IMDb, Discussion Boards, and Online Movie Discussion

As IMDb announces it's shutting its message boards, why are online movie forums something more and more are moving away from?

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Earlier this week, the Internet Movie Database – that’s IMDb to its nearest and dearest – announced that it’s going to be shutting down its online message boards. The boards were duly shut for new contributions on Feb. 3 and they’ll be gone altogether from Feb. 19.

For those who frequent such message boards, their closure is perhaps not a surprise. Some of the exchanges there were known to veer on the side of not very pleasant, and in spite of the fact that every entry on the IMDb has an attached board, many lay empty.

IMDb, in explaining its decision, noted that it came to the conclusion to pull the plug “after careful consideration”, and that the call was made based on “data and traffic”. Money too, of course, but that wasn’t in the statement.

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Having sat on both sides of discussion boards, I can sympathise to a degree with IMDb. Running a forum, or discussion board, is often something of a thankless task. Set too many rules, you get called draconian. Not enough? Trolls run amok. Dare to delete a post? You’re supressing free speech, a truly baffling argument in an era when anyone can get cheap web hosting and put what they like on the internet. Shut comments off? You’re spineless. The sheer mental energy that can be involved policing a board is hard to understate on the bad days.

But then there are the good days, and – contrary to common perception – they tend to be plentiful. When there’s a vibrant community, there’s a chance to talk about things, to connect with other human beings and share interests. And with enough parameters in place, there are far more good days than bad.

Yet over the past year or so, finding good film related forums to have a natter on gets trickier. The likes of The DVD Forums over at The Digital Fix continue to have my admiration, and the long-standing Home Theater Forum in the U.S. is a terrific resource. But also, perhaps as an indicator of how time intensive and troublesome discussion boards can be, Empire shut down its forums when it last overhauled its website. Elsewhere, Digital Spy no longer has direct links to its discussion boards on its articles, although its community is still active. The shutdown is not just confined to film talk, either. Videogame developer BioWare shut down the bulk of its community discussion boards last summer, for instance.

Clearly, the technological boundaries of online discussion have moved on. The IMDb, for one, is citing that its “customers” (we were movie enthusiasts once upon a time) choose to communicate more with it over Facebook and Twitter. It also maintains Snapchat, Pinterest, YouTube, and Tumblr accounts. As when it shut down its curated list of daily interesting articles from around the web a few years ago, it’s moving its energies there (although, in hindsight, it never did replace that curated list).

Yet I still can’t shake the feeling that something is lost here. Again, going back to that IMDb announcement, it notes that the userbase of message boards was “a small but passionate community of IMDb users.” I suspect it’s the word “small” that was the problem there. IMDb boasts some 250 million users a month, so just how small the number was in relation to that I’ve no idea. But still: discussion boards, I’d argue, offer something more than social media conversation. That it’s more specific, tends to attract more people interested in the topic in hand. That it’s less likely to be hijacked by an anonymous poster with an egg for an avatar. And if you’ve got active, well managed discussion boards, that passionate community tends to spend more time on your site.

Because the key word in that IMDb statement above is “passionate.” That message boards attract people who tend to care, who tend to be invested in what they’re talking about. How many times do you read the Facebook comments below a movie post and come away with the same feeling? Facebook debates have a habit of turning hostile within ten posts, and I can tell you from personal experience that trying to police a Facebook channel is the end of level boss of comment moderation.

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At Den Of Geek, we run comments, rather than an outright discussion board, and we’re very lucky to have such a warm and considerate community that makes that job do-able, even with our very small editorial team. We’ve looked at a separate message board, but long concluded that comments were a more natural evolution of a forum, and slightly easier to keep on top of. Even so, during, well, let’s call it the ‘Ghostbusters conversation’ of last year, behind the scenes it got really quite soul destroying, to the point where the personal abuse led us to fully understand why people switch message boards off.

Heck, I know of one site where a reader on its message board posted major spoilers for a show that had only been previewed for the press, and it was the site in question that was, unfairly, in the firing line. Which, you could rightly ask, does anyone need the hassle?

[One little aside: I’m willing to bet that somewhere in the comments below this article, someone will end up talking about what they think of the Ghostbusters reboot, even though this article isn’t about that. Who fancies taking the bet?]

But then why do we talk about films in the first place? Why do we go into a pub and argue over whether Die Hard 2 or Die Hard With A Vengeance is the second best Die Hard movie? Why do we do quizzes? Why do we bother with films at all? Sometimes, y’know, we just want to, and an explanation for everything can’t be fitted on a cell or two in Microsoft Excel, or a few slides in Powerpoint.

Perhaps the bigger thing that’s going on here is the latest step in IMDb’s migration towards being an Amazon annex over a movie database. After all, IMDb certainly has the size and staff power to keep pressing ahead with message boards if it wanted to, whilst lesser resourced operations may genuinely struggle to find the hours. But it doesn’t fit where IMDb needs to be. I think IMDb is a phenomenally useful resource, and I regularly use it. It inevitably needs to focus on and target mainstream users over movie fanatics though if it’s going to grow, and help Amazon – its parent, after all – shift some more Jason Statham DVDs.

From my own personal perspective, I guess I’m old fashioned. I like message boards and forums, and always have. I do think by removing the boards altogether, the IMDb is missing one of the smaller things that give it some distinction, and that matter to people. I just wonder if it’s one of those things where they don’t quite realize what they had – and there’s an archive of posts going back to 1997! – until it’s gone. After Feb. 19, it’ll be just a little bit trickier to let them know.

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