By James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 2009
Metro is struggling with overruns again, but this time the problem isn't train operators overshooting platforms. It's mysteriously incomplete tweets.
In March, Metro set up a Twitter account and configured software to tweet onto the popular social networking site all of the advisories about service disruptions already e-mailed to subscribers.
Because a majority of the alerts are longer than the 140-character limit, Twitter has been truncating them automatically. As a result, Metro's updates sometimes leave the agency's 1,507 followers scratching their heads.
What did Metro mean, for instance, when it posted: "No Line: There is no Blue line train service between Rosslyn & King Street. Shuttle bus service is established. Customers are encouraged to"?
The anonymous blogger behind Unsuck DC Metro has hosted four "Complete the Tweet" contests on his site, in which visitors can speculate about what the rest of a message might have said.
One was based on the Blue Line message encouraging riders to do . . . something or other. A commenter responded: "ford the Potomac River at their own risk." Another said, "go to the closest bar and drink away the stress . . . and then call your designated driver." A third guessed: " . . . walk, as that will probably be faster and more convenient than taking the bus."
Staffers in Metro's public relations office have seen these. "We find humor in that as well," Metro spokeswoman Cathy Asato said.
More seriously, Metro is trying to shorten the jargon to accommo date Twitter.
"We are working with our IT department and with the rail operations control center to tighten the language so that it can meet the 140-character limit," Asato said. "It's an evolving tool, and we want to make it be the most useful thing it can be."
There is no timetable for the change, officials said.
During special events or emergencies, someone at Metro will write specially tailored tweets that fit in the space provided. Several went up last week, for example, in the hours after a man was struck and killed by a train at the West Falls Church-VT/UVA Station.
Online users have expressed bafflement over some of the incomplete messages. There is also a feeling in cyberspace that Metro is not interactive: The account only transmits information. Metro follows no one else's tweets.
"They're really just pushing out information," said Line Storgaard-Conley, 38 of Fairfax, who commutes to Metro Center on the Orange Line everyday. "As a customer, to me, it sends the signal that we don't care what you think."
Storgaard-Conley, who works as an interactive communications manager for a nonprofit group, said other entities -- such as Comcast-- use Twitter to enhance customer service by responding directly to users and engaging in interactive conversations.
Asato said Metro embraced the tool because it was seen as a cheap way to expand the reach of eAlerts. She said the endings of many tweets that are cut off at "metroopensdoors" -- the agency's user name -- have nonessential information, such as part of the warning that riders should expect delays in both directions. She reviewed 140 messages, and 80 of them were truncated. Of those, she said, the gist of 42 could still be understood.
Metro faces a conundrum: Riders press for as much detail as possible, but they want it succinct enough to fit in a text message. Meanwhile, there are 54,673 subscribers to eAlerts, 36 times as many as on Twitter.
So can riders expect more @'s and #'s in Metro's notifications?
"Maybe," Asato said, adding that they're considering several possible abbreviations.