The New Yorker caption contest, held on the back page of the magazine every week, is not often a rallying point for the denizens of the Internet. But on Monday, when the winner of the latest contest was announced, hundreds of congratulations rang out on Twitter. Why? Because Roger Ebert won.
Not Roger Ebert the film critic, known for his two-thumbs-up reviews. Sure, he’s been one of the best-loved film critics for decades, writing for the Chicago Sun Times since 1967. He even has a Pulitzer Prize to prove it.
I’m not talking about that Ebert. I’m talking about Roger Ebert the Internet rock star.
This Ebert still writes a profuse amount of movie reviews, but those are only part of his repertoire. He airs his personal and political musings in 140-charcter tweets, many-more-character blogs, and plenty of Facebook posts. He promotes young writers from distant countries, most of whom he has only met in the corridors of the Internet. He debates his readers fiercely in his comments on topics as wide ranging as the artistry of video games to the ethics of the Tea Party (he’s very open about his liberal leanings). He has a weekly newsletter with 5,000 subscribers. He’s experimented with online advertising in an ill-matched Amazon partnership. He’s found a whole new act as a verifiable online celebrity. He even has a Webby Person of the Year award to prove it.
After cancer left him voiceless, Ebert started talking by typing. After his big New Yorker win, I sent him some questions about his life online. Here’s what he had to say:
Have you found a new voice online? If so, how has your voice changed?
Perhaps I've started to write more conversationally. I've also become wordier, because online I don't have the constraints of newspaper space. My reviews are still about the same length, but I've written much longer blog entries. I've also written a lot of tweets. Those are an art form. Years ago it bothered me that online wasn't as “permanent” as newsprint, before I realized the words actually stay available much longer. I have about 10,000 movie reviews online, and the papers containing them have mostly disappeared.
Do you remember a moment online when you suddenly thought to yourself: “I'm on to something here. Something new and different and good.”?
Yes, when I was still in the hospital and started to read the comments from my first blog entries. My readers became more personal to me. I made friends around the world. At Ebertfest, my festival at the University of Illinois, many of the guests are to be my blog’s Far-Flung Correspondents from Turkey, Mexico, Egypt the Philippines, Brazil, India, Dubai, Canada, South Korea, and so on. I met them all online.
Have you become more open online, such as with your political beliefs?
Reviews cannot be objective, and so there is no reason to pretend they can be. I am a liberal, so that's that. Online openness is really the only approach that works. You can't expound in the third person as if you possess truth. Journalism can be objective, but a critic can't be. I feel in any event that a journalist who is more open about his opinion can be fairer than one who adopts the pose of disinterested omniscience.
What do you see as the drawbacks to the way we interact online?
Many people are cruel and snarky. By vetting all my own blog comments, I've been able to enforce civility there.
What mistakes — if any — have you made online?
I was tweeting Amazon links for about four months as an Amazon Associate. I hoped to raise some money for extras on my blog. I was frank about what I was doing, but I believe some people were offended. By the time Amazon withdrew from Illinois (for sales tax reasons), I was actually relieved. It was time-consuming and alienating.
What’s your advice for winning the New Yorker caption contest?
Keep entering. It only took me 107 tries.