The Hardest Job in Boston: Managing the MBTA Twitter Account

Lisa Battiston handles the MBTA’s Twitter account from the operations control center.
Lisa Battiston handles the MBTA’s Twitter account from the operations control center. –Hilary Sargent/Boston.com

On weekdays from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m., Lisa Battiston has the least enviable job in Greater Boston.

She spends her morning monitoring Twitter and responding to the seemingly endless stream of anger and complaints regarding MBTA service. But the Midwestern native meets the vitriol with calm, and even cheer.

A profanity-laced tweet about a late bus, punctuated with a #MBTAFail hashtag, is met with a sympathetic and helpful response from Battiston, complete with an exclamation point!

Battiston leads a team of public information officers charged with informing T riders about service alerts and other information about their commutes. She handles the weekday morning commutes. Two other staffers are assigned to the evening and weekend shifts.

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Between the three of them, they field complaints about delays, questions about Charlie cards, information about medical emergencies, inquiries about weather-related service disruptions, and even the occasional tip about a possibly stolen MBTA sign somehow ending up in a bar.

Battiston works from a desk located in the center of the MBTA’s operations control center, located on High Street in downtown Boston. Others in the control center include dispatchers for the Green, Red, Orange and Blue lines, two supervisors, and a member of the transit police. The dispatcher for the Silver line is seated several floors down, where the bus control center is located.

(Click here to view a larger photo of the MBTA’s operations control center.)

The abundance of negative tweets “can be a little overwhelming,’’ according to Battiston, but only in terms of the sheer volume. She doesn’t let the negativity get to her, even when the tweet includes the #ScrewYou hashtag.

“If they say anything negative, it’s normally warranted. They’re just frustrated,’’ Battiston said. “We welcome the negative tweets. Even if they’re telling us to screw ourselves because an elevator isn’t working, that’s helpful information. We can alert someone to make sure the problem gets fixed.’’

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And occasionally, more empathetic riders will note that Battiston and her team members don’t have the easiest job.

“Sometimes we will see a tweet saying ‘Someone take whoever manages this account out for a drink’ and that’s nice,’’ Battiston said.

Battiston moved to Boston in 2008 to pursue a graduate degree in creative writing at Emerson College. She began working at the MBTA in November 2011.

“I don’t come from a place with easily accessible public transportation. The Midwest is a driving culture,’’ Battiston said. “I moved here and thought ‘Wow – I don’t need to own a car!’’’

Managing the MBTA’s Twitter account used to take about 25 percent of Battiston’s workday. But since late January, she has spent close to 85 percent of her time monitoring and responding to tweets.

“It’s constant. The tweets never stop,’’ Battiston said. “Twitter takes up the big bulk of our day right now. Our followers know we’re listening, so they’ve become way more vocal.’’

Launched in May 2010, the @MBTA Twitter account now has 115,000 followers, up 30 percent in the last six weeks alone.

In those six weeks, close to 200,000 tweets have been published with the @MBTA handle or using the #MBTA hashtag, up from 40,000 in the same period last year, according to Crimson Hexagon, a Boston-based social media analytics company.

Battiston said the team used to keep a detailed log of every tweet to which they responded. But once the record snowfall began, the log had to be temporarily abandoned.

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“We just couldn’t keep up,’’ she said.

Since January 23, Battiston and her team have tweeted 5,336 times, up from a mere 511 tweets during the same period last year, according to Crimson Hexagon.

“It helps when we talk back to people,’’ Battiston said. “We rely on information from people using the MBTA to alert us to issues, and they are obviously relying on us to get them where they need to go.’’

Battiston and her team don’t respond to every single tweet. Sometimes commuters tweet as a way to convey general frustrations about the system, Battiston said.

“When we respond to someone and say we are forwarding the information to a supervisor, that’s exactly what we do,’’ she said.

Not long ago, Battiston was at Park Street station, en route to the MBTA control center to begin her workday. She said she was standing directly beside someone as he tweeted at the MBTA.

“It was a little weird, knowing I would be responding to him. He had no idea,’’ she said.

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