In 2008, when he was in the middle of his worst battles and wouldn't be able to make the trip to Champaign-Urbana for Ebertfest... he began writing an online journal. Reading it from its beginning is like watching an Aztec pyramid being built. At first, it's just a vessel for him to apologize to his fans for not being downstate. The original entries are short updates about his life and health and a few of his heart's wishes. Postcards and pebbles. They're followed by a smattering of Welcomes to Cyberspace. But slowly the journal picks up steam, as Ebert's strength and confidence and audience grow. You are the readers I have dreamed of, he writes. He is emboldened.
He begins to write about more than movies; in fact, it sometimes seems as though he'd rather write about anything other than movies. The existence of an afterlife, the beauty of a full bookshelf, his liberalism and atheism and alcoholism, the health-care debate, Darwin, memories of departed friends and fights won and lost -- more than five hundred thousand words of inner monologue have poured out of him, five hundred thousand words that probably wouldn't exist had he kept his other voice. Now some of his entries have thousands of comments, each of which he vets personally and to which he will often respond. It has become his life's work, building and maintaining this massive monument to written debate -- argument is encouraged, so long as it's civil -- and he spends several hours each night reclined in his chair, tending to his online oasis by lamplight. Out there, his voice is still his voice -- not a reasonable facsimile of it, but his.
"It is saving me," he says through his speakers.
He calls up a journal entry to elaborate, because it's more efficient and time is precious:
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.
To me the best thing about the (deservedly) ubiquitous Ebert article is this passage, which captures some of what was and still can be magical about this medium, and what made all of us early adopters take to it so strongly and completely. I remember when Nightline came to our blogger meeting at Berkman right when the Web 2.0 hysteria was ramping up, and we all spent the whole time fruitlessly trying to explain to the host that this wasn't about Web 2.0 and technology and buzzwords and business, it was about something that had changed our lives and minds in a throughgoing way, and in some ways, saved us, or at least made us so immeasurably better and happier and larger-hearted that it would be difficult to imagine the people we would be in its absence.
Ebert is one of the few old-media transplants to deeply understand this, and it probably has a lot to do with how naturally and enthusiastically he has taken to blogging. And he is doing amazing and wonderful work in this medium, the kind of work that has become rarer and rarer as all those other buzzwordy distractions have horned in. The kind of work that makes me pine for the old days, and want to try to do it again myself.