I used to be an avid message board user.
I was never a prolific poster, though – I preferred to lurk, as was the parlance, reading others’ posts and occasionally chiming in. The problem with television shows, though, was that if you didn’t post quick enough, a lot of what you’d say was repetitive. Also, writing posts was very time-consuming, at least to me – everything had to be structured, checked over, formatted.
I also found that I had a limit, in terms of how many pages I was willing to read. Being active in a forum is very time-consuming. Checking every topic of interest, reading up on the threads of note – hours, hours, hours.
And so, I moved away.
I am prompted to write about this now after reading Virginia Heffernan’s ode to message boards in her online column for NYTimes.com. She write about the fertility boards she visited in 2004, and how they’ve declined over the past half-decade as social networking grew more popular – places where you connected with friends, people with real names, rather than just avatars and handles. The trajectory of the boards and their users mirrors my own behavior – something I’ve noticed with many other internet behavior shifts.
My family first signed up for the internet in 2000, and I spent the first few months wading through the a/s/l of AOL chat forums, a creepy place that always left me sick to my stomach. I bookmarked everything. Eventually I waded into the EW.com forums, where I got through Sept. 11 (I was worried about one of the regulars), before Time Warner closed them up and moved to a version of their current commenting section. Everyone flew to the People.com boards, but I didn’t stay long.
It was on the sites that I first heard of Mighty Big TV, which shortly after I joined it in October 2001 became Television Without Pity, a name it still retains after it was bought by Bravo Networks in 2007. There, I found a like-minded and passionate community around television. It was a big site, but it wasn’t overwhelming, and I spent many a day in school thinking about what I would post online about various episodes, and about the people behind the posts.
I spent so much time on the site, however, that I eventually began to police myself. I refused to post for an entire summer. In hindsight, that was the beginning of the end. I entered college, and I found that no longer was my loneliness placated by visiting the site. Watching television and spending hours analyzing it was no longer as fun when there were interesting people around to spend time with instead.
With television, like many other topics, time changes things. Once a show begins to show age, fans fly the coop. It becomes unbearable to spend a significant amount of time on a show if it’s no longer enjoyable, when most of the posts are merely complaints or nostalgia. While some shows have overlapping fans, eventually a show ends and fans move on, and the community disperses. What’s also significant in this world is the rise in other technologies. DVR and Netflix, to me, have killed many of these communities. Television, for most of its history, relied on the time factor – a new episode weekly, for a period of months, with fallow periods in between. But with a DVR, if you watch a show a few days later, or months later, the discussion isn’t the same. People who watch shows online, or watch a few episodes in a row – all common behaviors – also changes the nature of anticipation and speculation. Netflix enables viewers to watch whole series in a manner of weeks, so the long discussions on character behavior, motivations, and plot outlines disappear.
Topics devoted to media speculation, finding actors in small spots in movies and other shows, and well as press coverage also have changed in the last decade, now that gossip sites and most mainstream media also devote a large section of coverage to entertainment. Although IMDB has been around for a while, it’s fairly easy to find out that a favorite character actor guested in a blockbuster several years ago. It’s a different world.
I’ve waded occasionally into Television Without Pity, but the old communities are gone. Screen names I knew a decade ago no longer exist. People have moved on. There are new shows, most of which I don’t watch. I’ve found that I prefer to spend my time differently. Do I miss it? I do. I miss that side of myself – the television-loving, analyzing-everything, upfront-reading self. I assume at some point, parts of it will resurface. I have that capacity within myself.
Like Heffernan, I am part of the problem. I haven’t posted in ages, and the few times I have in the past four or five years have been one-offs. No one remembers my handle, except one friend – she was the first person I ever met who had ever heard of the site. And even now, I’m not sure if she goes on.
Like many things of early internet, I don’t think forums will ever go away. They have a purpose, but it a short-lived one. As people move throughout their lives, interests and priorities change, and that includes habits.