Mark Byrnes

Some cities ignore the abuse, but others have found success engaging it head on.

You’re “slowly sucking our souls and our money one messed up day at a time,” they write. “Why must you be so bitchy?” You’re “a disgrce.” “:/ u suck!”

Such is the abuse leveled at public transit agency Twitter accounts every day—truly and unendingly negative. “Negative” is putting it kindly. According to a new study in the Journal of the American Planning Association, public transit receives more racist, classist, sexist, and altogether discriminatory tweets than other much-maligned public and private services, including social welfare programs, the IRS, and airlines (even United!). The study, which coded two years of tweets according to their negativity, found that the poor Chicago Transit Authority got only a bit less online ire than did “Obamacare.”* Boston’s MBTA came in just above “welfare queen.”

Public transit agencies face a bit of a dilemma when it comes to social media. On one hand, they're expected to take loads of abuse sitting down. “A lot of times [Twitter users] are just upset,” says Kari Watkins, a Georgia Tech professor who has studied public transit agencies and social media. “They’re not actually looking for people to respond.”

On the other hand, some Twitter users want their problems personally acknowledged. They want Twitter to act as a customer service line without the call center, so that a few taps on a smartphone keyboard will get the bus there faster, or the garbage picked up from the subway platform, or that puking guy off the streetcar.

“How do we integrate the feedback from social media? There’s a great debate, probably at all transit agencies,” says Alicia Trost, a spokesperson for the Bay Area’s BART system. BART officials worry that Twitter gripes are made too easily to be taken seriously. “You don’t have as much ownership to your complaint as when you have to call into an agency and officially make [it],” she says.

Handling the Sheer Volume of Negativity

So what happens when slow-moving governmental bureaucracies meet the chaos and unrivaled savagery of the Internet? That's the open question everyone is still trying to answer.

Here’s the first issue: Who’s supposed to take care of a public transit Twitter feed, anyway? A 2013 survey of 130 transit agencies in the U.S. and Canada found that 78 percent use social media as a “web-based customer feedback tool,” but 64 percent said they didn’t have enough staff to respond to tweets, or respond fast enough. If customer service staffers take over, there’s a chance they won’t have that special Twitter flair. But the marketing and communications department might not be plugged into the customer service pipeline, or have access to the software or paperwork needed to get service requests to the maintenance team.

At BART—which, it should be noted, serves Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters—one customer service rep works with the communications team to solve social media complaints. But Trost says the agency is still figuring out how to spread that work around. “Right now, [Twitter] is a good way to engage,” she says. “[But] we’re not sure how it fits into the customer service figures.”

Agencies also aren’t exactly sure how to handle the sheer volume of online crud headed their way. When officials in Austin, Texas, commissioned researchers to engage the public in social media conversations about proposed public transportation plans, they couldn’t keep up with the 49,400 social media messages received over the two-month trial period. Quoth one bemused Austin bureaucrat: “This was an experiment for the City and I think we learned the time and attention needed to support Twitter dialogue, beyond informational tweets, is not currently feasible, even with automated analytics.”

Then there’s the negativity issue. The 2013 survey of public transit agencies found that 38 percent worried about negative social media feedback tarnishing their images. A 2013 study of Twitter content about Chicago's transit authority found, unsurprisingly, that “transit riders are more inclined to assert negative sentiments to a [transit] situation than positive sentiments.” As transit researcher and consultant Susan Bregman says, “It’s easier to yell at some anonymous agency in cyberspace than it is to yell at a customer service agent who is ... trained in techniques to reduce anger.”

On Twitter, angry accusations are on the Internet forever, whether agencies want them or not. There are certainly ways not to handle this. In one high-profile blunder, Washington D.C.’s transit authority responded to a particularly harsh critic by blocking him on the microblogging site. That, of course, failed to stem the tide of criticism: Instead, the man behind @FixWMATA ended up with interviews on the local news channels.

SEPTA Takes a Friendlier Approach

Philadelphia’s SEPTA has taken a different tack: embracing the online anger. “I told my boss that, if you expect me to reduce complaints, you have the wrong person,” says Assistant General Manager Kim Scott Heinle, who oversees all customer service operations for the agency. If there are problems in the system, he says, “I want people to let us know.”

To that end, Heinle has developed a personable and (dare we say) charming approach to dealing with the angry riding public. The organization’s customer service initiative, located at @SEPTA_SOCIAL, tries to respond to any and all messages, even those that concern SEPTA but aren't directed towards the agency.

“That creates that sense of intimacy,” he says. “When we respond right away, they’re impressed that we’re there to listen.”

SEPTA’s specialized social media customer service reps aren’t subject to any specific social media rules and regulations. (After a “raging debate,” SEPTA counsel finally agreed to “trust the people,” Heinle says.) They’re also encouraged to develop their own personalities. That means signing off on messages with their initials, emoji (lots of emoji), and endearing check-ins with favorite riders:

Two Schools of Transit Twitter Thought

There are two basic schools of thoughts for public transit agencies on Twitter. One is SEPTA’s “active listening” approach. The other is the “blast” technique, employed by agencies like D.C.’s WMATA, wherein agencies generally tweet out information on transit problems as they come up. (These aren’t mutually exclusive; SEPTA also has a handle dedicated to tweeting out information on delays.) Watkins, the researcher, says the listening method is clearly preferable.

“The part that scares me the most is not so much the feedback. … It’s when agencies have a Twitter handle just for service alerts,” she says. “They’re only showing things that are wrong with the system. There’s no positive to balance that out.”

The research agrees. The recent JAPA study, conducted by University of Southern California planning scholar Lisa Schweitzer, found that agencies that interact with social media users have more positive statements about their service on Twitter overall—“and fewer racist and sexist comments”—than those that just blast information.

Recent blasts from WMATA's Metro bus info Twitter account.

But Most Riders Aren't Tweeters

Here’s one more twist, and it’s a big one: Very few agencies actually know how many of their users are online. New work by Bregman and Watkins finds that one in four U.S. and Canadian transit agencies couldn’t answer the question: “How many of your riders have access to smartphones or the Internet?” Among those that did answer it, just 25 percent based their estimates on actual rider surveys. The other three-quarters just answered with Internet access rates for their communities at large.

Recent numbers from the Pew Research Center show that 87 percent of Americans use the Internet, and that 74 percent of Internet users are on social networking sites. But Twitter in particular is much less popular, with only 23 percent of online adults on the platform. And those who don’t use social networking on mobile phones also happen to be among those most likely to ride public transit: people 65 and older, people without high school diplomas, and people who make less than $30,000 a year.

“[M]ost transit agencies that I’ve been in touch with say mobile, digital, electronic communications is a very important tool in our communications toolbox … but they still have to do the traditional stuff,” says Bregman. “They still have to use print, they still have to use public meetings, they still have to run ads in the newspaper, they still have to put leaflets on their buses, they still need a call center.”

Emoji or not, then, communicating with an angry public is always hard work.

Illustration by Mark Byrnes with elements from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said the Chicago Transit Authority got a little more online ire than Obamacare, according to a recent study. It actually got slightly less.

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