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Research Report

Reconstructing Web History

Tracing the Conceptual Trajectory of the List on the Internet Movie Database

Tessa de Keijser, Fernando N. van der Vlist [alphabetical]

(Graduate School of Humanities,) University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Working paper

Published online: 21 June 2014

Abstract

This report presents a single-site history or site biography of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) and interprets the results of a Web historical analysis through the conceptual lens of Internet list-making culture. The primary soure of Web historical material in our analysis is the Internet Archive, which has been collecting an increasing amount of “snapshots” since November 1996. The main objective is to trace the list as it has been relocated or evolved into different forms over the course of the years so as to be able to read these developments side-by-side with other technological, social and cultural changes. Based on this historical analysis, we show that the list as such has transformed into a list hub or more appropriately a reference database that compiles a range of list genres and as such has been integrated into a number of devices and services external to itself that draw from IMDb.com as a resource of information about movies and celebrity culture. Moreover, we argue that in its current form, the design of IMDb.com constructs a user who is expected to generate order in an initially undifferentiated set of items (i.e. build lists) through particular interactions. Finally, we also reflect briefly on Web historiographical practice from the perspectives of Internet research and digital methods (Rogers 2013) in a broader sense.

Keywords

Internet research, digital methods, Web historiography, Internet Archive, Internet culture, list, database, IMDb

Internet research
digital methods
Web historiography
Internet Archive
Internet culture
list
database
IMDb

1. Introduction

Web archiving practices currently reside in a crisis. Since the early nineties, a lot of effort has gone into preservation of different parts of the Web by different organizations, institutions, national libraries or archives and individuals from all over the world. These collections tend to be well curated, maintained and preserved, but still seem to be barely used in professional or academic practices (Meyer et al. 7–9). Hence, one of the current issues that doing historical research with the Web addresses, is that of what could be done with all this available material.

The past two decades of attempts to capture and preserve the ephemeral qualities of the Web can be periodised into three historiographical traditions. The first tradition is marked by the establishment of the Internet Archive in 1996, and can be characterised as capturing biographical “single-site” histories. The second tradition emerged in 1999 and can be called “event-based histories” (Rogers 74). These histories are characterised by the preservation of special collections that frame and capture large-scale events generally deemed important by the media such as elections and natural disasters. Finally, this second tradition has lead to a national turn in Web archiving around 2001, when national libraries or archives started demarcating and preserving portions of the web that they themselves deemed important for the preservation of national cultural history (Rogers 76).

Besides different historiographical traditions, and regardless of the focus one decides to take (e.g. political economy, language and culture, social interaction or everyday use; Brügger 752), there are also different means of framing the Web as an object for archiving or research. Danish Web archiving scholar Niels Brügger (2012) has outlined one useful framework for stabilising the Web as an object of study by introducing five different web strata: “a web element, for example an image on a webpage; a webpage is what we see in a browser window; the website is a number of coherent webpages; the web sphere is the web activity related to a theme, an event or the like; and the web as a whole is anything that transcends the web, such as the general technical infrastructure of the web or the content of the web in its totality.” (753–754, emphasis in original; 2009, 122–125). In our sample, we make use of the strata of the webpage, but as we will elaborate below this does not necessarily inclose the substrata of the web element or the webpage.

The research conducted here should be seen as part of the broader frames of Internet archiving and research. More specifically, the particular deployment of methods, devices and techniques that characterise this research situate it in the line of work on “digital methods” (Rogers 2013). As such, we use medium-specific approaches that “follow the medium” by repurposing the devices and techniques of the Web, in order to be able to make claims about culture and societal change more broadly. Within this frame, we situate our study in the tradition of the single-site history, and on the strata of the website.

