Twitter, Toronto, the TTC, & Me (and you)

The first topic in my rebooted biweekly column at Eye Weekly is about Twittering in Toronto. I’ve written a few times about Twitter here, mostly pointing to times when I’ll be live-tweeting something in the city using my own Twitter account. The success or interesting-ness of such endeavors is debatable, but in today’s column I focus on how Twitter enhances my experience of Toronto (read the rest here).

Like Facebook, you choose who you follow — or, more accurately, listen to — as you get to curate your own Twitter experience. Many of the people I subscribe to are from Toronto, and throughout the day I get a sense of what’s going on in the city, as if I’m hanging my head out the window, overhearing a slice of it.

To geek out for a moment (it’s apropriate when talking about Twitter), the “sound” of it reminds me of that line Obi-Wan Kenobi said in the first Star Wars, when the Empire destroys Princess Leia’s home planet of Alderaan: “I feel a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.” Last Thursday night I was out for a walk in the dark and frozen Don Valley with friends and checked Twitter on my iPhone and learned about the blackout through tiny stories that were so personal and fast that I felt like my finger was on the west side’s collective pulse even though I was far from it.

Like a lot of social media, Twitter can be both fun and entertaining and yet full of utility. One area I only briefly got into was the TTC, often a hot topic in the Toronto Twitterverse during a service disruption. This morning I first heard about the shooting at Osgoode Station from tweeting of the folks I follow. One of those people is @bradttc, or “Brad Ross” as he is known elsewhere, the TTC’s Director of Communication (the “@” before a name is how people are recognized on Twitter). Twitter is instant and feedback is direct, so it’s a brave move for Ross to engage in Twitter. As I mention in the article, Twitter is like hearing a lot of Toronto at once, so imagine the collective anger of commuters directed directly at you, without the usual distance (or firewall protection) that email or other forms of communication have. To his credit, he takes everything rather well, answering questions and providing information. This kind of openness on the part of the TTC is quite unprecedented and should be commended.

While the TTC does issue service disruptions via RSS, those of us who trust the crowd can benefit by looking into the aggregator created by Brian Gilham called TTC Updates Community Edition. First he created TTC Updates that pulled the RSS feed from the TTC and fed it into Twitter (putting the information where people are already reading). With Community Edition he uses Twitter’s hash-tag function (see my Eye column for a description of this) to feed any tweet tagged with #ttcu into one centralized place (you can read #ttcu via the Twitter page or on Gilham’s page, which itself has an RSS feed). This is a fantastic project that uses the little data the TTC makes public and couples it with information created by TTC passengers and customers giving us all available information about the state of the TTC at a given moment (dependent, of course, on having people there to tweet  — which is one reason why I call for more tweeting by more people everywhere).

With nifty setups like this, you can imagine the kinds of applications Toronto’s vast geek community will come up with when the TTC makes all their publicly-owned data (including GPS locations of vehicles) available to … the public. I say “when” because, again to his credit, @bradttc checked with the TTC’s IT department (after I twitter-complained to him that if I had access to knowing where the college streetcar was, I’d not have waited at McCaul street a half-hour for one) and he reported that the data would be made public this year. Good news.

Image by Dave Delaney


  1. @bradttc is great. I wish there were people like him littered throughout our various government organizations. He does a great job of answering peoples questions and letting people know what’s up on the TTC right now. And he’s shockingly patient to boot, since a lot of gripes get sent his way.

  2. Hopefully this can be Tweeted ASAP. Got it from @bradttc just now:

    TTC subway service on the Yonge-University-Spadina line between St. George Station and Union Station has resumed. However, do to the on-going police investigation, trains will not be stopping at Osgoode Station.

  3. Matt> Indeed @bradttc just tweeted it, and I saw it retweeted like ripples from a rock thrown in the water, and then fed out to #ttcu. Things move fast!

    ramanan> There are other examples of good people in government and organizations tweeting (and some bad examples who just make more noise and don’t saying anything worthwhile) — we may start a series of post pointing people to good twitter feeds, here on Spacing.

  4. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Brad Ross is the best thing to happen to the TTC in a very long time. By promoting a culture of openness and transparency, he is slowly re-building the public’s trust in the people running our transit system.

    Not to mention, he’s been extremely helpful with TTCupdates. He uses the #ttcu hashtag when he posts updates on service and we send messages back and forth almost daily. The mere fact that TTCu hasn’t been shut down speaks volumes.

  5. Wow.. just the term “tweeting” make me errk in disgust.

    Call me old-fashioned, but if Twitter is like Facebook(and trust me, i don’t know a thing about Twitter), i don’t really see a need for it.

    Although it’s informative and entertaining, the internet’s becoming too much a part of people’s lives. We’re losing connection with real people. More people these days are on the computer than walking a dog, saying hi to your neighbours or baking cookies.

    All in moderation i say. Now excuse me as i’ve used up my self-imposed two hour internet limit, to get some air outside.

  6. Parkdalian: you may have no need for it, but if you experience Twitter you’ll see it is more than just the Facebook status update. It can be a powerful tool and does to opposite of losing connection: it keeps you connected.

  7. @Parkdalian (not a Twitter username, apparently)

    I don’t see why we can’t walk our dogs, bake cookies, say hi to our neighbours AND use Twitter and Facebook, especially since many people can use the web on their cell phones while they’re on the go.

  8. With respect, Parkdalian, I’m exponentially more intimately connected with “real people” thanks to technology. The dog still has to pee, so he gets walked. Cookies are bad for you. To suggest otherwise may be your experience, but it isn’t universal.

