Roger Ebert 2.0: A Critical Success, Reinvented Online

I didn’t know much about Roger Ebert in the 1980s and 1990s.  Due to a lack of cable access growing up, I only occasionally caught him in syndication during his Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down TV glory days. In fact, I’m pretty sure for a large chunk of my childhood and early adolescence I only knew him via the haughty, hilarious, ever-critiquing Muppets character inspired by him.

I knew Roger Ebert 2.0. As the keeper of a powerhouse Twitter account and a popular eponymous online “Journal,” Ebert brought candor, originality, wit, and a touch of elegance to the digital medium.

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He was, simply put, a mighty Internet presence. He will be missed of course across many media, genres, and parts of the world. Like a majority of Americans, I never met the man, but felt like I knew him. The news of his death yesterday sincerely saddened me.

Why? Because I am a journalist — or at least I play one online. And he was a legendary one– a lion of a newsman and a genuine new media superstar dressed in critic’s clothes.

He showed so many of us the heights to which you can soar in the journalism profession and the digital sphere through sheer work, an incredible appetite for your chosen beat, a spirit of daring and innovation, and a willingness to adapt– to new media and life circumstances that would have left others voiceless or forced them to fade away.

Tweet-Tweet-Tweeting Away

A colleague and friend likes to tell students aspiring to enter the craft that there is one secret to success, above all else: Write. Tons. A lot. All the time.

Like few others to whom I have turned for inspiration, Ebert embodied that advice for me. The man– beyond the Muppet and the myth that came to surround him– pumped out so much original writing, of such high quality, his professional contributions literally fill a bookshelf.

His online archives are now equally prolific. He maintained Roger Ebert’s Journal with gusto, earning numerous awards and citations. He understood the rhythm of the interwebs– the speed and regularity of the posting, the multi-platform presence, and the value of more overt personal anecdotes and introspection.

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His take on Twitter perfectly captures his digital understanding. As he wrote in September 2011, “It suits my circumstances. It can occupy way too much time. But there’s something seductive about it: The stream, the flow, the chatter, the sudden bursts of news, the snark, the gossip, time itself tweet-tweet-tweeting away.”

In some respects, he died, slowly, online. And yet, the medium kept him simultaneously alive, more intimately connected than ever to so many of us who counted ourselves as fans.  He openly discussed the details of his declining health, including the procedures and gadgets that kept him somewhat mobile and able to communicate. And he also simply sounded off and had some fun.

As his New York Times obituary notes, “He fired tweets with machine-gun rapidity, on topics both profound and prosaic. He commented on pro football, his captions for The New Yorker cartoon contest, an old pub he once frequented, James Joyce short stories, and untold number of movies and television shows, to which he linked.”

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