Anderson comes to D.C. from the Philadelphia region’s SEPTA, where he was a communications manager and the star of a video podcast series. In one video, Anderson can be seen boogieing to music, demonstrating something verboten inside SEPTA’s QuietRide cars. Welcome to the future, D.C. (Video podcasts, not quiet cars—the subway here is deathly quiet already by Philadelphia standards.)
Stessel says he hopes Anderson will help take Metro’s social media campaign beyond what he calls “toe-in-the-water stuff.” When I visited Stessel’s office, the words “Twitter strategy” were scrawled in blue on a whiteboard. The phrase would have made Metro watchers giggle in years past. But they’re not laughing anymore, and now they want Stessel to follow through on his commitment.
BART’s Moore says this demand isn’t unusual but can make life difficult for someone who’s trying to manage expectations. “There’s an expectation that the customer speaks and the agency jumps,” he says.
No number of funny videos or glib tweets can hide the fact that Metro still has lots of operational problems. Some troubles have been kicking around for years, such as the agency’s escalator-failure rate, which hovers around 20 percent this summer. Others, such as broken rail-car air conditioners, have been thrust into the spotlight thanks to the rabid persistence of an IT whiz known on Twitter as @fixwmata.
The 32-year-old Atlanta native, who asked not to be named because he insists the story shouldn’t be about him, began riding Metro last April. Over the summer, he noticed complaints about hot subway cars on Twitter and decided to put his analytical skills to good use. He created what’s known as the #hotcar list, a crowdsourced database tracking rail cars with broken AC.
The 2010 list collected 206 reports between July and October, but FixWMATA says it was very clear that no one at Metro was listening. He never got a response and says he was “shouting into a void.”
Things changed when he kicked off the 2011 list and got a reply from Stessel. Their courtship started innocently enough.
“One of the first responses I got back was from @metroopensdoors, which kind of blew me away,” FixWMATA says. The reply spurred him to be part of the solution to Metro’s air-conditioning woes instead of another angry voice. An informal partnership was born. FixWMATA forged ahead with the #hotcar list, enjoying a thumbs-up endorsement from Metro.
“We like this!” @metroopensdoors gushed on June 16, when FixWMATA created a search option for users viewing the #hotcar list on a mobile device.
The honeymoon ended just a few weeks later—when FixWMATA began badgering Stessel for updates on the broken AC units. (There have been 430 unique reports, comprising about a third of Metro’s rail fleet, so far this year.) He asked Metro for specific proof the cars were being addressed, but he never got a response that satisfied him.
At first, Stessel kept listening. “Just want to assure everyone who’s reported a #hotcar lately that we’re listening. Our thanks to @fixwmata for compiling these. ^DS,” he tweeted on July 8.
FixWMATA hammered away (sample: “@metroopensdoors 6 #wmata #hotcars were reported yesterday. 1 was a repeat from Friday. Which ones did you fix last night?”), eventually provoking a measured response. Stessel said—and maintains today—that it’s sometimes hard to give a specific, Twitter-friendly answer to an operational problem.
“We can give a wholistic update. Something more ‘micro’ than that is not possible,” came his July 26 reply. The #hotcar lists are still monitored, but now, Stessel says, if you’re stuck in a car with no air conditioning, the best way to fix it is to get on the intercom, not the Internet. (Which, inevitably, leads people on Twitter to complain that the intercoms aren’t working, either.)
FixWMATA, who has about 1,300 followers on Twitter, isn’t buying it. And now he believes that the rosy media coverage of Metro’s latest PR effort is harmful. He called the Post “an advertising arm of WMATA” when the paper covered Stessel’s social media frenzy last month.
“Not having a response from Metro last year actually worked out a little bit better,” he says. “Because Metro last year also wasn’t really talking to the media. So we had the media on our side last year, and we had a lot of reports—both on TV and on the Web—from journalists interested in what’s going on.”
He’s not the only one who thinks the local media have fallen for Metro’s tricks. The journalist behind the Unsuck DC Metro blog—complaint central for disgruntled riders since 2009—calls Stessel’s effort “Band-Aids on the public image” for a reactive agency that lacks accountability. He thinks Metro’s campaign is better than nothing but doesn’t address the malaise he says afflicts the agency’s middle management.