperance, from saying what you’d never say to a living, breathing person unless no one knows who you are? Anonymity lets our lizard brains speak, and in few other places has it spoken so loudly and so shrilly as on the IMDb boards. Well, all right, there’s Reddit. And 4-Chan. And the message boards over at Variety.com as pretty scarifying. And — oh, never mind.
But does that mean the IMDb forums should have been shut down and wiped out? The folks who run the site for Amazon — including Col Needham, who reportedly still keeps a day-to-day hand in the website he started 27 years ago — are trying to buff up the service’s respectability quotient. Earlier this week it was reported that an “F” rating had been adopted for the site’s keyword search to denote movies made by women filmmakers, the better to search out female-friendly titles. (The related website f-rated.org, maintained by the Bath Film Festival, charts all the movies thus tagged.) The more aggro he-men women-haters on the IMDb boards would surely have pitched a fit. Now they’ll have to go elsewhere.
IMDb still maintains stand-alone user reviews for all movies, so you can play critic or throw a drive-by tomato as you please. You can continue to rate a movie or TV episode on a numerical scale (which still enables haters to down-vote a film unseen, as recently happened with the James Baldwin documentary “I Am Not Your Negro”). But the give-and-take of the boards — at their very best a swap meet for information and community you simply couldn’t get anywhere else and at their very worst a bunch of cavemen slinging feces at each other — has now vanished without even a proper archiving.
That last may be the unwisest move of all on the part of Amazon. Keeping the boards dead but still visible would at least have preserved the rare and worthwhile information they contained. And it would have reminded us, too, of how horrible human beings can be when they’re nameless.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.