To the casual observers, Luddites or otherwise, online status updates provide a pointless venue for unfiltered consciousness. If the majority of today's tweeters are encouraged by the technology to freely share their breakfast cereal of choice with an indifferent Internet public, then any room for serious dialogue within the technology's 140-character constraints has been pushed out by a whole lot of useless noise. But the time for outright dismissal has passed. The serial cereal tweeters still exist, but they share space with a growing wave of individual newsmakers and self-selected pundits. The everyman has found his voice in the crowd; the question now is how to use it.
I don't want to use that verbose introduction to make the case that Roger Ebert's Great Tweet-Off, in which I competed on Saturday, suggests a grand new direction for the evolution of dialogue in the digital realm. On the one hand, it was an unabashedly silly contest, and I weighed the prospects of catching slack for getting involved with it before finally allowing my curiosity to win out.
I'm happy to report that I remain content with my decision. The panel of sorts was conceived like a game show: Contestants had one minute to tweet responses to Ebert's pre-written statements, which he read via his computerized voice software. Audiences were asked to vote on their favorite tweets by the contenders, while MTV's Dan Levy moderated the competition and tallied up the votes. Wilson took first place, although I managed pulling in a close second (just a head of David Poland; rematch, Dave?) by winning the final vote. I think I started to crack the system by the end of the game: You had to bring your wits, but it helped to have ideas, too. Wilson knew how to make the audience laugh better than all of us for obvious reasons, but his lesser gags slowed down his initial momentum ("Katherine Heigl is an abomination on the face of the cinema" was his best-received response, after Ebert's first statement saying the same thing about 3-D). Poland got most of his points from a mixture of snark and social commentary ("Americans are too stupid to understand 'The American,'" Ebert said, to which Poland tweeted, "We never see the crappy French cinema... ask any Frenchman and they will tell you there is nothing to see at the movies or on their TV!"). I landed three points for knocking easy targets: One who probably deserved it ("Cute funny little animated animals are just about over with," came the Ebert line, and I replied, "Then again, we haven't seen Mel Gibson's talking beaver hand puppet yet") and two for making fun of Rainn Wilson and "The Office," which I actually like quite a bit. Wilson took the heat in stride.
The experience was strange and awkward at first before it turned into a fun ride. Having a minute to respond to Ebert's statements (we were initially supposed to take two minutes, but Wilson noted just how long that is in Twitter-time) caused a jittery sensation to set into my fingertips, a nervous physical tic that Wilson compared to the adrenaline rush of improv comedy. That sounds about right: For the millions of tweeters out there, improvisation has become second nature.
Anyone following the Great Tweet-Off from afar could read our responses but not Ebert's statements, which he did not tweet. Although some of them were made up on the spot, Ebert has sent me a list of most of the statements, which I've pasted below in (I think) the correct order. You can view our answers (from the bottom up) here, and the rules of the contest here.
3D is an abomination on the face of the cinema.
Film for film, the French cinema is today the best in the world.
This is the Golden Age of film criticism.
Most people think digital is now better than film.
Russ Meyer is deeper than Michael Bay.
Cute funny little animated animals are just about over with.
Americans are too stupid to understand "The American"
Why don't actors know how to kiss and make it look less like acting and more like fun?
The young kids today, they don't care about sex or nudity.
I don''t "get" Justin Bieber because I'm an old fart.
From left, David Poland of Movie City News, Roger Ebert, indieWIRE's lead critic Eric Kohn, actor Rainn Wilson, RogerEbert.com contributor Grace Wang, and Scott Tobias of The Onion A/V Club pose after Roger Ebert's Twitter Showdown today at the Filmmaker Lounge. PHOTO BY SHADE RUPE