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Social media enabled instant organizing for streetcars

The rapid and intense backlash against DC Council Chairman Vincent Gray's cutting streetcar funds was a great victory for transit advocacy, but it was also a great victory for "social media"—blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and more.

Tweets for streetcars.

It was amazing to see the speed with which the news and calls to action spread, which according to Council officials generated over 1,000 calls to Gray's office within the span of only a few hours, most before the Council even took its vote. It's also interesting to see the way reporters responded to this. Most talked about the effect, but a few mysteriously left social media's role out entirely.

Our report was very quickly picked up and reconfirmed by many other blogs. DCist, We Love DC, Prince of Petworth, Frozen Tropics, The Hill is Home, H Street Great Street, Life in Mount Vernon Square, the Sierra Club's Streetcars4DC, and many more asked people to call Gray's office, in most cases well before the vote.

Twitter, too, lit up with the news. Our first tweet was retweeted with and without modifications numerous times; According to's summary, it got 388 clicks and 70 "shares" on Facebook, and 47 retweets, which don't even include the ones using Twitter's "native retweet" functionality. And that was just one tweet from one blog. Here's the one for DCist's first tweet. Dave Stroup, Frozen Tropics, and numerous others kept tweeting developments in the story and snarky jokes about the situation.

The development even drove some people and groups to start using social media. A new Twitter account, DCTransit, appeared yesterday right after the Council vote and started tweeting developments quickly. Lisa Rein from the Post seems to have joined yesterday as well. Social media often grows in spurts around big events; maybe this will drive even more Twitter usage in the DC local news space.

I was somewhat surprised to read today's Loose Lips Daily, however. Someone reading it without knowing about the issue might assume that nothing happened until noon, when the Council took its vote and DC Wire reported the news, even though Monica Norton's DC Wire report did credit the Internet eruption.

Loose Lips Daily writer Jason Cherkis calls "excellent coverage" the final Post article from Tim Craig and Nikita Stewart, which is indeed excellent in its analysis of the political calculations and motivations going on, but the words "blog," "Twitter," and "Internet" appear nowhere in the article, an odd omission given that the Examiner, WBJ, and City Paper (as Housing Complex) talk about the role of social media.

In the past, an activist group like Sierra Club might have sent out an email alert, but most people would have read about the issue in the newspaper the next morning, TV that night, or heard about it on the radio. Some people might have been watching Channel 13. But to generate 1,000 calls to a Council office in a few hours would have been unlikely on such short notice.

This time, Sierra Club still played a huge role, but used blogs and Twitter to magnify it. The public statements of officials still influenced opinions, but were spread rapidly by social media. And new activists, like bloggers and readers of blogs, mobilized in the span of hours in a way that wouldn't have been possible before.

Maybe that'll be the subject of the next article in the Post. Meanwhile, Mr. Cherkis, we encourage you to subscribe to at least a few blogs, like your predecessor did. The day's news is still illuminated very much by the Washington Post, the Examiner, the Business Journal, WTOP, the City Paper and more, but that's not all there is to it.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Apparently listservs did play a big role yesterday. Out of curiosity, are there any good DC/Cap Hill-centric ones worth joining?

by andrew on May 27, 2010 2:09 pm • linkreport

Prediction: Social media will also enable organized complaining and calls for governance restructuring when the streetcars repeatedly break down, experience door problems, and are generally not on schedule and out of money for maintenance. After an arbitrary grace period expires of course.

by Lou on May 27, 2010 2:14 pm • linkreport

That was me! I called and tweeted.

by JMS on May 27, 2010 2:21 pm • linkreport

The current Loose Lips Daily is just awful. It appears mid-morning, is ridiculously short and lazy, and has Cherkis' bleeding heart commentary on some stories. It's a pathetic shadow of what DeBonis used to put out every morning and I hope he start putting out one for the WashPost.

And I totally agree that the Post was completely silent on the social media aspects of the story. I really hope they do a followup story focusing just on that angle b/c it was rather amazing to see it in action.

by Fritz on May 27, 2010 3:01 pm • linkreport

What we saw in action was one century reaching back into another and 'victory' coming about NOT because 'democracy worked' in any way shape or form, but rather instead because the mechanisms of democracy got pre-empted and trampled over by a social media that drowned out the interests of the many in favor of the interests of vocal few.

