Shouting into the void

There’s a line from an episode of SuperNews, the satire cartoon on the cable network Current, which comes to mind whenever I talk about Twitter. The main character, frustrated with having to listen to people’s messages about minute and boring details, eventually cracks. “Twitter is nothing more than shouts into the darkness hoping someone is listening!” he says.

To the casual observer, SuperNews might be right: to some, Twitter is nothing more than an endless source of 140-character messages about inane subjects like sandwiches and pop stars. For others—myself included—Twitter is changing the way we communicate, whether about politics, society, or good Pad Thai.

The idea that Twitter is transforming political communication is what brought me to a summit of politicians and reporters last month hosted by PR firm MS&L Boston. High above the Financial District, I met dozens of people who use social media as a way to broadcast their social or political message. Nearly all of us agreed that sites like Facebook and Twitter are indispensible.

In preparation for my CommonWealth article about tweeting politicians, I installed TweetDeck, a Twitter application, on my computer, allowing me to find messages from the gubernatorial campaigns in real time. As I write this, it’s still scouring the Twittersphere for messages from Charlie, Deval, and Tim.

But a funny thing happened: the more tweets I read from campaigns, the more I started to find my article lacking. I think I was a little…nice.

The Herald’s Jessica Van Sack, who published an article about tweeting politicians shortly before mine, categorized the back-and-forth as “a 24/7 virtual brawl.” which at the time seemed like a brash characterization. Now, it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.

The Baker and Patrick campaigns, rather close in the polls, are using their campaign accounts (@bakerforgov and @votedeval, respectively) to trumpet their victories and motivate volunteers, but behind the scenes their campaign workers are slinging mud back and forth. Patrick’s tweeters argue about Baker’s involvement in the Big Dig, Baker’s campaigners refute the claims and grouse about unemployment under Patrick. Patrick’s campaigners accuse Baker of using fake Twitter accounts, Baker’s followers accuse Patrick of being out of touch. For a medium trumpeted by social media experts as a “more human way to communicate,” it all feels like reprints of campaign trail barbs, shrunk to 140 characters.

Perhaps Charlie, Deval, and Tim should take a look to another part of Massachusetts government that is making strides with Twitter: the MBTA.

I think there’s nothing controversial in saying that complaining about the T, like complaining about the weather, is something Bostonians do quite often. The T, which makes millions of passenger-trips daily, has had many different crises to apologize for. But this is an image problem MBTA General Manager Rich Davey is trying to confront on Twitter: the GM now “tweets” under the username @mbtaGM. He’s not just broadcasting whitewashed messages, either: he’s using the medium to communicate successes and failures.

It was a minor failure that brought GM Davey and myself together recently (virtually, at least): my reliable, electric bus line (Harvard Station via Watertown Square) was behind schedule and running early 1990s diesel units in their place. As the bus wheezed up Mt. Auburn Avenue, I checked the MBTA alerts for issues (nothing) and then sent a quick message to Twitter: what gives?

I received a public reply four minutes later: Davey (identifying that he was tweeting from his BlackBerry) explained that construction had knocked out some overhead wire, halting the electric buses and forcing diesel backups. It’ll be fixed shortly, he said, and when the system was fixed 15 minutes later, Davey told me all was finished. In addition, I copied the conversation, via Twitter, to Boston blogger Adam Gaffin, who posted the alert and conversation to his news site Universal Hub.

It was the ultimate “let me speak to your manager” moment. And it worked.

I should note that the T already has a system for explaining service interruptions (which, thanks to a private software-developer, is broadcast to Twitter), which wasn’t used, and using social networks to apologize for problems is a strategy many other businesses use to boost their image. In addition, one 140-character message can’t make up for the MBTA’ many problems.

But in cases like these, a personal note, a “sorry,” or “we’re working on it” is a step in the right direction. My personal explanation wasn’t just a digital diversion as I commuted to work, it was a face painted on one of Massachusetts’s most faceless organizations. The quick thrill of having my questions reach someone in charge easily made up for my noisier ride.

I’d urge Charlie, Deval and Tim’s camps to try something similar. The issue with many tweets from the candidates is that you usually find lots of snark and endless permutations of the same message. The candidate that will win the online campaign is the one that casts aside the attitude and connects with people, one by one, to get them excited about your cause.

As for the MBTA, we’ll talk on Twitter some time this week. My afternoon Route 70 outbound is always painfully late and I thought you all might like to know.

Ben Timmins is a senior at the Boston University College of Communication and an intern for CommonWealth Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter by going to

Our sponsors