Letterboxd and The Romance of Personal Curation

Being the person I am, a person who spent the month before my first semester of college last year combing the internet for the perfect Tarkovsky poster to christen my first dorm room—I settled on a much-too-large Stalker print, in French of course. It complimented my roommate’s much-too-large Twenty-One Pilots poster beautifully—I naturally began to hear the word “Letterboxd” floating around my Oberlin social circles. It seemed to be an accessible inside joke, a little portal of internet coolness (perhaps, too, pretentiousness), the sort of site that comes and goes in new iterations every so often, attracts the snide and dorky and highbrow, is discovered and teased by the general public, and then eventually stumbles away in shame. However, being the technologically-averse “old soul” I tend to be, I’d never even visited the website. I knew very little about it and certainly didn’t have any idea if my assumptions were of any merit. Letterboxd hung in my periphery as some dubious cocktail of Goodreads and IMDB, neither of which had ever piqued my interest for more than fifteen brow-furrowing minutes at a time as I glowered and poked at my phone like a disgraced father. Yes, admittedly, Letterboxd meant very little to me until someone in a Grape staff meeting posed the question; is it just Tinder for leftists?   

Letterboxd, as it turns out, is simply a social media site for sharing film reviews and recommendations, and, for many, acts as a public journal of films watched. Everything is dated and tracked. So, like Goodreads, users can track how many films they’ve watched in a year.  Claiming it is “leftist Tinder” is, of course, a humorous little jab at Obies and the like. Oh, Oberlin lefties and their solemn three-hour movie dates! Their intellectual performances and snobbery for all things ironic, underground, and unintelligible-to-most! Can they try any harder? Jeez! Get a little more alternative, why dont’ch’ya! And so on and so forth. And, whether or not these digs are at all insightful, the possibility that a media curation site—to some simply a record or journal of media consumption—could possibly act as a dating app or Tinder-equivalent fascinates me as an outsider. For, when you think about it, what is the difference between loving the same highbrow director as a peer and sparking up some sort of undergraduate mating ritual because of it and…say, earnestly embracing your love for The Office in your Tinder bio hoping to find another sweet Pam to romance? What is so different aside from the niche factor, a guise of personal intellectualism? Perhaps on sites like Letterboxd, the curation aspect of dating sites like Tinder has simply been drawn out and narrativized and, with external media as a vehicle, filtered through the old illusory idea we still cling to; Well They Like That One Song and I Like That One Song So Maybe We’re Perfect For One Another? (A Tinder anthem is, indeed, a sensitive choice).   

And then there is the issue of the “Favorite Films” or “Top 4”, Letterboxd’s way of allowing users to choose four movies that other users see first when accessing their page. It’s a way of curating another’s first impression of you; the first photo on Tinder only one sees The Long Goodbye or In the Mood for Love and not your chiseled jawline and greenish doe eyes. This aspect of Letterboxd is perhaps the element most reminiscent of Tinder in its social curation. Sure, your name marks the top of the screen, but a visiting user immediately clamors to see what films have gotten through to you, left enough of an imprint of your sense of self that you typed out their title and made them a favorite. And there’s only four. Of all movies, those are your four. It sounds corny and unimportant, but I find it hard to shrug away the meaning of that. Out of curiosity, I accessed a few close friends’ Letterboxd pages and laughed to myself at their Favorite Films because, well, they were so them. And though those films say nothing truly of depth about who they are as people, the fact that those films somehow altered the way they see the great, all-encompassing thing that are movies to movie-lovers is fascinating. I started thinking about what I might put on my Favorite Films and ended up staring at a wall blankly for more than a few minutes before finally drawing a blank. If you’re even half as neurotic as I am, it is a big question to grapple with. I don’t mean to sound TikTok-ian in my neuroticism but…being perceived is a hell of a feat. Curating that perception, at least in this little corner of the internet, is strange. There seems to be a drawn line between those who love movies and those who have found themselves to be movie-lovers and have gone out of their way to make it a concrete and knowable fact of their identity. The line is difficult to locate but it is inarguably present. And I couldn’t help wondering where I stood. If I began my Letterboxd journey, would I be a swipe left or right? And to whom: the lovers of movies or the movie-lovers, hell, cinephiles—Jesus…film bros?—And, in the same vein, why do I care all of a sudden? Had I even cared before?  