In brief, the Council members attached an importance to the action of a simple 'click' that in the past they would have attached to a letter that would have taken real work, and real dedication, and real sacrifice to write, seal, and deliver. They gave 'false' weight to the voices they heard from, and in so doing actually worked against the principles of democracy, which isn't supposed to be to cave in to the demands of a group simply because it can scream the loudest.

An anology would be when the Conquistadors conquered vast indigenous American Indian armies with a relatively few Spanish soldiers and sailors. They came from the east with ships and weapons and other do-dads that the local Indians had never seen. One century met another and the Spanish won NOT because they actually could win, but because the Indians over-estimated their power. There was a mis-match between perceptions and reality.

We had the same situation occur here yesterday. It used to be that it took real dedication and real work for someone to be an 'advocate' for something. And when the Council heard from someone via phone or by other means, it really meant something. Nowadays, a simple tweet can trigger a phone call made from the comfort of ones commute or a text message back in a sec. It doesn't connote what it used to. But the Council members don't know that ... at least not yet.

As in any time when there's a mis-match that causes mis-communication, the parties involved will eventually identify the mis-match and correct for it.

For example, the Congress used to have a rule that ALL letter from constituents went into a 'process flow' that ensured that everyone got a reply and that that reply was consistent with the Congressman's stand on issues, and that it got approval before being sent out. Now, with electronic mail so easily available and volume up, that doesn't happen anymore except in rare instances. Instead, people just get an acknowledgement that their mail's been received, and a 'very generic' reply message gets sent out. The Congressmen have learned to deal with the new technology out there.

Our DC Council is just lagging. Give 'em a chance, they'll catch up ... and the next time an issue like this occurs, wanna bet they don't give it the undue benefit of influence that they gave to it yesterday?

by Lance on May 27, 2010 3:14 pm • linkreport

Lance - are you saying that people's voices shouldn't count unless it actually takes "real work" and sacrifice to make the voice heard just like in the olden days? That's awfully close to walking to school 3 miles uphill each way in the snow and you kids get off of my lawn territory.

And besides, those who supported the opposing side theoretically had the same chance and opportunity to get their voices heard too. Are you suggesting that the one side had an unfair advantage or that rules were circumvented or something?

by andy on May 27, 2010 3:47 pm • linkreport

@Andy Are you suggesting that the one side had an unfair advantage or that rules were circumvented or something?

Like I said, the Councilmembers "gave 'false' weight to the voices they heard from". It wasn't an example of democratic principles and institutions working ... it was an example of their not working.

by Lance on May 27, 2010 3:50 pm • linkreport

And it sure was democratic of Gray to strip the streetcar part out of the bill at 2AM the night before the vote with no discussion about it whatsoever!

I guess next time we should all get out our calligraphy sets, write a nice formal letter and hand-deliver it to the Wilson Building.

by MLD on May 27, 2010 3:54 pm • linkreport

@MLD, The Councilmembers get elected to represent our interests. As the chair, Gray gets over all resposibility for conveying the other councilmembers views (as conveyed to them by their constituents) to the Mayor in the changes made to the budget that the Mayor puts together. What difference does it make what exact time he made this particular change? This change had been discussed on 5/19. (Check the Council's channel ... I saw it last night.) I'm sure this wasn't the only change made in the budget that he finally got finished revising after many days of working on it. All procedures, hearings, etc. were followed.

by Lance on May 27, 2010 4:04 pm • linkreport

It wasn't an example of democratic principles and institutions working

Are you suggesting that it is against democratic principles and institutions for constituents to contact their representative over an issue that they are concerned or is the problem that you don't like it being "easy" to do so?

