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From the MTA to the FDNY, New York City’s Extremely Online Entities Ponder Life After Twitter

Elon Musk’s chaotic takeover of the social media platform has some of the city’s most prolific users wondering how they’ll instantly communicate with millions of New Yorkers.

SHARE From the MTA to the FDNY, New York City’s Extremely Online Entities Ponder Life After Twitter

The MTA extensively uses Twitter to communicate delays, like the one that roiled an evening commute on Nov. 13, 2019.

Jose Martinez/THE CITY

When damage to subway signals in southern Brooklyn last week upended service along multiple lines from Thursday afternoon into Friday morning, the MTA’s @NYCTSubway Twitter feed warned its million followers in real time of extensive delays and commuting options.

“Take a free shuttle bus for service between Coney Island-Stillwell Av and 86 St.,” the agency tweeted. “Take W trains in Manhattan and Queens. Transfer to an R/Q train at Canal St for continued service in Brooklyn.”

The replies to social media staffers at the MTA’s rail control center were a predictable mix of questions and rage. One person wrote, “This is a disgrace,” and posted a photo of a countdown clock showing wait times of more than 20 minutes for coming trains.

But the exchanges highlight the near-instant access New Yorkers have via Twitter to wide-ranging and immediately relevant information from the transit agency. 

The alerts vary: From a water main break Sunday that affected service on multiple lines, to a disruptive passenger who caused delays Monday on the N and Q lines, to the long thread on service impacts that followed the April subway shooting at a Brooklyn station.

But as Twitter teeters from mass layoffs and firings, technical snafus, and an employee exodus under new owner Elon Musk, some users worried that the platform’s potential demise could hinder information-sharing among New York’s elected officials, government agencies, nonprofits and others who rely on it as the go-to place online to disseminate and consume critical information in real time.

“There will be more people who will be looking for information and fewer people with answers if there isn’t a Twitter,” Sarah Meyer, former chief customer officer at the MTA, told THE CITY.

The MTA uses Twitter to provide real-time service updates.

Screengrab/Twitter

Jamie Cohen, an assistant professor of media studies at Queens College with a focus on internet culture, said Twitter’s decline hurts both the communities built there and the way people have become accustomed to instant information.

“Twitter is the personal community eye to the city,” Cohen said. “I don’t know what will give us that immediacy of information until someone figures out a model that’s almost identical — or at least better.”

Sabrina Kizzie, a doctoral lecturer of digital media at Baruch College, echoed that concern. “In terms of real-time information, news, customer service for brands and companies – this can be MTA, universities – that’s how you track what’s going on and what’s being said about your organization,” Kizzie told THE CITY.

“It gives you access to people you wouldn’t usually have access to.” 

The social media platform is a must-have for city agencies, if not always a must-read.

The NYPD maintains separate feeds for each precinct and bureau while also soliciting tips on crime from its main account. The Fire Department, too, operates multiple accounts on Twitter.

“Our followers on social media come to our accounts to receive tips on how to keep themselves and their families safe, to learn how they can join the department through a wide range of career opportunities and to learn about the brave actions of our members,” said FDNY spokesperson Amanda Farinacci.

Then there are lesser-known city agencies like the Conflict of Interests Board and Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which both gained followers with often cheeky posts about municipal ethics and citywide auctions. 

New York’s political class is heavily dependent on Twitter to interact with constituents, ding each other for likes, clarify policy positions and communicate with journalists. 

“For elected officials, it’s an essential way to communicate with your constituents and the broader audience in the city or around the world,” City Councilmember Keith Powers, a Democrat from Manhattan with 13,600 followers, told THE CITY. “It allows you to add your own personal voice and your own characteristics to what you’re working on as opposed to traditional older formats, like a newsletter.”

Mayor Eric Adams, with over 1.6 million followers, uses Twitter to livestream announcements and tout his administration, sometimes under the self-promoting hashtags #GetStuffDone and #CityOfYes

But Adams also has warned of the dangers of social media, especially after a possible attack on New York City synagogues was thwarted last weekend after investigators found tweets from at least one suspect describing an attack. 

“It is time for social media [companies] to come to the table and reckon with the role that social media unintentionally is playing in the spreading of hate, in … people using their platforms to organize these hate campaigns,” he said Monday at a press conference related to the attack. 

Few government agencies have made as much use of Twitter as the MTA, which has more than 2.6 million followers combined for feeds that provide alerts on subway, bus and commuter rail service, along with announcements and videos about the sprawling transit network.

While the following among the MTA’s Twitter feeds dwarfs those of its Facebook, Instagram and TikTok accounts, the agency said 90% of the messages it receives through WhatsApp and iMessage are actionable — compared to about 40 to 50% of Twitter messages.

“Social media and the way we communicate evolves and the MTA uses redundant platforms to reach customers,” said spokesperson Joana Flores. “That enables effective communication, regardless of shifts in the market.”

Meyer, who led the MTA’s customer communications and social media efforts for five years until she left earlier this year, said Twitter has been especially useful in helping the agency respond to more people at once and in becoming more transparent through online chats with transit officials.

She noted that in some instances, riders tweet details before the agency has them.

“It’s in your face,” Meyer said. “But it was also very apparent from Twitter that the customers sometimes knew more information than the MTA did, and that forced the department of subways and [MTA] leadership to say, ‘Hey, we have to up our game here.’”

After last week’s service disruptions along the D and N lines, Louis Santiago was among the riders who rage-tweeted at @NYCTSubway. 

“How is this acceptable and how could this happen?” tweeted Santiago, who commutes on the R line between Bay Ridge and Lower Manhattan. “WE NEED TO GET OUT OF Manhattan without these trains that are paralyzed in southern Brooklyn.”

Santiago, a 25-year-old late-shift restaurant worker who concedes he is often “very critical” of MTA, said he and other “extremely online” subway riders will miss Twitter should it collapse.

Earlier this month, he contacted @NYCTSubway about the “repulsive” smell of human waste that had been on a Times Square-42nd Street platform for days. Within four minutes, he received a reply from the transit agency pledging to “get this area cleaned.”

“It’s the strongest tool we have as riders to reach out about incidents, poor service,” Santiago said. “It gets the attention of the person behind the computer screen. Sometimes things are so egregious they have to get done.”

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