1.1. IMDb and Internet Culture

The story of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), we argue, is first and foremost a story of the evolution of the concept of the list. In its current form, the IMDb presents itself as an online database and “the world's most popular and authoritative source for movie, TV and celebrity content.” (“Press Room,” IMDb.com). It offers a searchable database of more than 130 million items, of which 2 million are movies or TV and entertainment programmes, and 4 million are cast and crew members (ibid.). It has developed a wide array of features over the years (“Site Index,” IMDb.com), and has been integrated in a variety of digital devices, commercial, professional, and consumer practices, especially after it was bought by Amazon.com in 1998. With regard to Web archiving, Megan Ankerson (2011) observed that while most Web archives concentrate on topics of public and civic interest, websites about commercial culture and popular leisure are not usually archived with the same dedication, or not even at all (390). A study of the IMDb, then, is relevant because it operates as a hub on the intersection of commercial culture, professional practice, popular entertainment, fan culture, celebrity culture, and is even used as a dating tool by actors and actresses (Verini 2004).

At the inception of IMDb around 1990, however, the project started as a simple list about actresses with beautiful eyes under the name “Those Eyes” and was managed by Colin Needham. As the list was put on Usenet, others with similar interests would then respond with their own additions and contributed their own lists. Over these first few years, the lists were renamed and new lists were added as the scope of the lists changed in different direction. In brief, Needham created a (male) “Actors List”, Dave Knight began a “Directors List”, Andy Krieg renamed Hank Driskill's “THE LIST” into “Actress List”, and Needham created a separate “Dead Actors/Actresses List” (Wikipedia). It was only after Needham created a collection of UNIX shell scripts on request of Mason Grant that made these lists searchable that the project moved out of the Usenet group as an independent website (“Is There a Program?”, rec.arts.movies).

List-making has been a common practice in Internet culture since the early days, even though the idea that the Web allows for new organisational principles that differ from such conventional presentational forms was already present. In the early days, people wanted their websites to be included in lists and directories, Award lists (e.g. the Webby Awards) or professional link lists (e.g. an overview of specific organizations per country), so as to enable their website to be found by others. As Rogers notes, “Carefully chosen link lists organized by category could be considered the first web guides.” (61). For example, blog directories such as EatonWeb, or the Dutch Loglijst came to be indexes or guides as well as archives. As the lists keep growing, however, they will at some point become unmanageable using the same organisational techniques (e.g. manual list-making). As a result, the formerly individual list-making practices that characterised early Internet culture have evolved into much more complex organizational structures that aim to coordinate correspondingly complex work that is distributed widely over both time and space (cf. Bowker and Star 138). In accordance with this upscaling, the different lists that are stitched together with other genres to form “genre systems” (Yates and Orlikowski 1992) that “encompass both the abstract top-level notion of the genre, in this case the list, and enfold as well the more concrete local variants” (Bowker and Star 138) also become more complex. Finally, when it is not just the list itself that becomes longer and longer, but also that more and more lists are added, retrieval also becomes more complex. As mentioned earlier, the initial searchable list, has now evolved into a reference database that is embedded or integrated with a variety of digital devices, commercial, professional, and consumer practices.

2. Research Questions

Our study is primarily concerned with the question of the list; where did it go, or what did it evolve into? In varying degrees, we are also concerned with the following subordinate questions: how has the list, and the initial topics it covered, changed over time? Can we understand the historical development of the IMDb through tracing the concept of the list? Do the developments of the IMDb match with the development of the Web more generally? That is, can we understand developments of the Web in general using the single-site history? And to what extent will the Internet Archive be useful for any of these purposes?

3. Methods

In order to study the evolvement of the IMDb through the concept of the list makes use of a specific historiography, we develop a single-site history or site biography (Rogers 66). Although our focus is on developing this single-site history using the Web archive created by the Internet Archive since 1996, we do aim to understand these developments in relation to the other components (e.g. Kindle Fire HD X-Ray, or Withoutabox, the marketplace for film festivals and filmmakers) and relate them to broader shifts in society and culture more generally. Furthermore, we take a structural or feature approach (Schneider and Foot 116) to trace the list, and look at the IMDb website in terms of its structure and features.

