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Not Even IMDb Is Safe From Trolls

At a time when many websites are scrapping their comment sections, the movie database’s decision to shut down its popular, long-running message boards feels especially poignant

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The message boards on IMDb long served as a home for film geeks. For popular movies — even ones that were decades old, like 1977’s Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope — it wasn’t uncommon for a half-dozen or more threads to be active at once, with users swapping theories and debating possible plot holes or filming errors. The boards, a de facto comment section for films, TV shows, actors, directors, producers, and Unnamed Man With Mole at the Bars, was where songs from trailers were tracked down in the pre-Shazam era, where a Q&A from a Teen Mom cameraman gone rogue was preserved and a Brittany Murphy conspiracy theory was invented. It was, enthused a New York Times commenter in 2008, a great place for “messing with Harry Potter fans … by purposely getting key facts wrong and then arguing as if they are right.”

They could also be much more than that: Many of the site’s avid users had been posting for years; IMDb’s database actually predates the internet, and its online message boards first came about in the ancient-web days of 2001. Deep in threads of subgenre arcana, users met friends and spouses and sometimes people who sounded like they might be trivia items on their own IMDb pages: “I met the guy I lost my virginity to thanks to IMDb’s message board almost a decade ago,” wrote one user recently.

On Monday, that message board closed. “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,” read a statement published by IMDb founder and CEO Col Needham. All past threads — 16 years’ worth of posts — were erased.

When Needham announced the impending closure at the start of February, users despaired: “The boards are now gone and that’s all that really mattered,” wrote one. “All those conversations are deleted. It’s like the world just got nuked and we’re all dead anyway.” A petition to keep the message boards going garnered more than 11,000 signatures and 5,000 comments.

<em>via GetSatisfaction</em>
via GetSatisfaction

IMDb, which is owned by Amazon, is far from the first site to scrap its comment section. But there’s something sobering about the fact that even a movie database has been consumed by the seemingly unstoppable spread of troll culture.

From the outset, IMDb positioned itself as a user-focused community, prominently displaying aggregate user ratings for movies and TV shows. Increasingly, though, the site’s commitment to democratic principles left it susceptible to users’ baser tendencies. In a July analysis of last year’s Ghostbusters reboot — whose female-led cast made it a lightning rod in online discussions — FiveThirtyEight’s Walt Hickey found that an overwhelmingly male voting pool was suppressing the results: Male voters, who outnumbered Ghostbusters’ female voters nearly 5–1, gave the film an average rating of 3.6 out of 10, compared with an average 7.7 out of 10 score by women, pushing the total rating down to 4.1 out of 10. (It has since climbed to 5.4 out of 10.) Separately, Hickey found that IMDb’s male users were driving down the scores of television shows aimed at female audiences; men gave Sex and the City an average score of 5.8 out of 10, for example, versus 8.1 by women. IMDb’s male users, Hickey found, were going out of their way to downvote shows directed at women. “Among shows with 10,000 ratings or more,” he wrote, “the average rating of the top-100 male-skewing shows was 8.2, while the average rating of the top-100 female shows was 7.4.”

Sometimes, that user-directed ugliness was especially stark. I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary based on an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript that looks at the history of racism in the United States and that is in contention for an Oscar this weekend, has become a particular target for trolls. Rotten Tomatoes’ aggregate of critical reviews from major outlets has the film at a remarkable 98 percent positive, and that site’s users put it at 84 percent. Yet on IMDb, users have given it an average rating of just 6.6 out of 10. “Given that the film was only playing on a few dozen screens on that initial Friday [that it was released], it seems unlikely many of those who derided the film had actually seen it, although they might have watched a trailer,” NBC’s Matthew Carey wrote in a post last week questioning whether trolls are trying to tear the film down.

<em>from IMDb’s now-deleted help section, ‘</em><a href="http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:ZUmzPDaKnfIJ:www.imdb.com/help/show_leaf%3Fboardstrolls+&amp;cd=5&amp;hl=en&amp;ct=clnk&amp;gl=us"><em>How to deal with trolls</em></a><em>
from IMDb’s now-deleted help section, ‘How to deal with trolls

It appears that cases like the user response to I Am Not Your Negro were at least part of IMDb’s motivation in shuttering its message boards. On its support forum, which continues to serve as the website’s customer service portal, a post appeared Sunday titled, “IMDb should not allow racist trolling to skew rating or the conversation and review of a film.” “When I looked to see the reviews by low raters,” the author wrote, “I see white supremacists rants, without reference to the film in any substantive way, telling black people to ‘go back to Africa’, etc. I don’t think this should be allowed.”

Within hours, the user received a public response from no less a source than Needham, whose reply was brief: “We agree and the IMDb boards will be closing tomorrow,” he wrote, directing the author to the statement on the closure. He then marked the matter as Solved.

In Needham’s announcement of the message boards’ closure (which has attracted hundreds of responses), he argued that the forum had been supplanted by other means of user interaction. “Increasingly, IMDb customers have migrated to IMDb’s social media accounts as the primary place they choose to post comments and communicate with IMDb’s editors and one another,” he wrote.

<em>via GetSatisfaction</em>
via GetSatisfaction

This is true — to a point. But IMDb, like many commenting platforms, was light on moderation, encouraging members to use a one-way “ignore” function to combat offending users. On the now-deleted help page, the site recommended quietly disengaging. “When you fight with a troll, he wins. When you reason with a troll, he wins. Any time that you give a troll attention, he gets exactly what he wants. The best way to deal with trolls is to ignore them.”

IMDb joins a handful of other sites that have cracked down on trolls in recent months. In late November, Reddit announced it would begin warning and banning some posters from r/The_Donald, a popular pro–Donald Trump subreddit, and would prevent posts from r/The_Donald from being added to a central hub on the site. Last week, the site went further, adding r/The_Donald to a small group of subreddits that are prevented from appearing on the homepage for most users. Meanwhile, Twitter introduced what is effectively a time-out system for users reported for abuse. Vice ditched its comment section in December; NPR did so in August, following the lead of Reuters, Mic, and many others.

<em>via </em><a href="https://www.ipetitions.com/petition/petition-to-keep-the-imdb-messageboards-going"><em>iPetitions</em></a>
via iPetitions

By now, decisions to scrap comment sections are a sort of tic-tac-toe. Used by a small fraction of users: check. Not representative of the kind of community we want to be: check. A den of ugliness and abuse in need of resource-draining policing: check.

<em>via GetSatisfaction</em>
via GetSatisfaction

Still, throwing in the towel feels especially poignant for a site that dates to the inception of the social internet. Trolling on IMDb isn’t a new phenomenon: In a 2006 profile in The Washington Post, Kevin Smith complained about the nastiness he had encountered on the site’s message board, while The New York Times mentioned a politically charged debate over The Kingdom the following year. It’s clear, though, that the trolling had hardened into something else — something systematic.

It’s hard to mistake the recent spate of comment-section closures as anything but recognition that the particular toxicity that has swept over social media seems now to be more than just an election-year phenomenon. Even in the dusty library of an online movie database, the bad of no-holds-barred chatter emphatically outweighs the good.