By Paula R. Stiles
We need your help!
Yesterday, 26-year-old movie and TV series database IMDb (Internet Movie Database) announced that it was closing its message boards as of February 20, saying that they were “no longer providing a positive, useful experience for the vast majority of our more than 250 million monthly users worldwide.” It said that it was giving two weeks notice to allow fans to say their goodbyes.
Fandoms all over the internet promptly exploded. And it wasn’t pretty. People were angry, upset, even grieving. The announcement was an across-the-board fandom apocalypse and it was as unexpected as a city-sized asteroid suddenly appearing in the sky.
The passionate response may seem like an overreaction on the part of a few nerds, but IMDb wasn’t just another site. It was a major way for fans of film and TV media to meet other fans. I have several friends and artistic colleagues that I met there with whom I have worked on various projects over the years. It was a real hotbed for artists to meet and then scamper off to collaborate. IMDb itself even encouraged this by creating a fees-supported pro area and doing its best to turn the whole place into an industry site.
I’ve been lurking on IMDb since the late 1990s and finally registered in October of 2002. I’ve been hanging out there on nearly a daily basis for over a decade. I even had a Pro account that I won’t be renewing at the end of this month, and a page as a producer of various indie horror flicks. That’s close to two decades with the place. And now they’re turning out the lights.
Yes, there were trolls, but that was in large part due to IMDb’s hands-off and impersonal reporting policy that got everyone’s stuff deleted at times. The trolls came in because they knew IMDb wasn’t going to do jack. In fact, they’re now arriving in droves to get their last licks in before the lights go out, like looters in a city before a nuke hits.
On the other hand, the site’s impersonal nature avoided the pitfalls of crazy Big Name Fan moderators that choked off participation and reduced the range of opinions on other sites like the late, lamented Television without Pity. IMDb blaming the closure on troll activity was like an indifferent bystander blaming a sexual assault on a victim for not fighting back hard enough and then shooting the victim. It’s not as though IMDb tried very hard to correct the problem.
The most insulting thing is that IMDb wasn’t originally a corporate site. It was ours. And the message boards reflected that. IMDb began life as lists of actors and directors on a British Usenet group (remember them?) back in 1990. Yep, it predates the World Wide Web. It spent most of the 90s as a database on a server in Cardiff, Wales, then was bought out by Amazon in 1998.
Amazon, perhaps out of sheer laziness and cupidity, continued the fan participation by creating the message boards and allowing the site’s entries to be built via user-generated content (unsurprisingly, that lucrative database spanning a century of Hollywood and world media isn’t going anywhere, just the people who created it for free). It began to turn IMDb more into an industry site with the establishment of IMDbPro in 2002, but since this largely helped indie filmmakers who were themselves essentially fans, it didn’t change the nature of the beast.
Over the years, IMDb has increased user participation (and tried to claim copyright over everything generated on its site) while also becoming increasingly indifferent to moderating or fostering discussions on its boards. The site began cutting off the older ends of archives of the busier boards around the mid-to-late-2000s and even started to “prune out” archives of older films and canceled TV series around 2009. The apparent reason was a lack of server space to house so many old discussion threads.
It was well-known that the reporting system was automated and that bots, not people, made the decision to delete a post or thread if it had enough reports. Naturally, this led to abuse, bullying and stalking by trolls of other users. Really popular boards like those for HBO show Game of Thrones and AMC’s The Walking Dead, or films like The Dark Knight, became bywords for out-of-control troll activity. In recent times, African American movie boards like the one for hit film Hidden Figures, as well as boards for feminist films and television shows like the CW’s Supergirl, were targeted by racist and misogynistic trolls straight out of 4Chan and StormFront by way of Reddit.
The writing was on the wall for years. Like Naples, we all knew Mount Vesuvius would blow eventually. But the end, when it came, was sudden and unexpected.
Theories on the cause ranged from the site’s losing money on the boards, to the influx of toxic trolls (both proferred as causes by the site itself, so therefore probably not the real reasons), to threatened libel suits by Big Name Actors over criticism on movie boards, to Donald Trump.
The most likely cause is dumber, more mundane, and buried in the site announcement’s second paragraph. Currently, only about 10 million of their vaunted 250 million users patronize their social media and it seems they want to strong-arm the site’s users onto their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, Tumblr, and Snapchat accounts. This attempt will almost certainly fail and may well kill the whole site in the end, but, like Yahoo’s ill-fated and clumsy revamp of its Groups section a few years ago, Teh Stupid will still be permanent.
The larger ramifications for fandoms, as well as artists, worldwide, will be unclear for a while. Other sites have come and gone, and are much missed, but fandom moved on. Nothing lasts forever and it certainly doesn’t last forever on the internet.
But IMDb’s fan participations predate social media. They even predate the World Wide Web. The site, however inadvertently in its latter years, had become an incubator for social interaction and discussion, even creation, of artistic endeavor. Now those fans and creators will scatter to the four winds to who knows where – but it likely won’t be to IMDb’s social media sites the way it hopes. It’s not the end of the world, but still, there is no joy in Mudville this February. IMDb has struck out.