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Roger Ebert found a new, boundless voice on social media

Updated: May 8, 2013 6:47AM



I can’t take credit for turning Roger on to Twitter. I kept telling him about my own increasing affection for the service (after I’d dismissed it in an early review) and I was very pleased when he finally told me that he had decided, reluctantly, to try an experiment.

He assured me that he would pull the plug on his Twitter account 30 days later. That was roughly 30,000 Tweets ago.

But I’m sure that his other friends were talking up Twitter to him, so we all probably sort of wore him down. I was 100 percent confident that whenever Roger took up Twitter and blogging, he’d be at it like a demon, forever.

I’m just amazed that an intellect, a voice, and an insatiable curiosity like Roger’s could have been contained within the bounds of print for so many years. On a blog, there’s never any need to “make room” among a limited number of ad-supported pages for an article that falls far beyond a writer’s stated bailiwick. There’s no need to limit one’s imagination to a set number of column inches, either.

And you never need to show anything to anybody, ever. Roger decided. Roger wrote. Roger published.

A Tweet represented Roger’s id; articles that pleased him, quick ideas that occurred to him. A blog post was his superego at work: Roger’s immense powerhouse of composition was allowed to draw crop circles as big and detailed as he ever wished.

But his blog was more than an outlet. It was an expression of one of Roger’s qualities that I admired most. Few writers had as large an audience as Roger, but fewer had a desire to listen that was just as compelling as the desire to speak.

Roger’s first dalliance into electronic publishing was the medium that forged our friendship: CompuServe. In the pre-Internet days of the very late ’80s, the service got access to his movie reviews in a deal that included the establishment of his own message board. Roger was a prolific poster. And to be an equal voice in any discussion, a CompuServe member only needed a passion for film that was restrained by careful thought and articulated with clear communication.

It presaged Roger’s relationships with RogerEbert.com’s golden crop of Far-Flung Correspondents. Roger was often surprised to learn the actual backgrounds of his most valued message posters. “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” says the cartoon. On RogerEbert.com, nobody cares that you’re a sixteen-year-old girl who scoops ice cream on weekends. Why should they? Her thoughts on how Alexander Payne casts his leads are awesome!

Roger Ebert’s distinctive influence is seen in the open commentary on his blog posts. Each post generates hundreds of comments. Every comment is thoughtful and insightful, and respects the thoughts and beliefs of others. Visit the comments section of any YouTube video with more than 500 views and tell me that this isn’t utterly remarkable.

Social media consultants promise to deliver those results with search-engine optimization, captchaplug-ins, IP tracking, and realtime tracking of Google trending topics. Roger delivered that experience just by being Roger. He understood the dangerous limitations of a single perspective, and his mind kept tugging him towards outside voices. He liked to hear, so he wanted others to hear; he liked to speak, so he gave others a forum to do so.

And he hated wasting his time with blowhard idiots. So through his own dogged, dignified example, he created what might be the Internet’s sole bozo-free zone.

Roger’s most visible legacy is the enormous collection of reviews that will continue to guide rudderless movie fans for generations to come. But among his most important will be the millions of RogerEbert.com readers who are probably a lot more likely to listen before speaking than the average person who stares at the “Post Reply” button while contemplating an irrelevant itch.



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