On Feburary 20 the Internet Movie Database shut down its Message Boards, which had been a mainstay for online discussion of films for 16 years. As it was covered by most media, the shut down was attributed to the boards being overrun by abusive interactions by online trolls. Though IMDb never stated this as a reason for shutting down the boards, tough its statement alludes to the boards “no longer providing a positive, useful experience.” I can’t deny the pervasive negative impact that trolls have on online and social media culture, which these days can even be found amongst the most influential world leaders. But I do want to acknowledge that there was a time when the IMDb Message Boards were pretty much the center of my existence, where I devoted an obsessive amount of activity for the sake of nurturing my relationship to films.
From 2001 to 2006, every Monday I would log in to the boards to report on what films I had seen the previous week. Usually I would write a paragraph on each film, sometimes more. This routine allowed me to develop my writing skills and critical faculties on films, to articulate my impressions clearly and concisely. But what was equally important was the community I engaged with there. For a number of years, I considered them among my closest friends, certainly closer than the work colleagues in the office at the day job from which I was doing all of this online chatting. This predicament definitely spoke to a dysfunctional and dystopian situation in my real life as a frustrated filmmaker trying to make a living in New York City. At the same time, there was something about this message board that fulfilled a utopian wish I had for being connected to a community of cinephiles, one that would for some reason take several years for me to find in New York City, arguably the most cinephile-rich place on earth. And yet, when I finally did connect with that community, it wasn’t quite the same.
In 2008 the film journal Cineaste surveyed several online film critics to give their account of contemporary film criticism in the online era, just before the rise of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, back when blogs were a vital engine for online film discourse. In my response to the survey, I offered these reflections on what the IMDb Message Boards meant to me:
“For me, movies always have to come back to the world, which I suppose is why I’ve generally enjoyed conversing with everyday film buffs with lives outside the film world as much if not more than erudite film critics. I’ve enjoyed many exchanges over the years on forums such as _a film by, the Rotten Tomatoes Critics’ Discussion forum, and more recently, the visitor-friendly blogs of Dave Kehr and Girish Shambu among many others where name brand critics and many more experts check in regularly. But my ideal experience of a film community remains my time spent on the IMDb Classic Film Message Board, where people aged 16 to 90 from around the world gathered to share and discuss what films they saw (contemporary as well as classics).
Among my favorite peers were the director of a major city library in Tennessee; a film professor in the UK who professed not to be able to discuss films with her colleagues because it was too much academic shop talk and not enough fun; the bored housewife of a New York Times journalist; a San Diego high school student with a penchant for Marguerite Duras, and a nursing home resident who attended the Kansas City opening night of Citizen Kane. Their collective insight on any number of films from all eras and countries (thanks to the age of DVD) was, in my view, better than any film school (indeed, the board was my film school since I couldn’t afford a formal graduate education), especially in that it wasn’t ensconced in a limited perspective of cinema, academic or otherwise.
This to me is the full potential of online cinema culture: to be expansive and connected all at once.”
In many ways I felt more comfortable discussing films with this cohort than I have with various communities of filmmakers and critics I’ve engaged with since. Maybe because the discussion was less codified by an institutional context as my subsequent exchanges have been (professional critic and filmmaking networks, film festivals, film schools). Or maybe because there just were no real stakes involved. It felt the most like a free space to express and explore one’s interests about films most openly and enjoyably.
There was much trust, goodwill and respect among us, a certain faith that the conversation we were having with each other was enriching. I don’t find these qualities prevalent in the spaces where most people engage. Certainly not Twitter, host to the fleeting, half-baked thought or reactionary quip. Instagram is a more enjoyable experience, but in essence it substitutes images for words, so ideas aren’t articulated as extensively, for better or worse. As for the peers I had at IMDb, many of them have migrated to Facebook and have created a version of the forum over there. It’s generally as cordial as it was on IMDb – perhaps moreso now that personal information is more accessible between us – but something about Facebook doesn’t engender the same level of deep discussion as the message board format.
I wonder if it’s possible to make a film or documentary to depict how human interaction and quality of thinking have evolved (or not) over the past 20 years or so of online communities and social interactions. Certainly it would be boring to look at two hours of screens; more boring to watch talking heads summarize the significance of those screens. Nonetheless, this is a story I want to see told, because it is a vital story of our time. Whether it’s a story of images, texts, or screens, most crucially, it’s a story that shows how states of mind have changed. How to make a viewer feel the shifting of those states?