Sam Blieden, our favorite Cinema Studies major, wasn’t so sure of this Letterboxd-Tinder Venn diagram. “It’s funny, I feel like most people try harder to crack jokes than flirt…unless in cases of liking people’s reviews. What I’ve found from my years on there, especially as more Oberlin students joined, is [there are a handful of archetypes:] 1. ‘I was forced by my friend to make this account and forgot about it!’ 2. The wannabe film bro who has all of a sudden discovered all the ‘classics’ and only watches those. 3.The person who joined who tried to use it as a comedy platform but isn’t succeeding.” And, lest we forget: the bewildered and earnest, those who just want to watch and find and review movies. They sometimes, admittedly, slip under the radar

While Sam’s analysis is funny and perhaps made me understand the Tinder-Letterboxd comparison to be a bit more of a tepid one than I had initially gathered, I still couldn’t help placing the Letterboxd Archetypes and the Tinder Archetypes side-by-side. Perhaps number 1 (“I was forced by my friend to make this account and forgot about it!”) is comparable to the Tinder account with a few awkward group photos and a bio that insists “I lost a bet! My friends made me! What am I doing here? This is soooo crazy!” 

Number 2 is a bit harder to place, however. Maybe one could pair it with any alternative, cooler-than-thou Tinder profile with an alienating anthem and a bio that almost begs for rejection, but still reeks of careful curation (the off-putting photos were definitely reordered four times, the obscure anthem altered weekly). It is pride over affection here, I’d say. But, perhaps I’m being too harsh on these guys. Maybe they really are waiting on that one special fella to listen to [OBSCURE NOISE PROJECT] with, gazing into each other’s apathetic eyes. 

And 3, without a doubt, is the Jokey Tinder—-the good-humored faux profile advertising a lowly 21-year-old house cat or a cartoon character or goofy politician—that was probably the product of isolation boredom and a need to see other people’s Tinder profiles without engaging personally. For, on the internet, we are all comedians with some free time and a little over a hundred Twitter followers to bear us witness. One need not be clever to be a card, if one ever did. 

Finally, there are the genuine users existing on both sites. They want only to grow acquainted with a few others who love the same filmmaker. They want only to go on a bashful walk in the arb. They seek to prove, well...nothing, either oblivious to the coolness aspect inherent to both apps or just—enviably—unscathed and disinterested. To them, like those cursed with digital self-consciousness, these sites are just as much another empty space rife with self-curation opportunities, yet…why think so hard about it? What is this article even going on about? Just be yourself! Just watch movies and go on dates! Why care about all of these agonizingly superficial marks of character? And, they’re right but…this is easier said—written—than done. Especially while existing in a place like Oberlin. 

The point I’m trying to make is that perhaps every personal curation site is just a more niche, less efficient Tinder. For, in these curated little galleries of ours, we control how we are seen by what is seen, pushing the often invisible parts of ourselves forward. For Letterboxd, it is the guise of intellectualism and hobbyist cinephilia…but the familiar dating app archetypes are still there. Even Sam resigned in agreement with some Letterboxd butterflies on occasion. “I do think there can be a flirting aspect to it: Segues into creating conversations [about certain films], trying to impress a crush with your ‘kino’ taste and commenting on/liking almost all of their reviews.” 

It makes sense. The internet has allowed us to prod ourselves into relationships with less messiness. It seems as though Tinder success stories often stem from two people knowing each other in real life, being too shy to explicitly flirt in person for fear of flat-out rejection, finding each other on Tinder, matching, and then, finally, engaging as romantic prospects. Letterboxd could—and, I’m sure, is—used in much the same way. Sure, we kind of know each other in real life…but did you also know we love the same auteur movies? Whoa, that doesn’t happen every day. Hey, do you want to borrow my Criterion log-in?