The Reader Vanishes

September 17, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Over the course of 2008, I have noticed a decline in the website's readership. There are no obvious site-related issues to explain this. Advertising has been constant since 2007 (it actually started in late 2006). The June redesign has not resulted in an appreciable change in overall traffic. (Although there was a temporary hiccup when IMDb couldn't find the new locations of the reviews.) It's easy enough to blame the decrease in readership on poor movies and, perhaps to some degree, that's the case. But I think there's something else at work here. I refer to my traffic logs to back this up.

It used to be the case that, whenever a "fanboy friendly" (for lack of a better term) movie opened, there would be a huge upswing in pageviews for that review. When I write "used to be," I'm not referring to 1998 or 2005 or last year. I can track this as recently as January 2008 and Cloverfield, which drove my traffic through the roof. Since then, however, there has been a shift. With the exception of The Dark Knight, which showed a spike, there has been little noticeable difference between pageviews for reviews of "regular" movies and "fanboy friendly" ones. Or, to put it another way, the readership of the review for Hamlet 2 has nearly matched that of Iron Man. So what's going on?

My guess is that fanboys have stopped paying attention to film critics. One might argue that they never did in the first place, but at least they used to read us. Now, they're not even doing that. To them, we critics have passed into irrelevancy.

If you understand the fanboy mentality (this term is not meant as an insult), it's understandable. If you love something, you don't want to listen to the naysayers. You want to hear only from those who validate your opinion, and that usually means other fanboys (or fangirls). I remember being in that category back at the time of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In late 1979, the first new live-action Star Trek in a decade received decidedly mixed reviews. However, hardcore 12-year-old devotee that I was, I ignored the bad and listened only to the good. I applauded Roger Ebert's thumbs up and hissed at Gene Siskel's thumbs down. The Internet makes this process a lot easier. Now, it's not just a matter of reading a bad review in Time magazine and deciding that the critic doesn't know his ass from his elbow.

Message boards and social forums have become the places to discuss movies. Critics, even those whose work is solely or primarily on-line, are of minimal relevance to many who frequent these pockets of electronic passion. My four-star review of The Dark Knight was reprinted frequently in such places because it reflected the views of those who loved the movie. Had I been less effusive in my praise, the content of the review would have remained sequestered at ReelViews.

So, are critics becoming irrelevant? There will always be a portion of the public that cares about what critics have to say and are interested in any insight they may have to offer, but that segment is shrinking. Someone who sees all movies as a possible source of pleasure is more likely to read reviews than someone who focuses only as far as the next "event" motion picture. Where has the traffic gone? Away from review-centric sites like this one to those sites that are more publicity and multimedia oriented.

I have no idea whether adding a small amount of video content to ReelViews (a limited number of trailers and clips) will result in a change in traffic, but it's something I'll try in the near future (in a way that should not cause a significant change to the way the site looks, feels, or loads). Whether I stick with that content will depend on two factors: (1) how stable the provider is, and (2) how well it is received. The goal isn't so much to pull in new viewers as it is to offer something extra to those who visit the site.

Traffic has largely stabilized since late spring. The RSS feed is healthy and the number of subscribers is growing. (Ironically, this could be hurting visits to the site since there's enough content in the feed to keep casual browsers from clicking through.) Advertising revenue is in the toilet, but this may be as much a function of the economy as it is of low click-through percentages related to ad blindness. That's one problem for which there's no real solution; even the best-intentioned people often ignore ads simply because their positions are so familiar. If I suddenly wiped away all of the ads, it might cause a moment of disorientation.

I should mention that the erosion in readership is not confined to this site. It's an issue being faced by many webmasters whose content is primarily text-based reviews. There is diminishing thirst out there for this product. A stunning decrease in illiterate hate mail has accompanied this, as well, reinforcing my belief that those who used to surf the web for mentions of their favorite movies have now found a new playground in which to interact. Hence, those who used to come to the site, read a review, and send me a nasty e-mail of disagreement, are now simply going to forums and devoting all of their energy there. It makes the ReelViews community smaller and friendlier. Small isn't necessarily bad (as long as it's not too small), but it does take some getting used to.