Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Houston's METRO Gets on the Blog Bus

A month ago, METRO, Houston's public transit agency, launched its Ride On Metro blog, and it's been an interesting case study in public agency blogging.

Some background: METRO, like all public transit agencies, is supported in large part by tax oney and thus needs to be accountable to the public. Blogging is a natural fit for an organization that needs to think not only about customers, but about public support that leads to funding. And this is Houston; we don't have the kind of broad-based support for public transit that you find in cities like Boston or New York or London.

It's also an interesting time for METRO. Houston has traditionally grown up around automobile transportation. Thus the first thing visitors to our crazy sprawling city see is freeways and our less than pristine air (to put it kindly). However, the city is growing fast - and, more importantly, the city is getting more dense. Infill development in our central neighborhoods has been strong, and so there are more people occupying the same space, which means there's less room for cars, but public transit starts working much better.

But none of this comes naturally to Houstonians. While voters approved a referendum for a whole package of transit projects, including 72 miles of light rail, a few years ago, METRO's had a real challenge keeping that support. There's been an ongoing controversy over the alignment of the next rail line, which is perhaps the most critical component of the system.

When I heard about the blog, I was surprised - METRO's never struck me as particularly innovative when it comes to communication with the public - and eager to see what would happen.

The blog itself is okay. METRO hired a new communications staffer (Mary Sit, a former Houston Chronicle reporter) to write it (along with some other duties). The blog launched... and then things got interesting.

The entries are boosterish, but come on - of course they are. That's the point of the blog. There are some human interest pieces (talking to some of the bus drivers about their experiences on the job, for example), and that sort of thing. It's all about what I'd expect from a METRO blog.

Of course, there's a political dimension to this. As soon as the blog launched, a local blogger who's written extensively about why he hates METRO launched a parody blog - which is sometimes funny, though you can only drag out the joke so long, I think. More seriously, someone dug up information on the new staffer's salary and local blogs began accusing METRO of wasting money on her (I didn't think it was an outrageous salary, based on what someone could make in the private sector).

There was also some criticism that the blog read too much like press releases, and there wasn't enough dialog. I think that's inevitable when launching; until you build an audience, there's not going to be a lot of feedback. That takes time, and I'm inclined to wait and see what happens.

My one criticism of the blog: it requires people to create an account and log in to comment. I know a fair number of blogs to this; I think it's a terrible idea. It keeps occasional readers from commenting. I know that it's meant to prevent abusive commenting, but I think the damage it does to the dialog is too high. Yes, moderating comments is a pain in the neck (I do it for a blog I write on the Houston Chronicle web site, and when you get a lot of comments, it's drudgery) but that's part of the job.

Yesterday, Mary did a post looking at the first month of blogging. That was a good idea. In it, she identifies one of the challenges of any kind of online community:

In the first blog I wrote, I said that our goal was to “spawn a community of interested readers who will engage in lively discussion.” But unfortunately, the conversation has been dominated by three critical voices whose response to each post is predictable: You’re incompetent, METRO is incompetent, and everything METRO does is a huge waste of money.

The attacks are often personal, both toward me and any commentator who defends METRO or writes something positive about METRO. Rather than encouraging friendly, healthy debate and conversation, these few are poisoning the blog environment and discouraging participation.

Jerry Springer meets the blogosphere. I personally prefer Nightline.

These individuals have posted 122 of the 390 comments, if my quick count is correct. That’s 31.28 percent of the comments.

I'm not surprised. There's one local blog that whose obsession with METRO is legendary; METRO could could launch a system to teleport us all to our offices, and they'd write a blistering complaint that we no longer get to listen to our favorite radio stations while stuck in traffic jams on I-10 anymore. It was obvious some of those folks were going to start haunting the METRO blog and that it wasn't going to create any great dialog about transit services in Houston.

I think that the restricted comment policy contributes to this; only the most interested people will bother to comment, and some will be doing it to grind an axe. Some might see her complaint about "poisoning the blog environment" as defensive, but she's right.

This is always a challenge when you're creating an online community (and a group of blog commenters is just that) - how do you deal with these folks?

I have a suggestion for Mary: open up the comments, using one of the systems that holds first-time commenters' submissions for approval, but then lets them comment at will. And kill anything that's way off topic.

I think there are two big lessons from the METRO blog:

  1. Put on your asbestos sweater. When a public agency starts blogging, everybody who's mad is going to come out of the woodwork. Your job will be to keep the online community working anyway, let the personal criticisms roll off of you, and identify the people with a genuine beef and respond to it. It can't have been fun for Mary to read local bloggers calling her an overpaid hack. But I think this comes with the territory and anybody in her role has gone to be ready for it.
  2. Give it all time. Nearly every blogger needs time to find her voice, settle into a posting schedule that works, and establish some consistency. A month is a very short time. I think everybody needs to take a breath and wait and see where the METRO blog goes in the coming months. I suspect the blog will look a bit different later this year.

I don't know Mary, and I'm not sure if she's reading, but any other tips or criticisms? (I'm curious to see if she sees this and makes any comment; I hope that she's got her Technorati searches set up to find everyone linking to the blog and talking about it, but I don't know if that's the case.)


Marilynn said...

I know that blogs can be used for all kinds of things, not just used as a diary or personal journal. I have three -- personal, pets, and teaching. But it would be nice if Mary would develop the confidence to simply write in her own voice, to write more than one per day, and to allow all comments except for those way off topic (as you said). She'll have more success and acceptance if she follows your suggestions. Good ones.

Mary said...

John, you have some really good suggestions - thank you. Yes, "Write On Metro" is a corporate blog and not a personal one, and I'm in the communications and marketing department.

But I would like to be responsive and blog about what readers want to read about. Some have e-mailed me in the "contact us" link and suggested topics. This blog is not supposed to be the go-to department for all complaints about METRO. There's a procedure for that - a dedicated phone number and an on-line process. Customer service reps take care of complaints.

But I do want to get answers back quickly to specific questions from readers who comment. Sometimes it takes longer than I'd like because the sources who know take a while getting back to me. Blogs are new to METRO staff - and some are just not used to the rapid response time bloggers demand.

I could spend eight hours/day just tracking down answers to the questions I'm getting - both from the blog comments and from e-mail blog readers send. There are times when I have to stop trying to find answers so I have time to write. Most of what I write requires reporting because I am new to METRO, and I can't just dash off thoughts of the day based on my tenure there.

To be perfectly candid, I also did not like the registration our blogging software requires to make comments. We had a discussion about this. No one has complained about it on our blog, however. Maybe I can blog about it and ask readers their opinion? I think if enough readers weigh in and say they hate it, we can certainly consider other options.

And finally, thank you for your patience and giving me (and METRO) time to find my voice and our way in the blogosphere. When I was hired, I, too, thought it was quite innovative for a government agency to launch a blog. It was Frank Wilson's idea and a testament to his unorthodox way of thinking.