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9 February 2017

“Someone would always answer”: The sad death of the internet message board

A lament for online forums (featuring equally lamentable screenshots), as IMDb shuts down its message boards.

By Amelia Tait

I was probably one of the first people to discover that IMDb’s message boards were shutting down. Last week I was browsing the forums for 2015’s Straight Outta Compton (“Zootopia is more Oscar worthy” by SpongeBob1945) when I noticed the big, red word “IMPORTANT” had just appeared atop of a thread I had opened.

“As part of our ongoing effort to continually evaluate and enhance the customer experience on IMDb, we have decided to disable IMDb’s message boards on February 20, 2017,” the message read. “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.”

You what?

I’m not sure who IMDb had these discussions with, but it clearly wasn’t the actor Matt Lucas, nor the film writer Scott Weinberg, nor the 3,721 people who signed a petition asking it to reverse the decision. They also – and I can forgive the oversight – didn’t ask me, but I am gutted by the move. After looking through my five-year history to see how dismal my ratings are (Goodfellas and Calendar Girls get ten stars, while The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea scores higher than The Great Gatsby), checking IMDb’s message boards is my favourite thing to do on the site. And I’m not alone.

Recent posts on The Godfather (1972) message board

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“Although many facts on films are in the IMDb entries, the message board was where you went for small weird questions. ‘What’s the exact piece of music playing in the scene where…’ or What’s the book poking out of his pocket?’,” says Moira Redmond, a 61-year-old who has looked up every film she has seen in the last 16 years on IMDb. “Someone will always answer, and I don’t know where else you’ll get that.”

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Redmond calls IMDb’s message boards “ten times as useful and interesting” as professional film reviews, and says she is “absolutely devastated” that she will no longer have access to the diverse range of views that they offer. In 2000, she worked as a comment editor for Slate and was told by their film reviewer to delete negative reader comments. “I think this was what first sparked my interest, because while I often agreed with [the reviewer], equally often the readers would say something that either a) I had thought but not seen in any reviews or b) just picked up on some aspect that wasn’t usual in reviews.”

I’d like to add that – whether intentionally or not – they are also often very funny.

The message boards for Bratz (2007)

But it’s not just IMDb that will be missed. Over the last decade, internet message boards have slowly been dying out and it’s not hard to guess why (when in doubt: blame Facebook and Twitter). Even forums which still have millions of active users are in trouble, as the controversial imageboard 4Chan announced in October that it was under financial strain. Social media giants have invaded forums’ space, at once allowing people a place to share all of their opinions at once, and providing advertisers with mind-bogglingly intricate models by which to make money.

Yet it is precisely what makes message boards so unviable financially that makes them such a great user experience (regardless of the trolls). Both anonymity and the way forums are structured (from oldest to newest posts) create an egalitarian space. Although the hugely successful social network Reddit is arguably a message board, its system of “Upvotes” and “Downvotes” mean certain comments are given precedence. Yes, it could be frustrating when forums became a mess of cyclical arguments and irrelevant ramblings due to their structure, but there was always the sense that everyone had their chance to be seen and heard.

A thread on the message boards for Shrek (2001)

When I ask people who used message boards in the past what they liked about them, one theme recurs: friendship.

“I don’t talk to anyone from the board anymore but am Facebook friends with them,” says Pippa Lowthorpe, a 22-year-old who used to frequent Jrock Revolution, a forum about Japanese music. “I was a massive nerd and it was really nice to have this niche interest turn into so many friends.”

Sometimes, these friendships could be life-changing. James, a 26-year-old who used Pokémon role-playing forums between the ages of 11 and 15 says online friendships kept him going “through a particularly rough time”.

“I was getting bullied at school,” he says. “Message boards helped me during a pretty grim moment – it’s hard to overstate how much knowing there would be people to talk to helped after spending all day in a place I wasn’t liked.”

These friendships were so much stronger because they formed over niche – often very, very niche – interests. Rich Cooper, a 26-year-old who used to run a message board about former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, also still has friends from his forum days on Facebook. “I made some genuine friends there, people I’d talk to on MSN most days,” he says. “I don’t talk to them anymore, but I still know what they’re up to, which is weird but nice.”

As above

There is another reason to love message boards, though it might be as niche as the FruscianteFans forum. The internet often feels so ephemeral, with things frequently getting lost in the ether. Message boards are a perfect archive – it’s much easier to see how things played out in real time than it is by looking through old tweets or Facebook statuses. It is also easy to find old views and opinions easily, so much so that I was shocked, last year, when I discovered my old posts on a pro-anorexia forum.

From IMDb’s statement, it appears that not only will it shut the message boards, it will also delete all traces of them. This seems like a tragic loss. The opinions of 250 million people on films, TV, and games are an incredible historical and cultural archive. Even if some of them do think Zootopia is better than Straight Outta Compton.