IMDb (short for Internet Movie Database), owned by the world’s most influential monopoly Amazon.com, lives an unreliable existence. Started in 1990 as a personal database of a UK-based film fan to list actresses with nice eyes, today a major part of IMDb’s index is crowdsourced. Users from around the world contribute chunks of data in the form of everything from film titles to celebrity birth dates to acting credits, which gets published often without any verification or supervision.
IMDb Message Boards ran for nearly 16 years and created a massively popular toxic community where anonymous users regularly engaged in sexism, racism, discrimination, homophobia, cancel culture, and name-calling.
Collectively, these boards – started soon after Amazon.com’s takeover in 1998 – acted as an online community center. Users began discussing each and every film and celebrity entry on the site, which soon turned sour and uncontrollable, often starting flame wars between self-proclaimed factions. Users only had to register an account and verify that they were not a bot; showing a recent purchase on Amazon.com would be enough in most cases. Within no time, the IMDb message boards expanded and became a cynosure of toxic discussions with racism, misogyny, and discrimination being the hottest topics across the site.
Instead of hosting healthy discussions on cinema, the message boards facilitated, and to an extent cultivated, sour comments from anonymous users who found new ways every day to circumvent the little to no moderation that the community had. Comments ranged from expletive-ladled repartee on well-known critics to name-calling to offensive remarks, mostly targeted at actresses and female users.
TechCrunch called IMDb Message Boards “the worst comments section on the internet” in 2017 when it was eventually shut down due to its infectious toxicity. Although IMDb gave a namesake reason of it being useless, the jury was already out. The larger web community had also taken offense at its premature death. As a testament to the vicious nature of what IMDb had produced, there were extensive appeals to get the message boards back, it is assumed mostly by the trolls who enjoyed the free land to spread unbridled toxicity.
IMDb depends on crowdsourced content. Although it has a team of editors, content is largely created by web users who do it voluntarily and without any pay. Notably, IMDb retains the rights to the content after it’s published, making its often-made comparisons to Wikipedia and Discogs completely void. Content such as new titles, release dates, cast and crew details, posters and trailers, and revenue data are provided by the site’s millions of users. This content, in turn, is collected from random online publications. According to IMDb’s Contributors’ Charter, the only ask while sharing content is valid proof. As long as it’s a live URL, the content submitted will most likely be published. ...
Perhaps the most negative quality of IMDb is its unreliable ratings system. Film titles on the site are often the center point of brigading, an unethical practice where the PR team of a film allegedly creates new user accounts and/or influences existing ones to rate their title a full 10 stars out of 10 in an attempt to boost its weighted mean rating. While IMDb assures that the weighted mean rating is based on a proprietary formula (which is not disclosed) and only ratings made by a select group of “long-standing users” are considered, there are several examples that prove the opposite. In fact, FiveThirtyEight has repeatedly documented how the ratings are either cooked up or manipulated by particular sections of the online world, often due to gender bias or pure spite. More than half a decade since those chronicles, brigading on the site has only multiplied.
On the latter part, and unsurprisingly, it is also the case with sites like Rotten Tomatoes (RT) where users tend to rate films and shows about men highly as compared to those which involve women in any major capacity (example: Ghostbusters (2016)). Metacritic is also accused of gender bias but thankfully neither it nor RT gives much heed to user-generated content. Moreover, RT does not even allow users without credentials to influence its overall rating system, which is one thing that has continually worked for the site, similar to how the CinemaScore system works.
IMDb’s rating system is often dubbed as going to the gutters. In addition to the non-reliability of its star ratings, the user reviews also don’t inspire much confidence in users, a large part of whom now use the site only to see what movies are currently available to watch or stRead. This may be the reason for the huge exodus to independent sites like Letterboxd, which combines the power of community, love for cinema, and restrained user content.
Letterboxd uses APIs to collect data from crowdsourced websites (including IMDb) but it has, till now, stayed away from unscrupulous and toxic behavior from its patrons. A major difference is how users have complete control to report or even block other users who may be crossing the line. The site, started in 2011, has welcomed a lot of former IMDb users, thanks to its neat UI design, friendly community, and non-consumerist stance. While it runs ads to keep its servers running, Letterboxd depends on a subscription model to sustain.
It feeds on free, public information and throws it up back to the world as official information, causing a flurry of problems on the way. If there’s chatter about its massively deceptive rating aggregation on one side, on the other, there is the unforgotten stain of the infamous IMDb Message Boards that continues to threaten its reputation long after its forced death in 2017.
As a result, over the past decade, its dominance has turned hostile, with a huge pile of unverified data sitting on its servers and aspiring film professionals being plowed down by its often partial and unwelcoming infrastructure. To any unsuspecting user visiting IMDb.com today, it may seem like just another rating aggregator site that cannot be wholly trusted. But beyond those fancy palette, user-generated content, and HD images of celebrities lies an intrinsically unfaithful system that not only threatens the very development of an industry and hurts professionals but also monopolizes the field of work that employs millions worldwide.