3.1. Internet Archive

The primary source of our historical material is stored by the Internet Archive, which essentially crawls and “rakes in” as many websites as possible, but the quality suffers as a result of this. Using the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, we are able to navigate through its collection of “snapshots” over time. For the query [http://www.imdb.com], the Wayback Machine returns 3,910 snapshots distributed over time between 19 November 1996 and 14 November 2013. However, there is disparity between the number of snapshots taken per day, as there are big gaps in the archive between January 1997 and March 2000 (the capture on Sept. 1st, 1999 returns an error) and from July 2001 to July 2002, but also from before the establishment of the archive in 1996 (Figure 1). Unlike most libraries or archives, Internet Archive does not store websites “cover-to-cover”, and as a result, webpages are often incomplete. Content-level analyses are difficult if not impossible, because links are often missing or refer to sources on the “live web” (e.g. advertisements in iframes). It tries to store the strata of the website, but does not necessarily include the inclosed substrata of all elements or pages, nor does it include the larger strata of web sphere and the web in its entirety. A final important limitation is the fact that we were only able to query the Wayback Machine with an URL, and it does not offer any alternative parameters to be set, nor does it have any kind of search functionality.

Fig. 1. Bar diagram of the total number of captures for [http://www.imdb.com] since 19 Nov. 1996, accessible through the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. Screenshot created on 14 Nov. 2013, 12:01:29.

3.2. Capturing Snapshots

Using the Internet Archive Wayback Machine Link Ripper tool developed by the Digital Methods Initiative, we are able to download URLs to each of the snapshots stored on the Internet Archive's servers. Inputting the URL [http://www.imdb.com/] again, we end up with a text file that contains 1,834 of these links (Table 1). When multiple snapshots were stored on the same day it only downloaded the first (in total, the archive has currently captured 176,467 URLs of the IMDb). Moreover, it generated URLs that would exclude the Wayback Machine browsing interface by simply adding “id_” after the date in the URL.

Next, in order to take screenshots of this set in bulk, we tried to use a Firefox add-on called Grab Them All (v. 0.7), developed by Rafal Zelazko, to take screenshots of specified URLs. Inputting all 1,834 URLs (Table 2) returned by the Internet Archive Wayback Machine Link Ripper with sufficient processing time (150 seconds) and JavaScript loading time (60 seconds), we still ended up mostly with unloaded pages. Therefore, we decided to use a manual approach and capture screenshots every two or three months, and for any significant change. The latter pages were located using the bisection method (interval halving method), and evaluating the significance of the changes based on our research questions.

3.3. IMDb Timeline of Events

By querying Wayback Machine with the current URL [http://www.imdb.com] and downloading its contents, we can only look back so far, and the details and context still remain unknown. It can only give us limited glimpses of the past. Schneider and Foot (2004) suggest that when we study with Web archives, we are in fact re-constructing or re-presenting the Web content we are studying (115). Based on this fundamental methodological concern, Ankerson (2011) has suggested that we combine this with methods from cultural history to reconstruct a better picture. We use the timeline as organising principle to be able to situate the developments of the IMDb in time, using multiple sources (increasing source credibility), and reading it in relation to specific other cultural developments (contextualisation) (Figure 2).

Fig. 2. Timeline reconstruction of key developments in the history of the IMDb. The timeline has four tracks: Name and Slogan, Institutional History, Feature History, and a screenshot track. (Ideally, other tracks such as Internet culture and technology would also need to be added.) At the bottom, all data points are plotted on the timeline. Data from IMDb and Wikipedia.

4. Results

Earlier we already introduced a “pre-history” of the IMDb. The earliest stored versions of IMDb in 1996 merely contained four hyperlinks to be clicked on. At this point, the website had a searchable “Full Search Index”, which was simply an alphabetical listing of all the lists available on the website. It also had a hyperlink to “Take Our User Survey”. While a user was clearly being addressed, they apparently did not yet have a clear profile profile of that user, but were interested in finding out nevertheless.

