An academic researcher by day (and sometimes by night) my other interests in life are all thing public transport - particularly trains and buses (hence the name of this blog). I don't normally write about railways or buses on here, but recently I've become interested in how train and bus companies are using Twitter to interact with their customers. And I wonder if it highlights something new and different about how social media is transforming the social relationships between providers and passengers.
I can remember the days when to find out your train times you'd consult a printed timetable or call up your local railway station. There really wasn't any other source of information with which to plan your journey. Then came the Internet which meant you could plan your journey without the need to locate a paper timetable. Eventually the internet also gave you the ability to see realtime information - if your train was on time, late, and even which platform to catch it from But even a relatively short time ago the internet was a fairly unidirectional tool. The company provided the information they thought was important, and then you read it.
But the rise and rise of Twitter seems to have changed all that. A few years ago Twitter was perhaps an 'add on', but now it appears to have become an integral communication tool which companies use to disseminate information and receive it (see this BBC article on South West Trains for instance, and an RAIB report which noted how passengers used Twitter to communication with another train company during a train breakdown). Some companies seem to really have taken Twitter on board and worked out how to use it well - I'm thinking of people like First Great Western who have an excellent Twitter presence (@fgw). Their Twitter account is now manned from 7am until 9pm with the hours having recently been extended, and the BBC report on SWT illustrates just how important it's become for that company
Especially at time of disruption these companies can get information out to thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of people in a matter of seconds. But passengers also seem to be using Twitter to communicate with companies in ways that seems different. Firstly communication is often two way - with passengers asking directly for help, information, or complaining, and expecting a fairly much instand response, with subsequent tweets going backwards and forwards in a conversational manner. Passengers used Twitter to pay compliments as well, or to inform companies of faults at stations.
Secondly, Twitter seems to have given people a way (and permission) to seek individualised information ('Where's MY bus?') in a way which the traditional website or phone line does not facilitate.
I like the informality of interacting with companies via Twitter. But a third thing I've noticed (and been taken aback by) is the way in which people can use very strong language in their tweets, and some could be regarded as offensive. Certainly I cannot imagine many people using this kind of language in a formal letter of complaint, and if you were to use some of the words in a face-to-face encounter you might well end up being dealt with by the Police. And yet many (maybe all) of the tweets I've seen like this have been answered politely by the company in question. I wonder how the company tweeters deal with this kind of thing - it certainly seems to call for new kinds of professional identity and performance - providing information in quite a formal way, interacting through conversations, but yet also dealing with some fairly hostile tweets. And whilst sometimes people are complaining to the company in their tweet, other times they're compaining about it, mentioning the company by using its Twitter account name.
So, whilst trains and buses are full of people in their own little bubble (headphone on and engrossed in their book, tablet or smartphone) it seems that these travellers and the companies which carry them around are a good example of why Twitter is a form of social media.