Roger Ebert’s Twitter brilliance helped him find a new generation of fans

Roger Ebert was the smartest man on Twitter. And when the Chicago Sun-Times, the paper where he penned gems as movie critic for nearly half a century, announced his death Thursday afternoon on the social networking site, it included his handle, @ebertchicago.

At first, this struck me as odd — ghoulish, even. Why include the Twitter handle of someone who would never be able to respond? But, as many were quick to point out, his Twitter handle was just as much a part of his identity as anything else.

I didn’t follow Roger Ebert on Twitter. I bookmarked his page. I made it appointment reading to scroll his entire feed and read everything I could. I made a pact with myself to rarely share his stuff, for fear the slope would be too slippery and I would become simply a parrot of the Pulitzer Prize winning writer.

To some, he’s a newspaper man. To others, he’s the TV man whose thumb made him famous. But, as Aaron Morrissey pointed out, “you could make an argument that there’s a decent number of people who mostly know Ebert as @ebertchicago.” I was one of those people and didn’t even realize it.

For a man who lost the ability to speak in 2006, his voice was stronger than most online. A retweet from him meant a near instant follow for the person upon whom he bestowed that honor, at least for me. He used Twitter expertly as a platform to talk about whatever he wanted and not just a platform to share his work in another space on the Internet. He linked to interesting things. Even his avatar was tremendous.

In a sense, Twitter completely revamped his career. It also introduced him to an even broader audience. To a certain generation, his status as a film critic was almost an aside to his role as a liberal opinionator. He became famous all over again for something that he didn’t even do professionally. Nearly 840,000 followers is nothing to scoff at. And I imagine that the precious 255 people he followed justly felt like geniuses.

Listening to WBEZ’s “The Afternoon Shift” program Thursday, memories of Ebert poured in over the airwaves.

“He believed in online. He was all wired, connected, no matter what. [He was] the first person that I knew that had a Mac,” said Milos Stehlik, a film contributor at the Chicago public radio station. “He was the master of the short pithy email. Which could be one word, but absolutely precise. You know, right on. He was an incredible communicator and connector.”

Those skills made Twitter a great fit for Ebert’s style, said Ernest Wilkins, a columnist for RedEye Chicago. “His personality is what we like to call ‘So Chicago It Hurts.’ Eloquent but approachable, not afraid to express himself and not afraid to weigh in on issues of the day,” Wilkins wrote in an email. “ The medium works well for people who can articulate a lot in a small amount of characters.”

Ebert respected Twitter as a medium. In a 2010 column he wrote, “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.”

He was convinced to join Twitter by a letter from a mother of three in New Delhi, who used the medium to tweet poetry as a way to reconnect with God at a low point of her life. In a letter to Ebert, Natasha Badhwar wrote, “I came to Twitter to find a quiet private place where I could put back the pieces of a self that felt broken and bruised in many places. To climb out of the dark hole in which I found myself.

“Tweet by tweet, update by update, I began to create a world that I could live in, that I did live in. I wrote to console and entertain, to live in the moment, the moment that in itself was the meaning of my life,” she wrote.

Like Badhwar, Ebert realized his tweets gave him a voice he didn’t know he had and provided a way to intimately connect to a world that he was no longer able to physically get to.

Ebert tweeted quotes, he tweeted about politics (“Tonight I am so proud to be an American, and a Democrat”) and he tweeted about his life (“This is Feeding Tube Awareness Week. It’s the G-string that keeps on giving.”) Some might consider it an insult to his wit and brilliance to say that I was most impressed with his ability to master a goofy Web site, but his skill was masterful. He was a true public intellectual.

After all, social media is all about sharing, which is something that came naturally to Ebert. “He was always grabbing young people and saying you have to go do this, you have to come see this movie, you have to go to this festival,” Stehlik said.

“He was always really trying to expand other people’s experience, and that came from this love of sharing. All of this passion really came through. It really showed in everything that he did.”

Even with just 140 characters.

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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