No single person best displayed the essence of social media like Roger Ebert. Even if he wasn’t on every platform or the most popular person on any site he used, Roger showed us all the power of conversation. When he passed away on April 4, 2013, he left behind a grieving family and a mourning social media following. For a man whose career consisted mostly of reviewing movies to amass over 110,000 Facebook followers and over 840,000 Twitter followers is truly impressive.
To put that in context, the only other two popular movie reviewers I can find are Richard Roeper (~4,000 Facebook; ~55,000 Twitter) and Peter Travers (~1,000 Facebook; ~48,000 Twitter). To be fair, Roger had a much more active social media presence than the other two, or perhaps any other movie reviewer alive. But it is that online presence that makes him such a breakout social media star. Roger is one of three American celebrities I’m aware of that took a small amount of notoriety and used their own voices to turn that into much larger online personas. The other two are George Takei and Wil Wheaton although there may be more.
The irony, or perhaps perfect justification, is that Roger began cultivating his online voice when he lost his own. In 2006, following surgical complications from treating thyroid cancer that left him without the ability to speak, Roger took his already prolific career writing movie reviews and blogging about movies, and instead spoke using social media. He wrote about politics. He wrote about religion. He wrote about his alcoholism. He took bold stands on video games not being art and drunk driving. He began a lengthy campaign to win the New Yorker’s Cartoon Caption Contest, which he finally did just two years ago.
Esquire magazine ran an amazing article on Roger in 2010. In it he spoke about his online activity:
When I am writing my problems become invisible and I am the same person I always was. All is well. I am as I should be.
And all was well right up until the end. Roger’s final blog post, posted just one day before he died, spoke of his taking a Leave of Presence. It mentioned how in the last year he wrote the most reviews of any year during his career (306), 1-2 blog posts per week, plus some other articles. It fails to mention his active social media accounts–the multiple items he would post per day, not to mention that while Roger did not frequently engage with his followers it was obvious he read all of their remarks and reacted to them later. His final posting mentions how he was taking a step back to address new health concerns while also laying out a number of ambitious projects that would have made men half his age and twice as healthy struggle to keep up. The online community reacted to his announcement with disappointment over his new health concerns but also looking forward to the additional contributions we expected to see from him in the future.
One day later, that future was taken from Roger and all of us.
I exchanged emails once with Roger many years ago. I had just completed a Bracket Battle (similar to the NCAA basketball tournament where you have 64 contenders battle it out) to determine the Ultimate Movie Quote. I wrote him to let him know that our community had picked “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” as our ultimate winner and I asked what was his favorite movie quote. I didn’t really expect a response, so I was surprised when I got it.
He wrote me back and told me his favorite movie quote was from Shanghai Express: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.” (A huge hat-tip to Fielding who helped me remember this.)
Not only was this an interesting choice but I also found it fascinating that for one of the most famous movie reviewers of all time and a prolific writer, he often got the quote wrong when he wrote it. In his essay 100 Great Movie Moments he wrote the quote as “It took more than one night to change my name to Shanghai Lilly.” Less than three weeks before he died, Roger tweeted how the movie was back in print with the quote “It took a lot of men to change my name to Shanghai Lilly.”
It isn’t that he completely missed the quote. A stray word here or a slight turn of phrase. He got the essence of the thing he loved even if he missed some details. That may not be a perfect summary of Roger Ebert’s life, but it’s one of the biggest things I’ll remember.