Fig. 3a. IMDb.com landing page on 19 Nov. 1996 as stored in the Internet Archive. Screenshot created on 13 Nov. 2013, 22:29:45.

Fig. 3b. IMDb.com/faq-search/ on 19 Nov. 1996 as stored in the Internet Archive. Screenshot created on 13 Nov. 2013, 22:31:51.

In 1998, unable to fully fund a full-time paid staff from selling advertisements alone, Needham sold his project to Amazon.com, but remained chief editor and manager. As expected, this prompted major design changes both visually and substantively. In the early days of the website, the list mostly took on the form of movie and TV news, combined with “Tops at the Box Office”, “Opening This Week”, “Coming Soon” lists, which provided a source of detailed, quality information on these movies and TV programmes (Figure 4). Celebrity culture, which arguably has been the genre of the origin list, also becomes more prominent. The lists were placed in columns on both sides of the homepage, with a central column of news in the middle, and which now suddenly contains advertisements of DVDs for purchasing. Note that there was still a large group of human editors and contributors that managed the database, and this was still somewhat visible on the homepage. Although it is not exhaustive evidence, the IMDb “Poll Question” on the homepage regularly credited users for suggesting the questions for this poll. This can for example be seen in the screenshot of 17 Oct. 2000, where the credit “courtesy of Kevin R.” is added right after the question.

Fig. 4. IMDb.com landing page on 10 Oct. 2001 as stored in the Internet Archive. Screenshot created on 13 Nov. 2013, 22:32:36.

With the introduction of the “Movie Showtimes” feature, the IMDb gradually moves towards a specific understanding of the “user” as someone interested in going to theatres nearby, buying the DVD, knowing or being interested in the specific birthdays of actors and their general achievements. Note that this means that IMDb becomes integrated into external practices, because this integration requires broad adoption by movie theatres to provide their screening programmes to the IMDb. In June 2001, this feature is turned into an email subscription service, and moves to the top-right column (Figure 5). The “user” of IMDb can now subscribe to a weekly email to receive their TV schedule. This is combined with notifications in the centre, exclaiming “Movie Times Near You!”, followed by a short list of films with their screening times at local theatres. In other words, the website is not only a source of expert lists anymore, but also tries to connect this list-making practice to a specific user with a ZIP code and a particular interest in a certain kind of movies or television shows. Interestingly, the “genres” of these lists do reflect this new “user” that is gradually molded (e.g. “Tops at the Box Office”, “Opening this Week”, “Coming Soon”, “Where's Memento playing in your area?”, an hourly-updated list of top-selling DVDs at Amazon.com, “Studio Briefing”, “Celebrity News”, “Celebrity Interviews/Articles”, “Top Movies”, “IMDb Recommends”, the list goes on).

Fig. 5. IMDb.com landing page on 1 June 2001 as stored in the Internet Archive. Screenshot created on 13 Nov. 2013, 22:37:08.

From October 4th, 2007 onward, the upper-right corner shows a numbered list of IMDb's top five trailers (Figure 6; this appears to be an empty list on the screenshot, but in reality is likely encoded in a format the Wayback Machine does not read). What is interesting is that this list is removed yet also resurfaces later as a “View Top Trailers” heading with a list of ten trailers. Also, on 17 Aug. 2008, this list is suddenly sponsored by Xbox Live. In July 2009, the top trailer list seems to have returned again, but is then replaced by the IMDbTV Blog, and several other lists after that (“Movie and TV News”, “Emmy Nominees”, “Born Today”, “Gallery of the Week”, “Trailer Premiere”, “Summer Movie Guide”, “Box Office”, “Opening This Week”, “Coming Soon”, “Movie Showtimes”, “Movie Showtimes & Tickets”). On 21 Sept. 2009, a “special issue” of the IMDb also occurs, when a full list of emmy award winners that has just been announced figures prominently on the homepage (Figure 7).

Fig. 6. IMDb.com landing page on 4 Oct. 2007 as stored in the Internet Archive. Screenshot created on 13 Nov. 2013, 22:59:37.

