Letterboxd, the Commons, and Data Ownership

31 Jan 2020

According to my Letterboxd profile, I watched 183 movies in 2019. I started using the service around the end of 2018, and have been using it on a nearly daily basis since then. It helped me track everything I’ve watched and want to watch. It also significantly changed the way that I watch movies, largely by making me more intentional about what I’m spending my time with.

After using the service for a year, at different levels of depth, I’m starting to reconsider my relationship with it.

Letterboxd and the Commons

In February I watched Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬) for the first time, and was awestruck. I spent a fair amount of time reading about the film after going home, and learned that one of the producers was Hsu Feng (徐枫), who’d starred in a number of King Hu (胡金銓) films. I didn’t realize that she’d worked as a producer, and when I checked the relevant section of her Letterboxd page some time later, I saw very little there. Certainly no Farewell My Concubine.

Letterboxd is very upfront about the fact that all of its film data comes from another service, TMDb.

To add missing films or correct inaccuracies for existing films, please use TMDb’s interface (you’ll need to create an account there too).

I did just that, and made my first few edits. In this way, Letterboxd was now malleable.

The Commons and Me

TMDb is a structured wiki. Where Wikipedia is largely blobs of text with patterns and shapes dictated by convention, TMDb is more opinionated about the allowed shape of data, since it deals with a narrower world.

Films have casts. Films have crews. Crew members have one or more jobs. Films are released in various regions at different times. Each film on TMDb is a vessel to be filled with these types of facts. And I was happy to provide them.

My edit volume started to spike in September when I watched a particular Sion Sono (園子温) film, and found the credits lacking. That year I happened to be watching Sion Sono’s films throughout the whole year. Throughout Sono’s film, and in particular his early ones, many of the actors who were cast were regulars. I started recognizing many of them, got better at reading Japanese names, and started filling in those details for his movies.

As I did, the web of interconnected films and actors grew denser. The data became more “complete”, and I felt good about contributing to a project that was nominally open (it’s ultimately still all controlled by one person). And the impact of these contributions was starting to show up back in my usage of Letterboxd.

In 2019, my most watched actor was Motoki Fukami (深水元基). I saw 11 films that he appeared in. Three of those appearances I’d added to the database.

My Own Diary

If I’m contributing to, and consuming from, TMDb’s data then what exactly am I receiving from Letterboxd? It was obvious to me that it wasn’t nothing, but there was a nagging sensation that the service wasn’t optimized for what I wanted.

The lists and tags that I created could be massaged into the structure that Letterboxd dictated, but it didn’t necessarily show up where I wanted it to. This was especially visible when viewing my diary. This lens on my watching isn’t terribly useful to me. I don’t rate movies and I don’t write reviews. Instead, this view is useful for others. That’s where Letterboxd excels.

What Letterboxd gives me is a convenient way of intersecting my personal data with that of all of it’s other members. That aggregation let’s me see what’s commonly watched, what’s highly rated, what lists others have created that can be sliced by my watch history. Or better yet, can help inform my future watching behaviors. Everything that I want that isn’t among those benefits should have its canonical home somewhere else.

That home is my movie diary. Here, the metadata of watch dates and likes and ratings are invisible. I don’t need them. Instead, I try to surface some of the context behind why I’m watching things. Those might exist on Letterboxd in the form of tags or lists, but they’re made hard to access. In my diary, they’re central. And with this newfound flexibility, I can try things that simply don’t fit into Letterboxd’s model. Things like linking two films together as part of a double feature. Or connecting my watching of Cry Me A River (河上的爱情) with both Summer Palace (颐和园), which shares its stars, and an SFMOMA retrospective of Jia Zhangke’s work, who directed the short.

The links that connect my watching of one film to another tell a more real story about how I interact with film than a plain collection of movies. Perhaps soon my movie diary can be as personal or revealing as a diary might be.