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“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.

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

“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.”

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.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: mdl70 via Flickr
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Childhood mythology is being revamped by digital monsters like Slenderman

The stories the younger generation tell one another are just as rich, and as terrifying.

“I am the spirit of dark and lonely water, ready to trap the unwary, the show-off, the fool...”

The eldritch tones of Donald Pleasance will breathe a chilly memory along the vertebrae of those of a certain age. That 1973 public information broadcast about water safety lingers long in the memory. But why? There was something about the hooded figure depicted beside the river where children cavorted that just resonated. A shadow, a memory, a whisper. It was as if we'd almost heard it before. It wasn't just a warning. It was a story.

Before Donald Pleasance kept Britain's children from its treacherous riverbanks, we had tales of ubiquitous river-hags. Two good examples are Peg Powler, who haunts the banks of the Tees, and Jenny Green Teeth, who stalks Shropshire's waterways.  Both of these terrifying water spirits live to drag youngsters to a watery lair. These monsters pan the world, from the native Penobscot people of Maine, with their child-luring swamp-woman Skwaktemus, to the Inuit's Qalupalik, a green-skinned water witch that reaches up from below the ice to snatch wayward and disobedient children.

These stories are geographically distant but carry essentially the same message: “Stay away from the water”. Predatory creatures embody a very real fear. The unimaginable nightmare of our children in real peril is blunted by the presence of a monster.

Children need stories as much as adults do; stories make sense of reality when reality is hard to understand. Stories are told to be re-told, to be embellished, to raise heroes and to make monsters.

For people of the Dark and Lonely Water generation, including me, it's easy to assume that today's kids have lost the art of storytelling. We say social media has diffused, has numbed, has snuffed the flame of imagination. Yet perhaps it hasn't. Perhaps we just got old. On the contrary, the stories the younger generation tell each other are just as rich. Monsters are still being made. This world of ours is still being understood.

There is real danger out there. There are real monsters. But now they come in new forms, they lurk in new lairs.

Today, the internet is the new hunting ground of the monster. Grooming, trolling, cat-fishing and scamming have become the MOs of the vile in our society and, as if in direct response, legends and myths have sprung from the same place.

Creepypasta, 4Chan and /nosleep are breeding colonies of legend. Forums and social media have taken the place of the skipping-rope chants and the childhood whispers. Young people still know Bloody Mary, yet Black-Eyed Kids and the Goatman have usurped her from her throne. Nefarious rituals and games like Hooded Man or Elevator to Another World have been born of the internet age, submitted as stories and experiences. Like the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water in the 70s, they have touched a common nerve.

The most iconic of these net-dredged horrors is Slenderman: born of a paranormal Photoshop competition, his legend has transmogrified into an internet Tulpa, the power of which played a significant part in the decision of 12-year-olds Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser to stab their friend Bella Leutner 19 times. He is strengthened with every share, every fan image, every account of his being. It is no wonder that he has become flesh in the hearts and minds of those who need him, who want to escape into his world.

The readers of the forums that bear these eldritch fruits know the content isn't real. Yet disbelief is intentionally suspended. As it says on the /nosleep board guidelines “Everything is true here, even if it's not. Don't be the jerk in the movie theater [sp] hee-hawing because monkeys don't fly.”  It's disrespectful to negate the skill or the talent that it takes to write a story or make an image on Photoshop. This leaves space for storytelling. We need stories.

These stories stir something inside us, lend a bellow to the flames of our imagination. Images, anecdotes and instructions - they are monsters we have the power to control. Online, we can pass on the whispers, we have the ability to interact with the shadows. Online we can be the purveyors of this mythology. We can tell each other stories. We can control. If we make a monster, it is ours. Most importantly, we can escape from reality and immerse ourselves in our monsters.

Not just monsters lurk online, there are games and rituals, rich in their own mythology. The illicit Ouija board in the parks and graveyards of my own childhood are dwarfed by the trans-cultural crucible of today's games. With the ingenuity of Koji Suzuki's cursed video in Ring, far eastern influence and technology are pervasive throughout. Japan can boast the ghost-summoning Satoru-kun, and the White Kimono game. Both are alleged to summon spirits, Satoru-kun specifically with a mobile phone. There are many more of these games sprouting up from all over the rest of the world eg.- Mexico's ' El Juego Del Libro Rojo' (Red Book game) and Portugal's Ritual da Televisão (Television ritual) and nearly all carry grave warnings.

These nebulous games, like the internet's monsters carry their own stories. Peruse Reddit and you'll find accounts and speculation from those who claim to have played and been changed or had their lives altered by what they've done. The comments below the hundreds of accounts begging for advice are a mix of sincerity and concern.

“Dude, luck only lasts so long, and even longer less when you tempt things you know nothing of.”

“OP, you messed up big time. You're always supposed to follow the rules of the game as completely as you can!”

“You idiot! Ghost games are not for play! Especially japanese ones, they are dangerous”

“Get some sage. Burn the sage, and wave it into every corner of every room in the house... I would recommend putting salt across doorways and window sills, anything that would be an 'entry' into the house, but it sounds like you may have summoned it inside the house”

Everything is true here even if it's not.

But how can we know for sure? Do we really know that the user didn't summon something terrible from the void they opened with one of these games?

That's what makes them so compelling. That's what makes Slenderman, Smile Dog and Jeff the Killer so iconic. Like that friend of your mate's brother who went mad after he did an Ouija board down the park, we are still whispering, we are still embellishing and interacting.

The internet is open, unchartered landscape, there are no rules of the real world in which to weave mythology and the quest is to be the creator of something that wriggles from our grasp and is embraced, formed and made flesh by a collective consciousness. Are we in some way thankful for these creatures that bring us together over oceans and time zones?

Phones and tablets in the hands of our children are frightening to us: they are the unknown, the window into an abyss. Yet from that abyss, we are like our ancestors, toasting heraldry and horror, and making new myths.

Hydra by Matt Wesolowski, published by Orenda Books is out now.