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When cancer stole Roger Ebert’s voice, Twitter gave him a new one

Mathew Ingram

After a long battle with cancer — which took away his vocal chords and eventually most of his lower jaw — veteran Chicago-based film critic Roger Ebert passed away on Thursday, leaving a host of passionate film buffs mourning his loss. Many of those fans likely formed an even closer connection to him after he could no longer speak without the aid of a computer, because of his enthusiastic use of Twitter and other social-media tools. He may have been just a movie reviewer to some, but mainstream journalists of all kinds could learn a lot from his example.

Twitter didn’t turn Ebert into a star, of course — he was already well known as half of the Siskel and Ebert movie-reviewing team long before he moved online, and his TV presence in turn came about because he was a popular film columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times. But after he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002, and had to have a series of operations that eventually left him unable to speak without a computer voice simulator, he poured much of his enthusiasm for life and the movies into Twitter and other social-media tools, including his personal blog.

I’m glad @ebertchicago got his voice back with Twitter.—
Burrito Justice (@burritojustice) April 04, 2013

In a piece he wrote in 2010 for his Chicago Sun-Times blog, Ebert celebrated the role that Twitter played in his life, something he said he never expected to say of the social network that he originally saw as an irrelevant distraction. As he put it:

“I vowed I would never become a Twit. Now I have Tweeted nearly 10,000 Tweets. I said Twitter represented the end of civilization. It now represents a part of the civilization I live in. I said it was impossible to think of great writing in terms of 140 characters. I have been humbled by a mother of three in New Delhi. I said I feared I would become addicted. I was correct.”

The part about being humbled by a mother of three in New Delhi says a lot about how Ebert used Twitter to connect with his readers — and critics. His passing was mourned by celebrities, but he was also more than willing to talk (and argue) with just about anyone who felt like engaging with him, and not just about movies but about plenty of other things as well. One follower who took part in a debate with him remembered how he and Ebert argued about the artistic value of video games.

A @rogerebert tweet is worth as much traffic as a small Digg or YCombinator hit. Crazy. That's some distribution power.

Alexis C. Madrigal (@alexismadrigal) August 05, 2012

In a sense, Ebert’s adoption of Twitter was somewhat ironic, since social media has helped to rob traditional movie reviewers of much of their authority — to the point where many newspapers don’t even employ a dedicated reviewer any more. But for Ebert, it became a lifeline, and one that only enhanced his popularity. He also came up with his own rules for how to use Twitter, which are good advice not just for journalists but for anyone:

“My rules for Twittering are few: I tweet in basic English. I avoid abbreviations and ChatSpell. I go for complete sentences. I try to make my links worth a click. I am not above snark, no matter what I may have written in the past. I tweet my interests, including science and politics, as well as the movies. I try to keep links to stuff on my own site down to around 5 or 10%. I try to think twice before posting.”

His interest in new-media tools extended beyond Twitter too: While many media outlets like The Atlantic are experimenting with “native advertising” and Gawker is trying out affiliate links, Roger Ebert started playing around with those kinds of monetization methods over two years ago — making a few of his daily tweets recommendations, with an Amazon affiliate link included. Although he got some criticism for doing so, most of his fans were happy for him to have the extra revenue.

The ultimate example of how being from “old media” doesn’t mean you can’t be great in “new media”: Roger Ebert.

Jason Snell (@jsnell) April 04, 2013

But it was Twitter that captured Ebert’s heart the most, because it said it was like having a running conversation — something he could never again have in real life — with thousands of people from all around the world, with all of the ups and downs that any conversation brings:

“When you think about it, Twitter is something like a casual conversation among friends over dinner: Jokes, gossip, idle chatter, despair, philosophy, snark, outrage, news bulletins, mourning the dead, passing the time, remembering favorite lines, revealing yourself.”

Ebert certainly did reveal himself — as human, and vulnerable, and funny, and smart. That made his fans love him and look forward to his reviews all the more. And that is the power of social media in a nutshell.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / FeatureFlash

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