Letterboxd: A transformation of film criticism culture in the digital age

On: September 27, 2020
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About Irem Ergul


It’s 22:30 PM on a Friday night and you have just come out of the latest blockbuster that has been released in the cinema. Do you have to wait until tomorrow’s newspaper to read your favorite critic’s take on the film? No! You can simply open up your favorite film review app on your phone and start scrolling amongst the endless number of reviews! Isn’t it simply eccentric that you get to read an unceasing amount of opinions on your way home? Or is it?

The emergence of the first form of cinema was initiated by the renowned Lumiere brothers in late December 1895 (Martin 2019). The duo was the first to present moving images to a real-life audience using the revolutionary camera and projector that they gave birth to, called the “Cinematographe” (Martin 2019). It was not long after their creation that film was starting to be regarded as a potential art form and thus the first forms of film critics started to emerge in the early 1900s (Battaglia 2010). Film critics would present their stances in forms of essays or newspaper columns, offering their insights into the newest films with their entertaining prose and edgy kicks.

Keeping up with the twenty-first century

Film criticism has endured a shift from existing merely in traditional print media to taking place in social media channels and any other online outlets that allow amateur or professional film critics to voice their opinions on movies. In the spring of 2015, Film Criticism, the print journal which focused on cinema and media studies, announced that they would be transitioning from being a print journal to existing as an open access journal. Lloyd Michaels, the editor of the journal, states in his editor note that “as academic journals continue to upgrade their websites and publish online articles, I have lagged behind in guiding FC into the twenty-first century” (Michaels 2015). This however does not come as a shock, as print journalism has been witnessing a decline in the past years with the growing popularity of social media and the increased accessibility of mobile phones (Battaglia 2010).

Nevertheless, we should consider ourselves fortunate as to be living in an era in which we are exposed to an unlimited variety of voices and standpoints, ones that we would not have the chance to witness without the Internet. However, this autonomy of course comes with its inconveniencies. Online film criticism does not possess the same editorial policies as those that exist in print journalism (Brody 2014), which may indirectly result in an excess of unconnected information and opinions.

Letterboxd: changing the experience in social film discovery

Figure 1. Screenshot of the homepage of Letterboxd

Letterboxd is an easy to navigate and vibrant film rating website, in which users can “rate movies, post reviews, and follow/like other users and their reviews” (Ma 2017). In comparison to more informative and fact-based film review platforms such as IMDB, Letterboxd offers their users a more community-based feel. Users are able to keep a diary of the films they have watched and liked, and they are able to connect with their friends. They can also post reviews on the films they have watched and have the utmost freedom in what they choose to write and how.

Constructive criticism or mere mockery?

A few weeks ago, I watched the latest Christopher Nolan film, Tenet, in the cinema. Once I got home, I opened up my laptop to check Letterboxd to read any reviews which have been written about it, to see if there were some explanations for the plot points that confused me throughout the movie. Sadly, what I was faced with following my quest was ten-word reviews in which the user does not necessarily offer any standpoint but rather makes a mockery of the film in an effort to be funny or witty. Surfing around the platform a little bit more, what I realized was that these sorts of reviews can be found under almost all films. Moreover, there is a particular group of users that are popular amongst the platform and whose reviews stand at the top of the review page with the greatest number of likes.

Figure 2. Screenshot of a film review written by user “brat pitt”, June 15th 2020
Figure 3. Screenshot of a film review written by user “brat pitt”, June 26th 2020

The screenshots above exemplify reviews written by the user “brat pitt”, who has a reputation amongst the platform for writing funny and short reviews. Though it certainly may bring a smile to one’s face, one might wonder whether these brief and lighthearted reviews defeat the purpose of the platform, and whether a possible moderation system could be beneficial. As online communities continue to grow, moderations systems may become necessary (Lampe & Resnick 2004; Wise, Hamman, Thorson 2006), and this in return could lead to the elimination of repetitive or irrelevant content (Nonnecke & Preece, 2001; Wise, Hamman, Thorson 2006). Moreover, in 2006, Wise, Hamman and Thorson conducted an experiment to discover how moderation practices would affect users’ willingness to participate in a web-based online community (Wise, Hamman, Thorson 2006). The researchers concluded that users were pleased with a mechanism that flagged or eliminated behavior that distracted from the purpose of the forum, especially in an online community that has been formed around a particular topic (Wise, Hamman, Thorson 2006).

The ability to use social media or forums to discuss our interests with strangers on the Internet is one of the many privileges that has been given to us by the Internet. Implementing a moderation system on an online film review website such as Letterboxd would undoubtedly have its disputes, especially regarding freedom of expression on social media. In an era where we have free access to countless number of platforms and forums, where do we draw the line on free expression? Would increased supervision in social media platforms lead to a more pleasant experience, or decrease creativity and spontaneity in self-expression?


“A Review of Inception (2010).” n.d. Accessed September 27, 2020. https://letterboxd.com/bratpitt/film/inception/.

Battaglia, James. n.d. “Everyone’s a Critic: Film Criticism Through History and Into the Digital Age,” 49.

“‎brat Pitt’s Profile • Letterboxd.” n.d. Accessed September 27, 2020. https://letterboxd.com/bratpitt/.

Dadák, Petr. 2006. Cinema. Photo. https://www.flickr.com/photos/infodad/250640033/.

“IMDb: Ratings, Reviews, and Where to Watch the Best Movies & TV Shows.” n.d. Accessed September 27, 2020. https://www.imdb.com/.

Lampe, Cliff, and Paul Resnick. 2004. “Slash(Dot) and Burn: Distributed Moderation in a Large Online Conversation Space.” In Proceedings of the 2004 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems  – CHI ’04, 543–50. Vienna, Austria: ACM Press. https://doi.org/10.1145/985692.985761.

“Letterboxd • Your Life in Film.” n.d. Accessed September 27, 2020. https://letterboxd.com/.

Ma, Johnny. n.d. “Film Friend Networks: Evidence of Spillover Effects in Film Watching Behavior from Letterboxd.Com,” 16.

Martin, Pedro Garcia. 2019. “Lights! Camera! Action! How the Lumière Brothers Invented the Movies.” History Magazine. February 22, 2019. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/magazine/2019/01-02/creation-of-the-motion-picture-lumiere-brothers/.

Michaels, Lloyd. 2015. “Editor’s Note.” Film Criticism 39 (3): 1-.

“‎‘My Neighbor Totoro’ Review by Brat Pitt • Letterboxd.” n.d. Accessed September 27, 2020. https://letterboxd.com/bratpitt/film/my-neighbor-totoro/.

Nonnecke, Blair, and Jenny Preece. 2001. “Why Lurkers Lurk.” AMCIS 2001 Proceedings, December. https://aisel.aisnet.org/amcis2001/294.

Wise, Kevin, Brian Hamman, and Kjerstin Thorson. 2006. “Moderation, Response Rate, and Message Interactivity: Features of Online Communities and Their Effects on Intent to Participate.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 12 (1): 24–41. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2006.00313.x.

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