End of the Line

For institutions, fatalism can have the gloss of transparency

On a Wednesday back in mid-March, San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) was experiencing drastic delays along its various lines in the region. Predictably, passengers whose schedules were stagnated voiced their aggravation by tweeting @SFBART. But instead of issuing stock, profuse apologies, the agency responded to its passengers with thorough — at least as much as possible in 140 characters or less — albeit pessimistically tinged transparency. “BART was built to transport far fewer people,” spokesman Taylor Huckaby wrote in his paramount tweet, which was retweeted and liked each a thousand times, “and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life. This is our reality.”

Huckaby explained that the transit system was clogging mainly because of its inability to keep up with unprecedented population growth in the area. Among some of the more specific issues he addressed: “Our system was built to last about 45 years and we’ve reached the limit”; “The number of people who exit at 19th street in Oakland has doubled in less than a decade”; “Planners in 1996 had no way of predicting the tech boom — track redundancy, new tunnels & transbay tubes are decades-long projects.” His frankness became a hot topic for newsrooms both regional and national, and the subject of general praise. Days afterward, he wrote a retrospective on the incident for Popular Mechanics, in which he play-by-played how he and the communications team decided to respond as distinctly as they did, and further delineated the years-long process and budget necessary for scheduled repairs and updates.

In the end, his message received much less attention than his approach: Here was a public institution, daring not to think positively. Huckaby’s strategic spokesmanship via social media embodied a disconcerting trend: the illusion of transparency through pessimism, even while only a fraction of the truth was being revealed, and only a fraction of the institution (a single person typing from a company device) was doing the revealing; also, the commodification of transparency as a catalyst for virality.

Huckaby’s manner of response felt endemic to Twitter, tapping into a particular brand of pessimism associated with accounts like @SoSadToday. Authored by Melissa Broder (who revealed her identity in 2015, three years after starting the account), @SoSadToday has helmed a form of internet parlance that expounds anxiety, self-hate, panic attacks, and other symptoms related to common depression within digestible, distinctly humorous quips — a process that reflects the cultural simplification of depression and disregard for its complexities. Broder humorizes low expectations and self-doubt: “I perceive everything as a rejection just to be safe.” And she illustrates how swiftly depression can subsume and ruin a particle of normalcy: “Me: hi. Weight of the world: It’s your fault.”

BART’s account managed to channel that beloved internet nihilism in four resigned words, “This is our reality,” which sounds as much like a pinned tweet as an official statement

Followers hold Broder and familial tweeters as alternatives to the naive, shallow media that sugarcoats the insidious, but @SoSadToday has accrued over 400,000 followers; and Broder, after she went public, amassed coverage in major outlets like Rolling Stone, Elle (where she now writes a column), and the New Yorker, in which Haley Mlotek wrote that she speaks “collectively for a certain demographic of young, female Twitter users, those who felt emotions very deeply and were also interested in curating a distinct expression of those emotions online.” Broder’s feed floats within a deluge of accounts that humorously expound pessimistic subject matter. @ShutUpMikeGinn, for example, who has over 150,000 followers, tweets quips like “[Finishing meal at rooftop restaurant] I’m ready to jump off whenever you guys are.” Others include @jonnysun, with over 250,000 followers (“Hello darkness my old friend, why are u here it’s 4 p.m.”); and @dubstep4dads, with over 150,000 (“Yo yo mic check 1, 2, I’m depressed”).

While it would’ve been completely inappropriate for Huckaby to write about issues like social anxiety and self-scrutiny through BART’s account, he managed to channel that beloved internet nihilism in four resigned words, “This is our reality,” which sounds as much like a pinned tweet as an official statement. Although Huckaby employs this frankness without the inherent humor of @SoSadToday or @ShutUpMikeGinn, his tone is the antithesis of reassurance and adopting a “positive attitude.” Broder and Ginn are individuals expressing genuine emotions through blunt humor, not to patronize the sentiments but to render them accessible and palatable to the public: Their style is a mannered, intensely concise directness that draws attention to the taboo expression of these particular sentiments. By invoking their approach, Huckaby gave the synecdochic impression that a whole institution was acting bravely and irreverently — even if, in the objective, surface-level sense, Huckaby was merely expressing what’s true, and even if that expression should be a given.

In the New York Times, writer Jonah Bromwich described the BART incident as “a peek behind the institutional curtain, but the tweets were online for all to see.” This transparency was a sign of benevolence, in other words; passengers were finally granted a glimpse into the machinations of the transportation system upon which they — that is, over 400,000 passengers daily — depend. But exalting this incident as something exemplary forgets the fact that transparency is supposed to be standard ethical protocol, not an occasional capitulation worthy of praise.

“The Bay Area is historically characterized as the most liberal place in the United States,” Huckaby was quoted in the Times piece, “but there’s an antigovernment sentiment, that government can do no right, that government is broken, that government doesn’t answer to anybody, is unaccountable and doesn’t care.” The reason for this sentiment, of course, is a lack of accountability among government institutions; this reality is what made Huckaby’s Twitter tone, quite apart from his press statements, so remarkable. In the end, BART was only as transparent as it was willing to be: While the company could have followed up the incident with a proper document going more in depth on the issues Huckaby addressed surface-level on Twitter and in Popular Mechanics, his 140-character statements demonstrated the intention of transparency. And for readers, that was enough.

Media coverage didn’t provide much analysis of the BART incident’s causes; instead, it demonstrated an infatuation with its narrative — a “stars: they’re just like us!” mentality expanded and applied to an entire institution. A public address was compressed into a social media spectacle as Twitter eliminated the context for Huckaby’s unfettered divulgence, just as @SoSadToday’s blunt, lucid confession becomes bite-sized comedy, moving with the feed.

In the end, BART was only as transparent as it was willing to be: Huckaby’s 140-character statements demonstrated the intention of transparency, and for readers, that was enough

“It’s sort of the secret sauce of virality,” Huckaby told the Verge about his first tweet. He hoped, in his retrospective, that the media attention would inspire a “much-needed national conversation about the stark reality of America’s deteriorated railways, roads, bridges, airports, sewer systems and electrical grid.” But trends on social media — in spite of their textual indelibility — have inherently transient lifespans; to expect lasting results from such ephemera is oxymoronic.

Journalists didn’t wonder much about the aftermath of BART’s breakdown, the event that spawned the campaign in the first place — about whether BART had made any progress in mitigating the systemic malfunctions that Huckaby addressed back in March. Outlets of Times-proportions failed to follow up on the transportation system’s fate (like when, on November 28, voters in the Bay Area approved $3.5 billion to go to the agency, a bond that Huckaby made reference to in his retrospective). Such conversations just don’t attract the same kind of audience.

Eli Zeger is currently a freshman at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland. His work has been published in Vice, the A.V. Club, and Paste.