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5 social media lessons from Roger Ebert, @EbertChicago

Roger Ebert, who died last week at 70, wasn't only a successful film critic. He was also a successful user of social media. We can all still learn from him.

Screenshot of Roger Ebert's Twitter feed.

It's appropriate that I learned on Twitter of the passing of Roger Ebert -- not only because that's the place I get most of my breaking news, but also because Ebert helped me understand the power of social media and helped me teach it to others.

Here's what I posted in December 2009 when I started following Ebert on a regular basis:

For years, I've told people reluctant to use Twitter that @EbertChicago is a model for how to use that platform. In his last years, after a fight with cancer left him unable to speak, he used Twitter to connect to a new audience. (Read Mathew Ingram's (@mathewi) post in PaidContent about this.)

"It breaks through the silence I have been condemned to," Ebert said. "It gives me a voice."

Here are 5 social-media lessons I learned from @EbertChicago:

1. Being interesting in real life means you can be really interesting in social media: Erica Anderson (@EricaAmerica), manager of news at Twitter, told the audience at Social Media Weekend 2012: "If you are good in real life you, can be great on Twitter." That struck a chord with me and I've seen how some of the most worth-following feeds are from people who do good or great work in real life.

Ebert, of course, fell into that category and his insightful, smart reviews and large newspaper and TV platforms made him an obvious candidate to do well on social media. But very few people of his background, age, and stature have bothered to make the leap onto social the way he had. Among the folks who have is Ruth Reichl (@RuthReichl), the 65-year-old former food critic of the NYT and editor in chief of Gourmet magazine. (If you think of others, tell us in the comments below.)

2. Great content will get you followers: Ebert always had compelling things to say -- and not just about the movies. He wrote about a wide range of topics in his tweets, and always in a way that got a reaction. In June 2010, he wrote about how and why he tweets in a blog post called (what else?) "Tweet! Tweet! Tweet!" It's an article I've shared with many of my classes and recommend it to anyone still unsure of what to make of Twitter. He wrote it on the occasion of his 10,000th tweet. He'd go on to cross 31,000 in less than three years. Here are two excerpts from the post:

I am in conversation. 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.

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.

3. Be humble: Look closely at his Twitter bio above. No mention of his many achievements, including being the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, no boasts of any kind -- just a dig about his age and pointers to his blog and the Sun-Times site. Way too many of us spend way too much time being anything but humble on social media.

4. Engage with others; participate in conversations: Long before Twitter, I learned this lesson from watching Ebert participate in a forum of the media blog run by Jim Romenesko (@Romenesko), which was then hosted by the Poynter Institute. He would write letters regularly to Romenesko, riffing on the news or reacting to some piece of media news. The letters, which ran in Romenesko's letters section, gave that blog its true water-cooler feel and made it a must-read for journalists around the U.S.

But it wasn't just professional editors to whom Ebert responded. One of my young students, LaToya Tooles (@LaTooles) tweeted this and Ebert retweeted it, resulted in her getting more attention than anything she had tweeted till then:

And here's how Tooles marked Ebert's passing two years later:

5. Social media has changed the role of expertise: As good as Ebert was and as often as I read his major reviews, I rarely relied on him for crucial movie outings in recent years. When it came to picking a movie for a rare date night with my wife, Roopa (@RoopaOnline), away from our 9.5-year-old twins, we just ask our friends on Facebook, who are able to give us more targeted, precise recommendations and almost never steer us wrong.

Turns out social media has meant the nature of expertise is different than it used to be. Here's a movie example using another film critic.

Last week, a group of dads in my building got parole for a late-night movie. Thanks to some FB comments by a couple of my friends, I suggested we watch the action film "Olympus Has Fallen," despite this opening para in the NYT review by A.O. Scott (@AOScott), whose reviews are always spot on:

The most recent "Die Hard" movie -- which the record shows I reviewed a little more than a month ago, although I have no recollection of it -- was terrible, but it turns out not to have been the worst "Die Hard" movie this year. That honor, for the moment at least (it's only March!), belongs to "Olympus Has Fallen," which is not, strictly speaking, part of the franchise at all. It is more a "school of Die Hard" production, in which a weary and battered law enforcement professional, severely constrained by time and space, fights off a ridiculous number of bad guys.

(The film, about North Korea destroying the White House, was eerily-timed and easily the best worst-reviewed film in recent memory. Here's its Rotten Tomatoes page - the critic's rating is an awful 47%, but the audience rating is 79%. My friend and fellow dad, Elliott Stein (@NYCStein), asks, "What's the worst best-reviewed film ever?")

I experienced this change in how expertise is viewed first hand when the first iPad came out in 2010. That day, I appeared twice on CNN, and said, in multiple ways, that the iPad, while interesting technology, wasn't for me and that I'd be awaiting version 2. A viewer in Brazil appeared to hear none of my criticisms:

A tweet from 2010 in response to a poor review of iPad shows how the role of expertise is changing, thanks to social media.

A lot has been written about Ebert's passing but I wanted to highlight a couple of pieces that show the range of Ebert's ability and personality -- and reflect on the items above:

One is a piece by the fabulous writing teacher Roy Peter Clark (@RoyPeterClark), on "Why Roger Ebert was a Good Writer." The other is a piece by Robert Mankoff, cartoons editor of The New Yorker, on Ebert's obsession with captions for the magazine's cartoon contests (he entered 136 times and won once): "Roger Ebert's Final Cartoon Captions." And I'll let Ebert have the last word here, with a pointer to his final article, which he wrote a day before he died (he wrote the article 37 years after he started at the Sun-Times):

What are your thoughts on Ebert? Post in the comments below.

A screenshot from SocialFlow, a social-media publishing tool that tracks what's trending in one's own audience. As of 5 pm ET on Thursday, April 4, 2013, several mentions of him were trending among @Sree's followers.

Six tweets over the years about @EbertChicago by @Sree.