An Age-Old Problem

Most of us are familiar with the incredible success story of our 2004 Model of Excellence winner, the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). IMDB began life as a Usenet group list, morphing into arguably the first example of a database built with user-generated content. In 1998, the non-profit hobbyist venture was acquired by Amazon.

In those frothy dot com days, it would have been reasonable to expect a huge backlash from all those who had voluntarily contributed to IMDB and watched their effort absorbed by a for-profit entity. But Amazon handled things perfectly. It lavished paid editorial resources on IMDB to quickly prove to users that it was going to make IMDB even deeper and more comprehensive. As importantly, it kept IMDB free. It worked. There was no backlash and usage of the site kept growing. Amazon then linked its DVD catalog to IMDB to increase sales of movies, and that worked as well. More recently, Amazon launched IMDBPro, a paid subscription version of IMDB with even more content for movie industry professionals. It has integrated local movie show times. It added ratings and rankings. Usage has soared along with advertising revenue. It's been a great ride for IMBD.

But now IMDB is embroiled in a truly odd and very public dispute with an actress who doesn't want her real age published in IMDB. The actress, who prefers her age to be listed as age 26-33, was incensed that IMDB listed her as -- gasp -- age 40. She promptly sued Amazon for $1 million.

The basis for the lawsuit? Older actresses get fewer movie roles. How do we know this? Because a study was done of the earnings of older actresses. Of course, if actresses regularly lie about their ages, one probably shouldn't place too much weight on such research.

IMDB hit back hard, with its lawyers calling the lawsuit frivolous and trying to get the actress to publicly identify herself, something they might have thought would force the actress to drop the lawsuit.

But an interesting detail that has got less attention is that IMDB apparently determined the true age of the actress by accessing credit report data when she ordered an IMDB subscription and paid by credit card. If true, this takes editorial research to a new level.

There may be additional facts to this case I don't know, but while I give conceptual brownie points to IMDB for being so committed to data quality, my view is IMDB went beyond the call of duty. Data publishers have a long and proud history of not removing information when requested or threatened, but crossing the line into private detective work is rare. IMDB is also playing in a dangerous gray area when the information being obtained is on an individual and not an organization.

On a more practical level, my guess is that IMDB wasn't doing the same intense research on every actor in its database, and intensely checking only a few actors doesn't help IMDB or its customers. And even if IMDB had made a commitment to getting true ages for all actors in its database, would its customers really care that much? The industry has managed to thrive for many decades despite dubious age data. Do movie producers really want to automatically screen actors in or out based solely on age? If so, perhaps IMDB shouldn't be working so hard to enable such discriminatory behavior. Overall, it seems like a lot of effort for very little benefit ... to anyone.

On the most practical level of all, my recommendation to the actress in this case, as well as to all those who want to take control of their identities: if you are going to lie about your age, don't do it with an age range, just pick a number. IMDB editors probably couldn't enter an age range in their database, and that's probably what prompted the research in the first place!