Should the viewpoint of a guy who rides 10 miles into town on his mule be given more weight than the viewpoint of someone who lives right next next door to the courthouse simply because the extra effort implies greater commitment to the viewpoint? I'm just really having a hard time understanding what the problem is.

by andy on May 27, 2010 4:16 pm • linkreport

Lance, if you don't think that social media and other online tools for organizing aren't democratic, then I don't know what we can do to help you. The old system explicitly operated in such a way that one to many (broadcast) communication was the only method. It was as un-democratic as you could get. People could disagree en masse, but they had no easy way to connect to others with the same viewpoint and form groups around their common interests.

Now things operate differently. Communication is two-way and the audience can communicate with each other — as well as the person who started speaking to them (the council, in this case.)

I'd say that democracy DID prevail, because in the past, there would be no way to organize in the middle of the day and have our voices heard like this. They could make a dumb decision and our only recourse might be at the ballot box months and months down the road.

(It's easy to click send on an email or a tweet, but making a call is difficult, so don't discount 1,000 calls.)

by Steve on May 27, 2010 4:38 pm • linkreport


GGW and the blog like it are an 'advocacy' ... I.e., they represent special interests. And when you get a special interest group dictating what is in their interests vs. in the interests of the citizenry as a whole, you get undemocratic results.

The Council is supposed to be representing the interests of the DC citizens as a whole. When a special interest group can out scream the citizenry as a whole --- and the Council listens because it falsely thinks these requests are from the general citizenry --- then the mechanisms of the democratic process are not working ... and you end up with results that do not have democratic legitimacy. You have positions and policies dictated by a special interst group.

Now don't get me wrong. I agree that the new media can be a boon to the democratic process. But like any tool, they can only help the democratic process if they are in the right hands. Currently they are in the hands of advocates for special interests and not in the hands of groups made up of citizens representing the interests of the citizenry as a whole.

Yesterday was an example of their misuse. A misuse that only happened because the Council allowed it to happen. And they only allowed it to happen because they were looking at it with 20th century eyes and not understanding that all these calls and all these emails weren't from the general citizenry. They were from a very few special interests groups with a very specific agenda to push. And push they could, because unlike yesteryear where you really had to work at convincing someone to write in a letter or whatever on behalf of your cause, all they had to do was state what they wanted their legions to do. No thinking or work involved.

by Lance on May 27, 2010 5:03 pm • linkreport

I hate to downplay something you are taking pride in, but

According to you, this was picke dup by 8 other DC blogs, and tweeted (who knows to how many people). You also point to 388 clicks on your blog, but were those 388 unique visitor clicks. I posted half a dozen comments in that article, I am assuming my IP was responsible for atleast 6 or 7 of the 388, as well as the other multiple people who posted numerous times.

I am just saying that 9 total blogs/websites and twitter and there were only ~1000 calls, many of you admitted to calling multiple times.

Not exactly a ground swell. But like so many other issues in the city, the end result was determined not by a majority, but by the vocal minority who knew about the issue and could call.

I mean, c'mon, how many DC residents even knew it was in play? A decision was made, then reversed in 6 hours while everyone was at work and most DC'ers had no idea until they picked up their paper this morning.

All this did was push out the decision by another year. You can bet the Streetcar and the 50 million this year are going to become an albatross around the Councils neck for the rest of the year as the rest of the city (not the couple hundred trendy hipsters who spend all day perusing transit blogs) wonders why the Council is continuing to throw so much money down an black hole when so many programs are being cut and the city is in such economic distress.

by nookie on May 27, 2010 5:05 pm • linkreport

Oh, give me a break. I just listed 9. That wasn't all of them. Also, as I said, that was 1 of many tweets. There were hundreds or thousands of tweets from lots of people.

by David Alpert on May 27, 2010 5:20 pm • linkreport


Ok, let's just forget about streetcars being right or not. I could care less, and it's really beside the point in this case.

Your points are so confusing here I'm not even sure where to start. The tools are good if they are in the hands of the right people? What does that even mean? Which hands are the "right" hands? Do you deign to suggest that you or someone else can be the arbiter of who should participate in the new forums for democracy that social tools allow? Should we do something to prohibit certain people from participating in democracy?

The tools are in the hands of the people. This wasn't just GGW readers that were getting involved. I don't quite follow the logic of a proponent of democracy arguing against any tools that increase participation, make direct feedback and pressure on legislators or leaders possible, and make it possible for disparate individuals to come together to organize around a shared vision or set of principles.