Fig. 7. IMDb.com landing page on 21 Sept. 2009 as stored in the Internet Archive. Screenshot created on 14 Nov. 2013, 00:38:39.

Although the interface changes gradually over the years, a major change occurs again at 4 Aug. 2010 (Figure 8). Where the initial design features mostly textual lists and images of DVDs, and later also film posters, it gradually moves towards an actor-centred visual layout, featuring many red carpet photographs and stills from movies. Here, the websites undergoes a shifts from product-centred to lifestyle-tracking content, representing a changing “user” from consumer into a fan.

Fig. 8. IMDb.com landing page on 4 Aug. 2010 as stored in the Internet Archive. Screenshot created on 14 Nov. 2013, 01:00:46.

From 6 Aug. 2010 onward, there is again local information on movies playing in theatres nearby displayed with the actual screening times (Figure 9). This feature also shows the general shift from users that make or contribute lists to lists being created for (a specific kind of) user. This move towards lists created for users, tells us that the lists now come from elsewhere. For example, even though the current user can use the message boards, create “User Lists”, write reviews, and give ratings to these reviews, movies and television shows, these things are still being processed automatically and integrated as ordering mechanisms for lists such as “Top 250”, “Most Popular by Genre”, “Top Movies”, “Opening This Week” and “Coming Soon” (now both showing sale statistics), and “People who liked this also liked…”. While the list-making was initially a manual laborious and sometimes heated process (what goes in the list, and what does not go in it), it is now gradually being done by users and algorithms. At this point, the actual records and metadata are still provided only by selected authorities, but the ordering of these records into genres and lists seems to be a process of mutual shaping by technology and society.

Fig. 9. IMDb.com landing page on 6 Aug. 2010 as stored in the Internet Archive. Screenshot created on 14 Nov. 2013, 01:04:06.

5. Discussion

5.1. IMDb as Reference Database

Thinking of the IMDb as a large ensemble of list elements that are continuously moving around and change in terms of what they do or do not cover, and in what way they do so, has proven to be a useful approach here. It brings to the fore a story of IMDb as a set of list-making practices, of how these lists changed in what they cover and how they became more and more complex as they were integrated with other organisations or institutions (e.g. Amazon.com, MPAA, or movie theatres) and professional communities (e.g. IMDbPro). Consequently, there is something to be said about the differences between archives and databases here as well. While archives generally preserve unique objects that are typically hierarchically indexed (e.g. Dewey Decimal System), digital databases are usually integrated in present practices and produce or shape these practices as well. Because they are generally structured according to the relational model, they do not assign objects a fixed position in a hierarchical system, but can thus be reorganized into different hierarchies. Lev Manovich wrote: “As a cultural form, database represents the world as a list of items and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore, database and narrative are natural enemies. Competing for the same territory of human culture, each claims an exclusive right to making meaning out of the world.” (225). Reversely, does this also mean that when such a collection is ordered, then a narrative or meaning is necessarily implied? We argue that it is, and that there is indeed a story in the ordering of lists on IMDb.

Based on our analysis of the list, we suggest looking at IMDb in its current form as a reference database: rather than containing the actual source movies and television programmes, it contains links or pointers to these information sources held outside of the database (Taylor and Joudrey 162). It simply could not have existed as a source database, because there would have been many legal issues related to copyright. As a reference database it establishes itself as a list hub, which is of value in different kind of practices: such as for production companies, casting agencies, actors/actresses, but also for consumers and fans who can now find much more detailed, quality information on film and television programmes, the people involved in the production of the film, film posters, budget information, reviews, and so on.

