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by Donald Melanson


December 12, 2003 | feature

Social software is the latest "next big thing" to get technophiles excited and VCs interested. What exactly it is, few can describe. In some respects, it is nothing new at all, but rather a means of connecting and defining previously disparate elements. Mindjack editor Donald Melanson takes a look at one group that has taken this idea and run with it, before the idea ever had a name: film and DVD enthusiasts.

Recently, I compiled a personal top twenty list of my favorite films - not exactly something that was high on my list of priorities. But I happened across a website called Your Movie Database, which promised to match my taste in movies with other users', based on our respective lists, hopefully resulting in some good film recommendations. Instantly upon completing my list I was matched with five other YMDB users who, for the most part, did indeed share my taste in movies.

The system is still rather crude. There's no place, for instance, to write reviews of the films on your list; or a means for rating films not on your list. But for its intended task of matching your interests with others', it succeeds.

Your Movie Database is just one example of a trend that is at least partly tied to the breakneck growth of DVDs: online, ad-hoc networks of film information based on individual users' tastes and recommendations. The trouble is, few of these networks are connected directly with each other, limiting the full potential of this mass of disconnected information.

For instance, I keep a database of my DVD collection with a software program called DVD Profiler. It lets me rate and review each DVD and, if I wish, publish my collection on the DVD Profiler website. Members of online film communities like DVD Talk use tools like this to share their collections with other members of the community (they often include links to their collections in the signature of their posts). This is, in a sense, a makeshift reputation system. If I see someone that has Kurosawa, Goddard, Fellini and Ozu films in their collection, I'll pay more attention to them than to someone with the complete works of Michael Bay.

Yet there is no built-in function to DVD Profiler (or any of the other similar programs as far as I can tell) that matches your collection with other users'. Nor is there an ability to comment on other people's collections. The software simply produces a static web page.

Combining something like DVD Profiler and something like Your Movie Database would be a start, but only that. Consider a few more examples.

Amazon's been in the recommendation business for some time now, and they're frighteningly good at it. For every item I add to my wish list, Amazon recommends at least two others that I usually end up adding as well. DVD Profiler has a wishlist option, but does not make recommendations based on the titles already in your collection. Something that is technically possible. Just think of the Amazon Associate referral fees that could be generated.

Rotten Tomatoes tracks movie reviews from hundreds of professional film critics. Such a system combined with a YMDB/DVD Profiler hybrid could easily find critics that share your taste in movies. Better still, match Amazon-style automated recommendations with recommendations from critics and other people that share your taste. All this information already exists in various disparate online repositories, it just needs to be connected.

Much of this relates to what my colleague Josh Ellis calls "taste tribes". Taste tribes are groups of people, usually internet-facilitated, who provide recommendations to each other either directly or indirectly. These groups, however, usually work with ad-hoc or makeshift systems, such as the numerous disconnected online film tools I've outlined above. It works, but it could be facilitated much easier if the proper tools were available.

I wrote at the beginning of this article that all of this is at least partly tied to the rapid growth of DVDs. What makes DVDs so different that seeing movies at the theatre or on VHS, you may ask. I modestly propose that DVDs have done nothing short than change our relationship with movies.

As important as the DVDs themselves is how quickly the technology has been embraced by the general public. Already, "DVD" has entered the vernacular as the word for watching a movie at home. Compare that to CDs, which took well over a decade for the name of a particular technology to become the dominant term its medium. And many people still refer to a particular piece of music as a record or album, even if what they are referring to is on a CD.

Much like CDs, however, the emergence of DVDs has spurred people to build personal libraries of movies. Something that was relatively uncommon with VHS, and confined to home theatre buffs with Laserdiscs. For those who don't want to own dozens or hundreds of DVDs, Netflix makes renting an effortless and instantly rewarding activity. This, combined with the numerous special features and supplemental materials on DVDs effectively makes for more informed film viewers.

There are a number of positive side effects to such a rapid adoption of a new technology. One is the excitement experienced by users of the latest technology. They want to use it not only because of the content, but because of the technology itself. This excitement can manifest itself in a number of ways. Most importantly, people want to share their newfound knowledge of the technology.

One of example of this is self-made commentary tracks for DVDs. Unlike the tracks included on DVDs, which are either by the filmmakers themselves or a film scholar, most of these amateur tracks are from people who are simply fans of the film. As far as I can tell, Roger Ebert was the first to suggest this a couple of years ago. Shortly thereafter, people started sharing personal commentary tracks on the internet. Today, the website contains dozens of commentary tracks recorded by users on their own computers, some of which are actually quite good. This is yet another level of the amateur film criticism seen on sites like Your Movie Database. Just as blogs made everybody a publisher, these technologies can make everybody a critic.

We've yet to see the full potential of this confluence of film and technology, but it is clear that we will likely never look at movies the same way again.

Donald Melanson is the founder and editor-in-chief of Mindjack. He keeps an irregularly updated weblog at and writes about movies at

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