When an Online Community No Longer Works

Sometimes an online comment system or forum no longer makes sense for your organization’s needs, potentially due to a glut of "trolls"—an issue the Amazon-owned IMDb is currently dealing with. The lesson: If you’re dealing with an online community, especially at scale, you must be willing to invest in both the people and technology that makes it work.

I’ve talked many times in the past about what makes an online community valuable—whether it’s a forum or the comment threads on your association’s blog.

But, recently, I stumbled upon an interesting case where a large organization was getting rid of a longstanding community because the company no longer felt it made sense.

And it’s on one of the internet’s largest sites: The Internet Movie Database (IMDb), a service that has been active so long that it predates the World Wide Web. Owned by Amazon since 1998, the service has become an immensely valuable hub for movie trivia and is often used as a resume of sorts within the film industry. With a service that popular and that active, it makes sense that the site quickly became known for its message boards.

But those message boards, over time, have struggled to keep up with the internet as a whole, and the tenor of the boards became untenable. Because of this, last week IMDb announced it was shutting down the message boards—giving users just two weeks of notice before they went away for good.

If you don’t pay people to moderate and lead the community, or create technical solutions that help users self-moderate, it’s going to eventually look like a dumpster fire in the wrong light.

“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,” the company stated in an announcement. “The decision to retire a long-standing feature was made only after careful consideration and was based on data and traffic.”

The company pledged to create new communication tools for its users, but ultimately ceded the conversation to other social media outlets.

So what happened? A look online suggests a mixture of responses—technology news site TechCrunch called it “one of the worst comments sections on the internet,” a feeling shared by some other outlets, but there are those, especially over at Reddit and among the IMDb boards themselves, that will genuinely miss the service.

A Problem of Investment

If I had to nail down a single problem here, it’s this: Despite IMDb being such a popular website—you don’t amass 250 million users every month by accident—it likely had failed to invest in the comment platform, neither updating it to modern standards (it looks like a message board you might have used in 2003) nor investing in the level of moderation necessary to keep a board like this running.

If you don’t pay people to moderate and lead the community, or create technical solutions that help users self-moderate, it’s going to eventually look like a dumpster fire in the wrong light, even if there’s plenty of signal there that’s worth saving.

Box Office Buz writer Richard Bertin, a passionate critic of the message-board shutdown, noted that this is only the latest example of comments getting pushed aside by a large site:

It’s no secret that fighting trolls has become a headache for any website that has a comment section and has even convinced many reputable sites to get rid of their comment sections altogether. I don’t think it’s good policy to allow a handful of obnoxious posters dictate how a company should leverage its website’s best feature. These dozen or so problematic posters could be filtered out through proper moderation and allow IMDb to keep [its] boards for the millions of other visitors that use the boards in the spirit they were intended for.

I’m not going to criticize IMDb too harshly here—I’ll leave that for others, if they so choose. But I do think it’s likely that IMDb did the math and felt that investing in massive, public message boards wasn’t worth the cost, considering the trouble with trolls and the challenges of moderation. Especially if it was a financial pit.

(The company may have also preferred to invest in ways to prevent its well-known rating system from being messed with—something that has happened with recent movies like Suicide Squad and Ghostbusters. That number is directly tied to their business goals.)

A Few Takeaways

Most associations don’t have to worry about the problem of scale that a site like IMDb does, but they do probably have to worry about the issue of investment of time and labor into moderation efforts.

Certainly, spam is frustrating on a comment thread on your association’s blog. And it’s frustrating to deal with trolls—especially those that needle the people in your organization or industry.

But investing in both strategies to minimize those issues (via a sophisticated commenting, social management, or forum system) and people to help soothe the pain is very much a way to help solve those pain points. If you’re not investing, you’re just opening yourself up to problems.

It’s worth considering, as well, where you pick and choose your battles. Public comment threads on your press releases might be a bad idea. A controlled community of members commenting on a subject? Perhaps a better one.

The thing is, like it or not, public interaction—particularly, the framing of that interaction—needs to make sense with your association’s overall business goals,and if it doesn’t, it’s worth considering cutting bait.

Not every public forum is one where your association should have a foothold, especially if you can make the investment elsewhere.

(But don’t forget to make that investment.)

If you're running into a troll problem, it might be a good idea to invest in moderation. (iStock/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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