The tweet popped up on a computer screen in downtown Toronto one day early in 2017: There was a backpack containing a few pounds of white powder on one of the Lakeshore GO trains.
It was the kind of message that would raise alarms at any transit agency. But this one had a twist. The warning came from the man who left the bag, a father who’d been carrying borax for a volcano experiment he’d planned to conduct with his fourth-grade daughter.
Aggie Kwiatkowski was minding GO Transit’s social media account that day. It’s a funny story now, but she recalls keenly the man’s concern that someone would find the bag and be terrified. In the end, staff reunited the man with his backpack, although it’s unclear whether the volcano experiment went ahead.
The Twitter exchange was one of the tens of thousands that happen annually between the public and staff at Canadian transit agencies, a torrent of conversation handled by a handful of thick-skinned people dedicated to monitoring this social media channel.
“Twitter has been super helpful for us, not only as an information tool but also an engagement tool,” said Stephen Tauro, customer information and services co-ordinator for Calgary Transit. “It allows customers that real-time chat back and forth with us, to report issues, to ask questions about their service.”
These are high-pressure jobs in which some staff say they face an overwhelming proportion of negative messages. When serious transit problems crop up during rush hour, the workload can explode, with tweets pouring in faster than they can be answered. One staffer likened it to being a firefighter.
The transit employees doing this can become a de facto voice of the agency. And it’s a job that allows a remarkably direct connection with passengers. Whereas a decade ago someone waiting for an overdue bus could do little but peer up the road, information may now be obtained by dashing off a tweet.
The job illustrates how interaction between the public and government bodies has changed with social media. This evolution has taken many forms, including some people who have successfully walked a line that allows personality to shine. Toronto Police Service Constable David Hopkinson won a cult following for his laconic and almost poetic delivery at the @TPSOperations account, which details incoming police reports.
But the evolution has not been without bumps. Toronto parking enforcement officer Kyle Ashley went on leave after the material on his popular Twitter account was deemed too political. Months later, he left the job to focus on advocacy and is now running for office.
Engaging on Twitter has become increasingly important in recent years for transit agencies, although the level of activity varies.
The @stminfo account in Montreal has 222,000 followers, the most for any such account in Canada. But it is fairly quiet, averaging not quite 1,300 tweets annually. The agency also has individual accounts for each subway line, said a spokesperson, and has multiple people tasked with responding to the public.
In Vancouver, the @TransLink account is followed by 177,000 people – up about 5.5 per cent so far this year – and has averaged 41,000 tweets a year. The account is staffed seven days a week.
There are 119,000 followers for the @calgarytransit account, which averages about 19,000 tweets annually. One of the most popular of those tweets – a surveillance video shot of a moose ambling through a light rail station – sparked thousands of replies, likes and retweets.
In Toronto, @metrolinx has averaged barely 1,100 tweets a year, and has about 30,000 followers. The @ttchelps account for the Toronto Transit Commission is followed by nearly 44,000 people and is much more active, averaging 47,000 tweets annually.
Twitter has offered these agencies a new venue for customer contact, connecting them with regulars who tend to be commuters, chatting and joking away, or transit enthusiasts.
“Because we’ve been doing it for so long, we have a really great Twitter community of customers,” said Robert Willis, the TransLink manager of social media and digital content. “When people come on that are being abusive, a lot of times they’re taken care of by other people on Twitter that aren’t attached to us, aren’t employees.”
In Toronto, when someone fires off a message to @ttchelps, it’s fielded by one of a small group at the TTC’s midtown headquarters. Most of them work in an alcove off the customer service area. It’s a space hung with a number of huge transit maps, one of them with a prayer stuck to it.
The stresses are inherent in the job. While some messages contain compliments about service – these are always passed on and logged – in the majority of cases the customer is unhappy.
“We’re not perfect and we know that,” said TTC social media staffer Kevin McAnena. “Part of the trick in this job is finding the right way to word something when they may not want to hear it.”
It helps to remember that the ire is directed at the transit agency, not at them personally. Many in this role will put up with a certain amount of cursing, bearing in mind that the customer is often going through a frustrating moment, but not respond to someone who is being abusive.
That judgement call is one of many the social media teams have to make on a continuing basis. Although the goal is to answer all tweets, the nature of the response will depend on a gut-level assessment of just what is being conveyed by the customer. Is the person asking a question? Are they trolling? Is it venting, essentially a public performance of frustration? Do they need a factual answer or something closer to Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain.”
“Educator and therapist, all in a few tweets,” said the TTC’s Matthew Di Taranto, adding that this judgement call can’t really be trained. “You get better as you sit in the job.”
The young man was having a quiet start to his shift, giving him time to pursue a broad range of questions: why a vehicle turned back before the end of a route, why the TTC started charging for parking, why an operator didn’t stop for someone waiting in a bus stop and the perennial question of why transit vehicles cluster together on the road.
“That whole 140-character, removing of that [limit], fantastic,” Mr. Di Taranto said. “We can give so much more information.”
A few kilometres away, at the undisclosed location of the Metrolinx control centre, that agency’s customer service staff have the periodic chance to bid for the job of handling the @metrolinx Twitter account. The role doesn’t carry a boost in pay, but some of them say they prefer it.
Ms. Kwiatkowski, the employee who handled the borax situation, said she likes to connect with customers in real time. Passengers often know before staff that something is happening – for good or ill – allowing the public to act as the eyes and ears of the agency.
“I’m not very easily flappable,” she said. “You just deal with it. One tweet at a time, one person at a time.”