The people calling Gray's office did represent AN interest, I don't know how special it is. It was a whole heckuva lot of people who thought it was stupid to stop a streetcar project midstream. That's about it. This wasn't an astroturfed lobby group, thinly disguised. You can call it a "special interest" all you like, but this is not the asphalt lobby pressing for more highways or the paper lobby calling for less restrictions on logging or some other "special interest."

Just because you disagree with their conclusion doesn't make the people who got loud on cutting streetcar funding unrepresentative of the general citizenry.

The general citizenry -- whatever that means -- doesn't generally give a shit about getting involved or doing much of anything to advocate for change of any kind in the city. Most days go by, and most of us are silent. When something gets us angry or stirred up enough, then we act. Thankfully, we have new ways to hold our leaders accountable.

So who should Gray's office have contacted to find out if the 1,000 phone calls and tweets and emails and letters represented the "general citizenry?" The tools are in everyone's hands. If Gray's move was such a popular move in the eyes of whomever this 'general citizenry' is, where was their outpouring of support? Did gray's donations go up? Did he get flooded with calls of support. Or should he be expecting a flood of good ol' fashioned hand written letters to arrive via Pony Express next week, because, y'know, that's how REAL democracy works.

This is a prime example of an elected leader being held accountable in real time. And if you favor democracy, you should favor the tools, no matter who is using them, because they have changed the fundamental dynamic of communication. We are no longer restricted to be "The Audience". And you should embrace this change and the power it has to change the democratic process, even if it means your point of view loses from time to time.

by Steve on May 27, 2010 5:21 pm • linkreport

and @Lance, if your fundamental complaint is that the people who were calling were dictating "what is in their interests vs. in the interests of the citizenry as a whole," then your really need to back up and start over.

What, pray tell, are the interests of the citzenry as a whole? Yours? 51% of registered voters? Should every issue go to a majority vote? What were the nefarious special interests involved here by the "vocal minority?"

You make it sound like those who called yesterday were part of a nefarious movement of people trying to rig an election. Gray made a decision at 2 a.m. in about the most un-democratic way possible, a bunch of people who are actually paying attention (call them an 'engaged citizenry') noticed, called him on it, and used new democratic tools that allow two-way communication to make their opinion known that they thought it was a bad idea. Gray didn't hear from masses of people who thought he made the right call, so he altered course. The "general citizenry" was silent, as they usually are. It's always just a slice of people getting involved, save for the day we cast our votes.

I'm not sure where the undemocratic part comes in here. Clue me in.

by Steve on May 27, 2010 5:38 pm • linkreport

I am going to guess that Lance, as a member of the Committee of 100 thought that the Council Chair was moving on an agenda advocated by many member of that select organization with the 2AM surprise. Many assumed wrongly, that it was a done deal. And they would have gotten away with it if it hadn't been for those meddling kids with their shiny, undemocratic technology.

by William on May 27, 2010 6:20 pm • linkreport


I mean, c'mon, how many DC residents even knew it was in play? A decision was made, then reversed in 6 hours while everyone was at work and most DC'ers had no idea until they picked up their paper this morning.

That's not really relevant at all - the question is how many more were aware of it thanks to social media than would have been aware of it otherwise. That's the entire point - if Gray removed this at 2am, set for a vote the next morning, the only way people would have found out about it in the old media world would have been either by watching public access TV or by reading about it in a newspaper after it was all said and done.

by Alex B. on May 27, 2010 6:22 pm • linkreport

Great work to everyone involved.

I honestly and sincerely think that our society as a whole is slowly but surely understanding that everything has a place, and within its place, things should be balanced. A solid mix of transit and roadways would be great for this area.

Now, if we could just get the leaders of Prince George's County to stop playing the "30 year catch-up with the times lag" game...

I'd need a separate blog posting to speak on the general ineptitude and incompetence of that subject. *sigh*

by C. R. on May 27, 2010 6:41 pm • linkreport

@C.R., I honestly and sincerely think that our society as a whole is slowly but surely understanding that everything has a place, and within its place, things should be balanced. A solid mix of transit and roadways would be great for this area.

