When I spot Ben in the window of the cafe, he is looking at his phone as it beeps frantically at him. While he has been waiting for me, he has been tweeting, as is his wont. On this occasion he has sparked off a torrent of replies and he is struggling to keep up with them.
“I’ve sort of opened up about my depression. I got a good response and was encouraged to talk more and more about it,” he says, struggling to swallow his food between sentences, “And then I choked to death.”
Tim Blair from The Daily Telegraph recently referred to Ben as “The official sad man of Australia’s online leftoid fringe,” which he thought was funny, but it got him thinking about what it means to ‘come out’ as a depressed person. “I think it’s a positive for wider society for people to come out in public, but for the person doing it, it kind of sucks. People are supportive to start with, but they don’t want to hear about it when you’re actually depressed.”
Ben is Ben Pobjie, a writer, comedian and poet who writes satirical articles for ‘The Age’ and ‘New Matilda’. He is also a successful and prolific tweeter, with around 9,000 followers and over 100,000 tweets to his name. This is really what I’ve come to talk to him about, not depression, which is far too depressing.
If you don’t know what Twitter is or how it works, here are a few key terms for you to remember:
Twitter – a social media phenomenon which allows you to follow people (both friends and people you wish were your friends) and be followed by others. Everything your followers tweet appears on your homepage, or ‘feed’. Everything you tweet appears on your followers’ homepage. This concept alone took me a while to understand.
Tweet – a message comprising less than 140 characters.
Re-tweet – when you like what someone else has written, you can re-tweet it. This makes the original tweeter feel warm and fuzzy.
Hashtag – it looks like this # and is basically a topic of conversation. If you search the hashtag, you’ll see messages from everyone in the world who is using it. For example, the top trending hashtags as I write this are #essexlion, #whathurtsmethemost and #richardmarxchat. Ecclectic.
Twitter allows users to text their thoughts as they come, which suits people like Ben, who have these thoughts in quick succession and happen to be able to type quickly on a mobile device.
Nick: Twitter is such a fast medium, but print lasts forever. Are there any tweets that you regret posting?
Ben: Heaps. Mostly getting into arguments with people, whether on a personal level or political. I’ve got an uneasy tension because I use twitter as me being the writer and comedian as well as me being the person, interacting with friends.
During this short exchange alone, his phone has beep-beeped three times. Now four.
Ben: You can write something that is meant as a throwaway line and people treat it as though it’s a serious mission statement that you’ve been working on for years and start picking it apart. And all of a sudden you’re sucked into a conversation that you never wanted to have.
That’s the thing about a medium like this. It’s conducted from mobile phones while going about the business of everyday life. You could be ordering an ice cream when a funny thought pops into your head. You tweet the thought and by the time you’ve finished your vanilla cone (if that’s your thing), you’ve got a bag full of hate mail.
Nick: What’s the most vitriolic thing anyone has sent to you on twitter?
Ben: Oh, just everyday things like calling you a c*nt or something, which happens a lot. Or, telling you to go kill yourself.
Nick: Does it get you down when people write things like that?
Ben: No, because you know it’s just some idiot. What gets to me is when people misunderstand what I’ve written and accuse me of something I didn’t do. That’s what ends up sucking me into arguments.
Beep-beep. Beep-beep. Beep-beep.
Ben: To be honest, if you’re being attacked on twitter, and this is a rule that I don’t always follow but should, don’t reply at all. Re-tweet them or ignore them.
Nick: If you could choose now, would you have not written your piece about depression?
Ben: I’m torn because I think I did a good thing, but maybe I wouldn’t have engaged so much afterwards. Maybe I just would have drawn a line under it.
OK, let’s draw a line under it now. Although if you want to read the piece where he ‘came out’, click here.
I’ve come to learn from Ben the art of tweeting. I actually have a secret (not anymore) mission to be retweeted by my comedy hero, Tony Martin (not the singer nor the cyclist). I’ve given Ben the hasthag #tweetytips and asked him to verbally tweet. I don’t need to ask him twice. Here they come in rapid fire:
1. When you unfollow someone, do not tell them you are unfollowing.
2. Don’t get pissy about people blocking you. Don’t pretend you’re being censored. You’re not.
3. If you are bitching about a celebrity, don’t put their @name in it. That’s just bit-noting yourself. If someone says Ben Pobjie is crap, that’s fine. If someone says @benpobjie is crap, that’s just rude. If you @ someone, you are speaking to directly to them.
4. Twitter should actually be fun and enjoyable. Use it the way you enjoy it.
5. Twitter is conversation. It is not a broadcast medium. (To celebrities) By all means, promote your work, but if that’s all you’re using it for, you’re using it wrong.
Giving Ben this hashtag and watching him spew out tips gives some insight into how his brain works, and why he is such a suitable twit. He is at his best when in stream-of-consciousness mode, and he can be absolutely hilarious.
One of his hashtags that had me in stitches recently was #wanktaglines, which produced response after response from his 9,000 followers. Highlights included:
Garbo wanks! #wanktaglines
Just when you thought it was safe to wank in the water… #wanktaglines
Now if they can just wank each other, they might stand a chance #wanktaglines
You can play this game yourself at home, kids. The hashtag game, that is.
Wondering how to tweet? I gave Ben three sample tweets and asked him to critique them.
1. @rickygervas OMG! U R too funny. LOL!
Ben: I don’t necessarily have a lot of respect for people who use the letter R for are, but if I was Ricky Gervais and I received this, I would be appreciative. Pure praise is ok.
2. @benpobjie I hate you. I don’t even know why I’m following you. Please RT.
Ben: I would definitely retweet this. If it’s a joke, it’s quite funny. If not, it’s still worth retweeting.
3. It’s a nice day outside today.
Ben: This is fine. If it’s the only thing you tweet in one day, I’d be a little worried about the depth of your interests. However, if it’s in the middle of a series of tweets, then it’s acceptable. And if it’s Melbourne, half an hour later when the people are reading it and it’s not a nice day anymore, it starts a conversation. And if it’s not actually a nice day, you’ve made a nice little joke.
Nick: Wow, this is complicated.
Ben: I’m just making it sound that way because I’m supposed to know what I’m talking about.
Nick: Why do you use Twitter?
Ben: Obviously, as a self-promotion tool, and also to get better at writing jokes, but all that came later. At first, I just used it for a bit of fun.
Nick: So… How can I get Tony Martin to re-tweet me?
Ben: Hmmm… Difficult. First, follow him. Then, when he posts something on a specific topic, reply with a really funny, well-written joke.
Nick: You can check those, you know.
Ben: It’s ok. I’ll check them on the way home.
And the beep goes on.
Follow Ben on Twitter: @benpobjie
Read Ben’s blog: Ben Pobjie’s Wonderful World of Objects
Follow Nick on Twitter: @NickOliver23