IMDb’s message board shut-down and the lost potential of the web

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WUHAN, CHINA – JUNE 11: Chinese youngsters on the internet in Wuhan, Hubei Province of China. (Photo by Cancan Chu/Getty Images)

Comment by Maura Johnston

The Internet Movie Database — IMDb, for short — announced last week in a statement that it will be disabling its message boards on Feb. 20.

“After in-depth discussion and examination,” the statement read, “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.”

It will be an ignominious end for the site’s user forums, which were first launched in 1990 — making it positively ancient by internet standards. Perhaps unsurprisingly, its first entry was a list of beautiful women compiled by a man, Col Needham, who would go on to develop the underlying code that powered IMDb in its earliest days. It then grew into the premier user-generated database of information and discussion about movies and TV shows; the site was eventually purchased by Amazon in 1998, and a few years later it launched a subscription product aimed at people in “the business.”

Still, the user-generated content and the message boards, which were linked to every entry in the database,  hung on through today. Though they were hit or miss at best, they could result in discussions about long-lost cinematic errata and continuity issues. While some on the internet is snickering at its demise, others are in mourning.

IMDb’s message boards are, if not a perfect example, solid evidence of what a discreet online community working toward one goal in mostly good faith can do. In the early days of the web, that was pretty common.

The site — not just its message boards, but the whole shebang — got its start from postings on USENET, the pre-web collection of communally moderated groups, or “virtual communities,” that focused on topics ranging from the arcane to the useful to the sublimely ridiculous. Back before what is now known as social media, text-only forums — both free ones (like USENET or IRC, both of which predate the web’s invention) and paid BBS services (like the online salon Echo and the Bay Area-born haven for geeks and writers The WELL) — served as platforms for discussions of cultural topics by deeply interested, if not-always-like-minded, people from, in many cases, all over the world. As web browsers became users’ main gateway to the world wide web, some of that focus shifted toward web-based forums (like the UK-based ILXor), as well as private and semi-private boards and mailing lists — often run and populated by people who’d begun interacting years earlier in public forums.

These weren’t secret, and there was rarely a high barrier to entry; they attracted a steady trickle of new people who enlivened the community with new perspectives, and their self-regulation led to discussions being conducted largely in good faith, with trolls being washed out by the collective disdain of the userbase and, at times, moderator-enforced policies.

For others, website comment sections replaced (and expanded upon) the interactions between users that had been so much of a function of the early internet, but with one key difference: They were owned by and run at the discretion of the owners of various websites, as an addendum to the content many sites were publishing and of course as a source of potential revenue. They were not, then, philanthropic enterprises, nor were they borne of the desire to interact with people who shared similar interests. And, while comment sections inflated the time visitors spend on websites and made stories seem more lively (both priorities for web publishers) they also take time and effort to keep up. Lax comment moderation often led to spam and trolling, which caused below-the-fold sections of sites to resemble particularly fetid cesspools; keeping up with ever-evolving commenting software, even (and perhaps especially) in its most basic form, provided its own suite of headaches, as anyone who recalls the word “Gravatar” might remember.

But, over the past few years, many news sites have tweaked their commenting policies in an effort to stave off these problems: The New York Times, for instance, both heavily moderates its comments and closes its discussions after 24 hours.  Other sites, lured in by the promise of pumping up their user statistics and by extension their bottom lines, continue to host comments, and the opportunities taken by users at times border on the horrific — even when the sites require users to display their real names, as sites that utilize Facebook for comments do.  Still, other news sites, including NPR and Bloomberg, have shuttered their comment sections entirely, often citing the rise of social media as the reason for their need being eliminated.

In recent years, the loose agglomeration of places on the internet to interact with people of similar interests has become mostly concentrated on two platforms that didn’t even exist when people first used the internet to share their lives — Facebook and Twitter. While they differ in a couple of key ways (Facebook has a “real name” policy which, for its many flaws, is intended to foster a one-real-person, one-profile userbase of people connected offline, whereas Twitter is more of a self-identity free-for-all) both lend themselves to the building of networks, and connect a user’s many affinities, as well as their friends and people whose lives they might want to follow, in one place. But unlike the original, manageable message boards and discussion groups and moderated comment sections, Facebook and Twitter are almost too large to moderate effectively, and the sheer size seemingly enables not simply the worst of individual human behavior, but of groupthink. In the early days of the internet, if you were going to make a statement of any kind, it had to be backed up by your personal integrity — good-faith behavior was assumed.

That good faith, which allowed so many of the basic building blocks of modern-day internet arguments to be sidestepped, is missing from public online discourse now — whether bad-faith readings of statements are performed by Twitter eggs searching for terms that they can jump on, or even by the blue-checked verified masses. And that’s not even to mention those who deliberately interact with bad faith and then declare their trolling, like racist or misogynist statements, to be misunderstood jokes. Bad-faith rhetoric is a plague on public discourse, attracting heat and light.

Meanwhile, the denizens of the message boards and listserves of yore are reconvening in smaller spaces on large platforms — “alt” Twitter accounts that are locked down and only visible to a select few, or secret Facebook groups that require an invitation for entry. In many ways, that search for a new place to talk privately without being interrupted by a bully or a troll is indicative of the lost potential of the internet. Community has become displaced by capitalism and cronyism alike, and sifting through the morass of garbage in order to find a sliver of gold becomes too challenging, or expensive. Already-existing groups of friends and communities will remain intact, but the potential for human growth — both in terms of numbers of users and the expansion of their minds — is cut off.