The only problem with your 'congratulations' is that what happened yesterday did more to harm the goal you state than to help it. Much more. When the citizenry gets wiff that funds intended to fix their schools and their streets got diverted to a project that doesn't have a system to power it or places for it to turn around or even places for it to go, 'cept back and forth along a lonely stretch, all our efforts to bring a viable streetcar system to the District are going to be set back many many years.

by Lance on May 27, 2010 6:58 pm • linkreport

Democracy 1, elitism 0.

by meddlesome streetcar kiddie on May 27, 2010 7:18 pm • linkreport

And I would have gotten away with it, too - if it weren't for you meddling kids and your dog.

by Ruh roh. on May 27, 2010 7:43 pm • linkreport

"The right hands"--Committe of 100 on the Federal City, Capitol Hill Restoration Society.

"The wrong hands"--the rest of you.

Lance, if you made an honest assessment of what happened yesterday, you might concede that removing all but $5 million from an ongoing project, whatever its shortcomings, would have been disruptive and wasteful. The end result--putting $37 million in reserve, pending a thorough and well-studied, well-planned streetcar proposal from the next Administration--is exactly what you say you want.

C'mon, Lance, can't we see an itsy-bitsy smile from you over this?

by Trulee Pist on May 27, 2010 8:58 pm • linkreport

As an aside . . .

Many neighbors that were leaning Gray, have now solidified as Fenty. Not so much over the concern about planning and future plans as the last minute, hidden efforts which directly contradict statements focusing on 'character' 'integrity' 'leadership' and 'transparency'. If those 4 traits (3 headline the mayoral race) were honest, the streetcar gutting would have been at least mentioned a few weeks ago or a few days ago. Not with the intent that the action could occur and be 'final' before DC residents were back from work and had the opportunity to discuss and provide feedback. Really folks, this is backroom politics at its worst and the election outcome should demonstrate the shift in DC voters' tolerance.

by On the Hill on May 27, 2010 10:34 pm • linkreport

@On the Hill,

Gray never planned to 'gut the streetcars'. That is a red herring being put out there by DDOT and broadcast far and wide by GGW. However, that never was the case.

Here's how Gray explained his position:

I strongly support streetcar development, and remain committed to seeing it become a reality here in the District of Columbia. IÂ’ve visited Portland, Oregon, twice in recent years, seen first-hand the positive economic impact and transportation impact on communities, and I am firmly committed to a new streetcar system in the District which brings about similar benefits to our city.

But we owe it to ourselves to have a well thought out planning process. We can’t afford the Mayor’s approach of “build now and plan later,” which only results in poor outcomes and much higher costs in the end. There needs to be proper planning, comprehensive transportation and engineering work, which is why we allocated $5 million to complete the planning process. Streetcars aren’t scheduled for completion until 2030, and over the next year, we’ll do the kind of planning that’s necessary to give us the most efficient use of our dollars.

I have full intention to move forward with streetcars, however, while we do the planning over the next year, we can take some of the dollars for desperately needed and more immediate capital projects, like renovation of middle schools, while our dollars are dwindling. This approach, which passed Council by a vote of 11-2, will allow for better collaboration and cooperation with residents, business owners, and other stakeholders, and result in a much stronger streetcar system in the end.

by Lance on May 27, 2010 11:08 pm • linkreport

That's how Gray The Streetcar Slasher explained his position after it blew up in his face.

And if you believe that spin, I've got some beachfront property in Arizona that I'd sell you real cheap.

by Matt Johnson on May 27, 2010 11:12 pm • linkreport

@Truly Pist, I'll give you an itsy-bitsy smile ... partly because you've managed to confuse what he'd originally planned and merged it into what is today being planned.

Today, the Council took steps to ensure that we begin this important project immediately, while holding the Mayor accountable to the taxpayers. After working with the city’s Chief Financial Officer, we found funding to purchase three streetcars this year for $10 million. We also set aside $37 million for the next fiscal year — pending a real operations and funding proposal from the Mayor’s office with Council approval.