    The internet is a tool, use it well, or use it poorly. As I mention in the column, Twitter works for me because it extends what I want to do — connect with people, listen to people, etc. It takes work to get the right balance, but it’s worth it, rather than dismissing it outright.

    As and aside, Twitter is not like Facebook, but I like it too, and will defend it. But again, takes throught and effort and (self) regulation to make it work.

  9. Having just visited Twitter’s “about” page at it’s website, just infuriates more.

    This idea that people want to know what’s going on in your life every ten-minutes, is the main reason i’m almost about to leave Facebook. There’s people on there that change their “status” every day and this is simply killing me. I don’t care how “connected” you need to be with someone, this is ridiculous. Just like people feel the need to stay in touch with loved ones while on vacation, every 2-3 hrs!

    Come on people, i can find a thousand things you can do better with your time than Twitter. Saying Hi to your neighbour would be one..

  10. Shawn, you hit the nail on the head, “it takes the right balance”.

    I don’t dismiss that the internet’s got many good qualities, but let’s be honest, the majority of the worlds population doesn’t use it wisely.

    I agree many people need technology for their work, but the majority uses it to kill time or wander thru useless facts and entertainment. It seems really tempting to have so much information at your disposal isn’t it?

    But you’re right, self-regulation is key.

  11. Come on people, i can find a thousand things you can do better with your time than Twitter. Saying Hi to your neighbour would be one.

    I do say hi to them, but in a split second I also say hi to my friends in LA, NYC and Vancouver. I’m happy to know that my friend at BC Hydro had a good meeting with the solar tech reps from Japan, and I’m happy to read that my friend in LA got a gig in a new CBS series. I miss them both terribly but this allows me to not lose touch.

    The tag from the balackout last week, #darkto, was the world’s most popular tag that night. It kept thousands of people connected and allowed others to find warm shelter.

    As Shawn said, its a tool to use. If you don’t like it you can ignore it. I use Facebook status updates (and not Twitter) mostly as a way to communicate Spacing stuff and the public life things that i do. But it was also amazing to read about people’s reaction to Obama’s inauguration ceremony. It was great to read the mood of skeptics and Obamaniacs at the same time. I find that more amusing (at times) than having to make small conversation with my neighbour as she walks her dog. We can have it both ways and everyone gets what they’re looking for.

  12. Hi Cassandra. I’m not sure about your day, but my day is usually filled with going to work, showering, reading the paper, going home, getting groceries, doing chores, taking in a movie maybe, having some friends over and finishing it off with a solid 8 hrs sleep.

    With things and people to see around town.. i really don’t have time to be on-line(*or less, on the inter-phone)

    Hence, my conclusion that the internet “sometimes” steals our time. But that’s just me.

  13. Park> I’m not so cyncical about humanity to make comments about “the majority of users” — as I wrote, social media both entertains, and has utility.

    Wasting some time on Facebook is fine. We all need downtime. Perhaps people switch from Everybody Loves Raymond to looking at their friends photos on Facebook.

    Also on Facebook are hundreds and thousands of neighbourhood and hobby and etc etc etc groups that let people connect — people that might not have connected before.

    I’m very critical of poor uses of the technology, as I got into a bit in the column, but I remain faithful to my belief that the Internet is just about the greatest thing to ever land on Earth.

  14. Hehe, time spent “reading the paper” not saying hi to neighbours! Damn technology — damn that printing press! Ruining human connection!

  15. I was pretty happy with myself when when I registered a Twitter account (with TwitterBerry) the night before the blackout. If I hadn’t signed up I wouldn’t have had half the information I did (Facebook had updates but Twitter had the best info the fastest) as my roommate and I were trying to figure out what had happened. Having some peace of mind knowing that the issue was being worked on allowed us to sit around and sip scotch by candlelight.

    The next morning I got updates from my city councillor via Facebook about the expected length of the blackout and where the nearest warming centers were.

    All in all, I was quite happy with the way it was handled and the way technology was used to communicate.

  16. It’s good to hear about this man named Brad. Perhaps spacing should have an annual Toronto bureaucrat awards event (perhaps as part of a magazine launch).

    I’m curious about twitter, but I’ve yet to jump on board as I’m afraid of the time-suck.

  17. hi shawn. Picking up on your star wars reference, an interesting early twitter article I read interviewed someone who likened twitter to having ESP with their friends.

  18. Twitter, I suspect it’s yet another annoying distraction I don’t need.
    Do people tweet while driving, eating in a restaurant or at a movie theatre?
    It might be good if it means less yakking on cellphones in public spaces though.

  19. Twitter is incredibly useful (and fun). And the Toronto Twitter community is fantastic.

  20. Regarding how well “communication” took place during the recent power outage, I would say it was horrible. If this was any indication of how well emergency communications works in this City, we are in serious trouble.

    Sorry, but TWITTER just doesn’t cut it with most folks. FM Radio — including CBC — was absolutely useless during the first 8 hours.

    Supposedly, we have a “211” City Info line in Toronto. And yet, the people staffing this line had NO information to impart for hours after the blackout began. All they did was refer people to Hydro, mentioning of course that Toronto Hydro was being swamped with calls. In fact, many of those staffing the line expressed frustration about the lack of information they were being given and the numbers of calls they were getting.

    Days later, my neighbor called the Mayor’s office to inquire what number she should have called to get updates and information on what to do. She was told “211”. When she mentioned that she had called this number and it wasn’t until well into the following morning that those staffing this line were able to provide any real info, she got no further comment.

  21. @samg: Honestly, I would’ve skipped FM radio anyway. I bet tuning into 680 News would’ve given you the updates you were looking for right away.

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