Han Solo or Indiana Jones?” That was how I chose to make my debut on the General Discussion forum at Rotten Tomatoes—the go-to site for checking if a movie has been deemed “fresh” or “rotten”—on Dec. 28, 2005. In the decade since, I’ve visited almost every day, logging more than 27,000 posts, talking movies and anything else, getting to “know” people whom I can identify only with an alias.
“RT,” as we regulars call it, is the subject of my longest-standing online loyalty. It is far from perfect—like many online spaces, the male-dominated usership hasn’t always been welcoming to female voices. But I was there before Facebook or Twitter. It’s where I discovered the Internet’s potential to connect. It’s been a place to talk to all kinds of people, from all over the world—people who shared my insatiable love for movies. I spent many weekends in my teens at my grandparents’ house, watching films like Pulp Fiction after convincing my grandpa, who didn’t know any better, to rent them for me. But I grew up in a small town in central Ohio. There weren’t many people my age with whom to discuss Tarantino or Scorsese or Kubrick.
So through a chain of events that I can’t totally remember, I found RT. I signed up. I joined a community. “Basically, the point of this thread is… who would win in a fight?” I wrote in that first thread of mine. “I go with Indiana… I’m not sure why but whenever I have this argument with somebody… I always stick by Indiana. Just a gut choice I guess.” (I think I’d still stand by that choice.)
In college, I was the one who watched black-and-white films with subtitles on my laptop under the covers in his dorm room. Or went to 10 p.m. showings on a weekday at the independent theater uptown. My friends and I had a lot of other things in common, but cinema—not movies, but cinema—just wasn’t their thing. Freshman year, I couldn’t even convince them to watch the Oscars. So I took my computer down to the dorm lobby and watched the ceremony on the community television, reacting in real time with my fellow posters. Weird, I know.
I still visit RT almost every day, but it isn’t the same place. Threads move slower; whereas before your topic might be bumped off the front page within a half hour if nobody responded, now it can linger for a day or more. I’m not imagining this slowdown. In 2008, RT’s heyday, more than 42,000 threads were started and they’ve accumulated more than 1.9 million posts. Last year, it was 5,567 threads and 291,460 posts. This medium of online discussion, the forum, isn’t quite extinct, but it’s endangered. The social networks, online commenting and Reddit, in some ways the forum’s Platonic ideal, have taken over.
As I thought about this, I did what any self-respecting forum nerd would do: I started a thread about it. I asked my fellow RTers why they thought we’d seen the decay we had—and why did they keep posting, anyway? They had some recurring theories for the first part: The forums were featured less prominently on the front page. The website had changed ownership more than once over the years and Google ads were removed a few years ago. The forums hadn’t been monetized, so what incentive did management have to make them a priority?
“I do believe the popularity of social media is causing a decline in forum usage,” user Looka wrote, echoing my suspicions. “Either people want facebook status/twitter style blurbs and keep scrolling” or they carve out “echo chambers for their discussion of whatever shared interest or just for a place to chat with friends.”
“I think that social media is more popular than forums are because it provides more instant and more easily quantifiable gratification and validation,” another user, MaxRenn, added. “Features like Facebook’s Like button and Reddit’s upvote and downvote buttons give you warm fuzzies within minutes, sometimes seconds.” Forums “require you to do a little more work.”
Some users offered up market-driven theories.
“Facebook and Reddit have attained mainstream appeal and they are also more easily commodifiable than a message board,” user Master King Sexington wrote. “Half of what I see on Facebook are promotional materials…Every AMA from a celeb is to promote their newest show/movie/whatever. This is what catches a corporate eye and props it up.”
There hasn’t been a comprehensive look at this phenomenon—it might be virtually impossible—but Joseph Reagle, an assistant professor at Northeastern University and author of Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web, told me that online discussion has an established pattern of transitioning from one medium to another.
Migration is “just the inevitable life cycle of this sort of thing,” he said. Users are always “looking for that intimate serendipity. Where you have a sense of: This is a community, there’s people I can trust, I have a sense of scale, I’m not constantly being spammed.”
Early online forums—longtime digital yappers might recall Metafilter, launched in 1999 and still in existence, which Reagle cited as one of the first—had already in their time replaced something called Usenet. Established in 1980, predating the World Wide Web proper and functioning like an email listserv, it allowed people to converse with others all over the world. Then forums came along and swept up much of that discussion. Now Facebook, Twitter and Reddit have done the same.
The cycle starts with a new medium getting started and attracting its first users. Everything is fresh, even chic, like Facebook when you still needed an .edu address. RT at one time had what we called “social threads,” where people kept up an ongoing dialogue on nothing in particular. “Clique” members followed each other on social media (I have at least a dozen RT Facebook friends) and sometimes met up in person. A few dated. I took a college film class with a fellow RTer, the only time it crossed over into “real” life. But the forum was as much a part of my daily routine as attending class and going out on the weekends. One year, my RT classmate and I published a joint thread chronicling the international film festival that annually comes to Athens, Ohio. I devoted an inordinate amount of time writing reviews and creating graphics for it.
But as any community grows in popularity, the bots, the spammers and, as Reagle calls them, the haters arrive. That sense of community dwindles. And, as the Web is always innovating, some alternative pops up. “I’m part of a couple of Facebook discussion groups on movies that suck up a fair amount of time I use to spend posting here,” ZBigRedDogZ told me. Reddit has a subreddit for almost every subject you can think of. Twitter allows for the same instant gratification that I had formerly expected on RT—if I had had an account during my solo Oscar-watching party in 2007, I might have just followed along there instead of refreshing the RT thread.
That’s the distinction between the new social networks and the more organic forums of old. Twitter and Facebook and even Reddit are expected to be a holistic experience; you don’t come there for one thing in particular. You’re supposed to talk about everything. Their business model is founded on endless engagement. The old forums needed and sought out money, too; that’s why RT had Google ads for a while. But it wasn’t foundational. It was a byproduct of attracting a dedicated group of people with a shared interest. Facebook and Twitter are indifferent to your conversation, as long as you’re having it on their platform. Reddit is the same way. Its infrastructure resembles a forum’s, but its motives are more like that of a social network: to keep you logged in.
I have “memories” at RT, if that makes sense. Stories, people I remember. That’s what makes it special. A favorite of mine is when actor and director Kevin Smith posted from his own account in late July 2006 after somebody dared to call Clerks II a box office flop. Smith laid out in excruciating detail why it was not. He stuck around for a couple days and antagonized his RT nemesis, user Karl Trale, who appears to have left the site shortly thereafter (or adopted a new alias). “Rage on, l’il Rager,” Smith wrote. “You can misrepresent me all you want and desperately try to crap on my parade at every turn, but, seriously – everything’s comin’ up Milhouse for yours truly. Sorry. “
There was also a rumor that Roger Ebert was the identity behind one of the avatars. That time has passed. Celebrities get their fill on Twitter, just like the rest of us. But even though forums aren’t the default place for online discussion anymore, they aren’t disappearing altogether, either. They have just assumed a new identity. Diehards remain; myself and many other RTers plan to stick it out through the end. We’ve been through the last 10 years together; we have a cultural cohesion that Facebook and Twitter can’t match. As moderator King Elessar 8 put it: “I plan on riding this bastard to the bottom of the ocean.”