I.e., It's $10M available immediately and $37 million also available this year. Full and correct planning under the best of conditions might be ready by the next fiscal year. But to avail themselves of the money this year, you can be sure they'll put something together and call it 'a plan'. And don't forget that this funding got pulled from middle schools, fire houses, and 'Great Streets' projects.

by Lance on May 27, 2010 11:15 pm • linkreport

And correct me if I'm wrong, but when he says 'next fiscal year' I think that means the year of the budget that got passed and not the following one ... When I used 'next fiscal year' in my statement, I meant the year AFTER the budget that was approved.

by Lance on May 27, 2010 11:30 pm • linkreport

Lance, Gray's reply is pure spin.

His statement about stalling streetcars to save money is downright false. There were big federal funds on the table that need to be realized now, in this budget cycle. Delaying meant watching them disappear. Loose Lips noted this:

Tommy Wells: "Are you aware we may lose $100-197M in stimulus funding?" Gray: "Yes."

I'd love to hear the Chairman explain how forfeiting up to near $200 million will save DC taxpayers money.

The notion that there hasn't been planning is false, too. DDOT has reams of paper printed on the subject, conveniently available to you in .pdf form.

by Ruh roh. on May 28, 2010 12:21 am • linkreport

How is this blog a special interest and not an advocacy group? No one gets paid for this and all of the articles advocate for the citizenry's right to quality public transportation and livable spaces. Just because the citzenry at large doesn't seem as concerned about transportation issues (mainly through a lack of awareness rather than a selective ignorance about whats going on in the region) doesn't mean that our wants and needs are any less important. Besides its not as if the thousands of tweets, emails, and phone calls were the same 5 people spamming but you could see evidence that hundreds (or thousands) of people across the region were making their voice heard.

by Canaan on May 28, 2010 2:38 am • linkreport

@Ruh roh
And I would have gotten away with it, too - if it weren't for you meddling kids and your dog.


by Uh Oh on May 28, 2010 10:17 am • linkreport

Don't forget, on the same day, social media save the landmark free movie festival on the National Mall, Screen on the Green! Check out the Washington Post article on it:

by Save Screen on the Green on May 28, 2010 10:52 am • linkreport

"And don't forget that this funding got pulled from middle schools, fire houses, and 'Great Streets' projects."

Uh, sorry that money didn't get "Diverted" from anywhere...the $37m comes from the city's credit line and what you fail to demonstrate in your understanding is that the money was going to go to dog parks in Georgetown so it wasn't like the money was being "saved" it was still being "used" for other non essential city projects that are in the planning stages.

Oh we just cut $50m we didn't have...oh wait...nope nope...we found it, we have the $50m now! Damn the rounding in Excel...always shorts us $50m!

by CL on May 28, 2010 11:19 am • linkreport

Fifty million is a pittance compared to the $1.5 billion that this project is supposed to cost, in the end. (And we know how well those estimates work out.) But this, and other funds spent early in the project, will have the "camel's nose under the tent" effect. When the big bills hit, proponents will argue that terminating the project will "waste" everything spent to date, so there's no backing out.

I have mixed feelings about the streetcars, and I'm neither "pro" nor "con" at this point. But I can see how this is being maneuvered to become politically irreversible, whatever judgments might be made in the future.

by Jack on May 28, 2010 1:38 pm • linkreport

Social media is a much more powerful channel for generating response to certain events, than traditional news outlets. Traditional media is not always meant to generate response, more often it's meant to inform people and generate revenue for the TV network, newspaper, or radio station. Social media has the most in common with radio stations, as they have that real time effect going on much more often than newspapers or TV channels. In particular, radio stations that focus on conversation can generate a lot of phone calls and mobile texts about a specific topic in a short period of time. Social media should certainly be given credit for generating quick response to local and global events.

by Kingsley Tagbo on Jun 1, 2010 12:44 pm • linkreport

I love social media and how it truly brings people together when news breaks. Great piece, David! It inspired me to draft a quick post as well:

Where will Twitter take us next?

by Tory on Jun 3, 2010 11:53 am • linkreport

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