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SEPTA’s social media “CIA”: They catch your transit problems (and the masturbating cop, too)

Whenever you type SEPTA on social media, the transit authority’s own version of the CIA is watching.

Yes, they’re actually called the CIA, at least by Kim Scott Heinle, SEPTA’s general manager for customer service who is easily given to hyperbole (He considers SEPTA to be Philadelphia’s fifth major sport). The title makes sense, though. As an acronym, it stands for Customer Intelligence Analytics. And SEPTA’s CIA, which goes by the Twitter handle @SEPTA_SOCIAL, analyzes everything.

When Melissa Ricks erroneously complained her train was 18 minutes late a few days ago, they saw it and set the record straight. When Nate Allen snapped a beautiful photo of 30th Street Station on his way to the airport last week, they saw it and complimented him. When Kevin Fant masturbated on a Broad Street Line train a few weeks ago, they saw that, too, and their initial finding led to his arrest.

“We call them,” Heinle says with pride, “our SEPTA social superheroes.”

SEPTA’s CIA consists of Ken Williams, Eric Negron, Neftali Velez, Eileen Matos and their supervisor, James Siler. They work on the fourth floor of SEPTA’s headquarters on Market Street in a small room with four desktop computers. Amid a smattering of wall decor, one poster stands out: It reads, “Victory Is Tweet.”

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From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every weekday and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the weekends, they’re scouring Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and sites like CityData. Their goal? Catch every discussion of SEPTA and assist the people who are discussing it.

To do this, they constantly scan for references to SEPTA and its buses and trains and stations. During peak hours, Williams says they might be sifting and responding to up to 100 tweets that include a reference to SEPTA.

Because they’re under the umbrella of the customer relations department, most of their job relates to helping customers. People often tweet at the main SEPTA account or individual line accounts with questions or complaints about the bus or train they’re waiting for. SEPTA Social figures out the issue and responds back as soon as possible.

Sometimes, SEPTA mentions don’t have anything to do with transit at all. Septa is a type of priestess in “Game of Thrones” and is apparently a really popular name in Indonesia, too. When they get to work in the mornings their mentions have usually been blowing up with overseas references.

“It’s like John over there,” Siler says.

A few weeks ago the SEPTA social team spotted a tweet that seemed to be written in a sarcastic tone, saying something like, “This is what y’all do on SEPTA,” with a link to a Tumblr account.

“I didn’t think I could be surprised anymore,” Williams said. “Until that.”

On the Tumblr, they stumbled upon video of a person in plain clothes masturbating on a Broad Street Line subway train. They alerted SEPTA police of the video, figuring little could be done or that the police had solved the case if it mattered. It turned the person was Fant. He was an off-duty SEPTA police officer.

Negron says the SEPTA police chief singled out the social media team for their good work on the case.

“It was kind of cool, and kind of weird,” Negron says.

SEPTA first got into the social media business a few years ago with a Facebook account. In 2009 or 2010, it launched its first Twitter account and for the most part stayed boring. The accounts alerted passengers to delays or other news items but didn’t actually respond to customers.

SEPTA GM Joe Casey, Heinle says, wanted a more aggressive strategy on social media. In January 2013 SEPTA Social became what it is now.

In under two years, they’ve amassed a Twitter following of over 7,000, largely based on their helpfulness and humor. When a young girl recently tweeted how she could get a SEPTA pass because her brother worked for SEPTA, Heinle says he responded, “As long your bro pays for it.” The last few weeks, they’ve held popular SEPTA-based riddle challenges.

But people don’t always communicate kindly. Sometimes Negron will type a simple message, “Like say, ‘Happy Hump Day,’” he says. “People see this greeting and our response from the customer is, ‘eff you.’ It’s just that negativity. We have to develop a tough skin for it.”

When Twitter users act like jerks, the SEPTA social team generally ignores them. Heinle expects complaints — “human nature is 10 times more likely to throw a bitch than it is to commend” — and also expects SEPTA social to take them in stride: They have a policy of never blocking anybody, no matter how bad it gets.

“Some people accuse us of blocking them,” Heinle says. “We didn’t block you. We just don’t talk to you anymore.”

Fortunately, most of SEPTA Social’s regulars are friendly (and also don’t masturbate on the trains). Williams and Negron say people routinely chat with them or just say hi in the morning. The most hardcore fans have sent pictures of SEPTA tattoos and SEPTA rings. Many others just give shout-outs.

To show their appreciation back, the SEPTA social team signs their tweets with their initials “EW,” “NV,” “EM” and “EN.” As part of their riddle contests, they’ve also met customers who come by to pick up their free t-shirts.

“When we do help somebody, they’re usually pretty appreciative,” Williams says. “That feedback pretty much makes the day go by a lot easier.”

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