5.2. Database Awaiting Order, or Constructing a User

Understanding IMDb as a reference database or list hub also opens up a space to think about the mutual development of lists, genres, and the construction of a “user”. The present user is not necessarily a contributor to the list anymore. As Rogers (2013) writes, “The fact that the web was not very filled in the beginning can maybe explain why “content providers” were seen as so important.” (61). Indeed, we see the same general shift throughout our analysis. Where the initial lists of IMDb were carefully edited by a small group of dedicated experts, these tasks gradually moved towards the users and the algorithms. He continues, “That the web arrived as an infrastructure awaiting content, as opposed to content awaiting infrastructure, is not often appreciated. In the early to mid-1990s websites were under construction and databases were yet to be populated.” (Rogers 61). In our case, this is taken even further. Rather than an infrastructure awaiting content, the infrastructure and its content are now arguably awaiting order. Mediated by computational algorithms, this order comes from the analysis of user ratings (which used to be called “votes”), reviews, DVD sales, theatre ticket sales, User Lists, and other similar features. In other words, what we observe is a trend that the “user” of IMDb has historically been constructed around that which the Web is awaiting (first content, then order).

5.3. Web Historiography and Reconstruction

The tools we use to archive the Web and the interfaces through which we can retrieve it have direct implications for how we can study the web over time. The Internet Archive could only take our analysis so far, and in telling our version of the story of the list, we necessarily had to go “outside” of the archive to find contextualisation. This also means, however, that we have to realise that the Internet Archive does not in any way store a complete history. We need multiple archives to complement each other (cf. Ankerson 2011). Similarly, one interface to the archive does not suffice. The current absence of searchability of the Internet Archive is crippling for many Web historical research questions. To a certain extent, then, the research we conducted and documented is a way of preserving – or micro-archiving as Brügger (2005) would have it – and enabling future research with the web as well. Consequently, one might wonder to what extent these kinds of analyses actually enable or facilitate certain kinds of research with and into the Web in the future.

6. References

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Info
Title: Reconstructing Web History
Subtitle: Tracing the Conceptual Trajectory of the List on the Internet Movie Database
Type: Research report; Assignment
Author.name: T. (Tessa) de Keijser; F. N. (Fernando) van der Vlist
Author.affiliation: Graduate School of Humanities, Faculty of Humanities, University of Amsterdam
Instructor.name: Dr. B. (Bernhard) Rieder; E. K. (Erik) Borra; Prof. Dr. R. A. (Richard) Rogers; Dr. A. (Anat) Ben-David
Instructor.affiliation: Dept. of Media Studies, Faculty of Humanities, University of Amsterdam
Abstract: This report presents a single-site history or site biography of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) and interprets the results of a Web historical analysis through the conceptual lens of Internet list-making culture. The primary soure of Web historical material in our analysis is the Internet Archive, which has been collecting an increasing amount of “snapshots” since November 1996. The main objective is to trace the list as it has been relocated or evolved into different forms over the course of the years so as to be able to read these developments side-by-side with other technological, social and cultural changes. Based on this historical analysis, we show that the list as such has transformed into a list hub or more appropriately a reference database that compiles a range of list genres and as such has been integrated into a number of devices and services external to itself that draw from IMDb.com as a resource of information about movies and celebrity culture. Moreover, we argue that in its current form, the design of IMDb.com constructs a user who is expected to generate order in an initially undifferentiated set of items (i.e. build lists) through particular interactions. Finally, we also reflect briefly on Web historiographical practice from the perspectives of Internet research and digital methods (Rogers 2013) in a broader sense.
Keywords: Internet research, digital methods, Web historiography, Internet Archive, Internet culture, list, database, IMDb
Length.words: 3,848
Length.reading: 22 mins
Element.table: Table 1; Table 2
Element.figure: Fig. 1; Fig. 2; Fig. 3a; Fig. 3b; Fig. 4; Fig. 5; Fig. 6; Fig. 7; Fig. 8; Fig. 9
Date.submitted: 15 Nov. 2013
Date.evaluated: 22 Nov. 2013
Date.publishedonline: 21 June 2014
Language: English (United Kingdom)
Documentation.style: Modern Language Association (7th ed.)
Export.citation: BibTEX
Export.print: javascript:window.print()
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