The web is hardly a well of positivity. Its loudest voices are often snarky, silly and snide.
Bloggers berate politicians and pop stars; commenters eagerly add their own insults or bash the bloggers back; journalists – not, in any case, a profession prone to optimism – frequently find their online articles appended with enough abuse, dissent and accusations of fascism/socialism/idiocy/mediocrity to fill an entire newspaper's worth of letters pages every day.
So it takes either an incredibly cute kitten, an impeccably policed social network, or some universally admired individual, to carve out a friendly niche anywhere on the internet, where people will come to be nice to one another. To show respect, decency and sincerity; to celebrate rather than denigrate. It's rarer still for that individual to be themselves a journalist.
Roger Ebert has reviewed movies for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967. He gained national fame as one half of Siskel and Ebert, stars of At The Movies With Gene Siskel And Roger Ebert, a film review show that ran on US television for most of the 1980s and 1990s, until Siskel's sudden death in 1999. The programme made Ebert perhaps the most recognisable movie critic in the world, yet it's his recent public battle with thyroid cancer that has cemented his already considerable reputation. The recent upswell of affection for Ebert began with a profile by Chris Jones in Esquire magazine, which described in graphic detail his cancer treatment, culminating in the loss of his lower jaw – along with the ability to eat, drink or speak.
If the words in Jones's piece weren't affecting enough, the close-up photograph of Ebert's transformed face that accompanied it brought home the changes his illness has wrought, as well as his lack of vanity for sanctioning the portrait. Last week, Ebert's story reached an even wider audience when he appeared on Oprah to reveal his Oscar choices to her seven million or so viewers.
He did so using technology developed by CerePro, a Scottish company that took past recordings of his broadcasts and turned them into software that allows him to converse in his own voice, rather than via post-it notes or generic, computer-generated tones. Oprah was touched (she and Ebert go way back), but watching Ebert's wife Chaz hear her husband's voice again for the first time was really something. Gawker.com, the natural home of internet snark, praised Ebert's courage sincerely; the site's blogger – and even some of his commenters – admitted they were moved to tears by the segment.
(Ebert hoped, he said, that as he was wheeled into the operating theatre for his operation, he'd told Chaz that he loved her. But he couldn't recall; his last spoken words might just as easily have been "Good morning, Doctor!")
That Ebert should be the first prominent figure to use the CerePro system is somehow appropriate. For a man of 67, he has embraced digital technology more wholly than most people half his age. Nightly before retiring to bed, for instance, he plays a game he calls "Tweeto" with his Twitter following, now almost 100,000-strong. The first three people to start following him after he announces the start of the game get their most recent microblog re-tweeted by Ebert himself.
Here's a man who uses the internet to express himself, and to connect with fans, as he has been unable to in speech since 2006, when he lost his voice. In his online journal on the Sun-Times website, he blogged a warm response to Jones's piece, a post that generated more than a thousand heartfelt comments. To his readers, Ebert dispenses wisdom not only on the subject of film, but also life, literature, politics and the taste of root beer, about which he still fantasises about in his weaker moments.
Ebert and his story have transcended the default tone of the web; it's an achievement that fits what might be called his mission in his twilight years. On Oprah, Chaz read from an entry in her husband's journal entitled "Go Gentle into That Good Night,": "I believe," he wrote, "that if, at the end of it all, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out."