Credit: Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

In 1996, a George Washington University student named Dan Stessel nearly hatched a billion-dollar idea. He complained to a friend about the flood of joke emails filling up his inbox, saying, “I would rather have a one-line email from a friend just telling me he’s thinking about me.”

One line—140 characters, maybe—dashed off between friends. Sound familiar?

He never actually pursued the concept. Fifteen years later, he barely remembers it. Too bad, because these days, instead of counting his dough on the speakers’ circuit with fellow Twitter honchos, he’s got a slightly more demanding audience to deal with: us.

In May, the Bergen County, N.J., native left after seven years as a spokesman for NJ Transit to take on the role of Metro’s mouthpiece in chief. Recently, the agency’s once stellar reputation has crumbled under the weight of deadly accidents, delays, and spotty communication. He’s trying to regain riders’ trust, and he’s using some new tactics to do it.

Stessel, 35, may not have invented Twitter or similar social media networks, but he’s using them every day—signing his tweets with “^DS”—to convince riders that Metro isn’t sticking its fingers in its ears anymore.

Dan Stessel reads each and every one of your online complaints about Metro. And he still wants to be your friend.Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

It’s a strange gig for a guy who started his career in D.C.’s nightclubs and landed in the transit world by accident. After college, Stessel spent two years as the marketing director at Tracks, the legendary dance club near the Navy Yard. In 2000, he realized nightclub work might not look great on a résumé to employers from other businesses. So he bounced around at a temp agency before landing with Amtrak. Two derailments in 2002 sent him to a new job juggling phones in the press office, and he’s been talking to reporters ever since.

With his shock of light brown hair and glowing headset, he seems out of place in his threadbare office on the second floor of the Jackson Graham Building. A smoke eater—left untouched since the days when it was legal to light up indoors—hangs from the ceiling. The soundproofing on the dull beige walls is flaking. The stained carpet begs for replacement.

A Post account of his 400-person strong retirement roast recalled how he worked overtime so often that he “once got locked in the stairwell of the agency’s office building and was not released until the next morning.”

According to Zachary Schrag, author of The Great Society Subway, a definitive account of Metro’s history, Pfanstiehl didn’t try to duck the public. And that’s what made him so successful.

“For more than 20 years, he was social media,” says Schrag. “This is before Twitter. This is before Facebook. But if you met Cody at a meeting and told him that you were concerned about Metro and wanted some more information, he might show up in his VW Bug at your house that evening with a folder of stuff.”

His persistence paid dividends in the boosterish civic pride that D.C. residents had in Metro during its early years. “We bragged about the system all the time,” says Gladys Mack, a Marion Barry appointee to the Metro board who served for 23 years.

I think I beat up #wmata social media accounts because they don’t interact with people. Thanks for teaching me what not to do at my job!
Jul 19 via Twitter for iPhone

@jnetter Is there something you wanted to interact about? ^DS
less than a minute ago via TweetDeck

Even the kids bragged: Pfanstiehl’s records include a cheer about Metro from John Eaton Elementary School in Cleveland Park. “Metro, Metro, it’s here to stay. We like the Metro in every way,” goes the first verse.

Things began to change in 1982, the year Pfanstiehl retired and the agency had its first passenger fatalities. Chris Zimmerman, chair of the Arlington County Board and another former Metro board member, says the agency stumbled when it had to run the trains every day instead of just making promises about how great the future would be.

“The transition from a construction place to an operating place is difficult and was especially torturous for Metro,” says Zimmerman.

The organization did try to engage with customers in those years, but its tactics didn’t always work. In fact, many of Metro’s latest gimmicks are repeats. The two apologies for delays earlier this summer? Been there, done that, on paper—in May 1993, when employees distributed a mea culpa from General Manager David L. Gunn after a suicide attempt on the Red Line snarled morning rush hour.

Richard White took over GM duties in 1996, and Metro passed out a publication called “Dear Fellow Rider” to solicit comments. In 2000, the Meet the Metro Managers program brought higher-ups to stations to hear from riders. Later that year, White instituted a “we stop, we tell” policy—promising explanations of any unusual delays.

The broken record kept spinning in 2004, when board chair Robert Smith avowed a transition from a “culture of construction mode” to a “customer-service, customer-oriented mentality” at the first-ever Metro town-hall meeting. In 2007, Metro even considered giving station managers whiteboards on which to scrawl messages.

But real improvements came slowly, according to Dennis Jaffe, a Metro advocate who in 2003 pestered the agency into finally giving away free bus-route maps, after charging $1.50 for them for decades. He faced more resistance in his campaign to create Metro’s Riders’ Advisory Council in 2005, but management eventually caved.

Local transit-geek emperor David Alpert hit similar roadblocks when he founded his Greater Greater Washington blog and began covering Metro without a traditional press credential. He says Metro wasn’t equipped to handle the extra attention and wasn’t inclined to be transparent.

“When I would try and ask for things, I would always get this response like Why should we tell you this information? There is not a policy that says we should tell it to you, so we’re not going to tell it to you,” says Alpert. “As opposed to I don’t see any reason not to tell you, so why not?

Once, when GGW’s contributors did ask for easier access to information, he adds, Metro tried to wriggle away with the excuse that blogs don’t count as news media. Eventually, Metro assigned an employee to take his questions, but he says he never really got the information he wanted.

Lisa Farbstein—Stessel’s immediate predecessor and Metro’s former director of media relations—says the agency did try some new tactics during her tenure. She pointed to Metro’s online chats (“LunchTalk Online” began in 2004 and ended in January 2010), YouTube videos, and blogger roundtables as evidence.

Useful real-time updates are another story. In March 2009, Metro announced its @metroopensdoors account in a press release, declaring “Metro ‘tweets’ rail service delay information.” Tweets like the ubiquitous “Red Line: Disruption cleared” are automatically fed from the rail-control center, not written by hand. Stessel admits they’re about as useful as “disruption at fill-in-the-blank, like Mad Libs.”

Even the name of the account was confusing, a throwback to an earlier marketing slogan. Metro didn’t take control of @wmata, the obvious choice for a Twitter handle, until last month. Stessel says he doesn’t understand why that small but simple detail was overlooked. But he’s too diplomatic to criticize.

“I won’t pass judgment on the people who were here before me because they were operating in a very different environment,” he says of his predecessors. “And it’s not necessarily about anything that they were doing wrong; it’s just this place was different. Different level of commitment from the jurisdictions, different board, different leadership at the top. And post the 2009 accident I’m sure it was a very, very difficult place to be.”

The 2009 Red Line crash near Fort Totten that killed nine people may have been the low point for Metro’s communication efforts. Riders hammered the agency for spitting out useless alerts—saying the trains involved in the crash were experiencing “mechanical difficulties”—and a handful of news releases. Stessel acknowledges that the alert system is woefully inadequate, and he hopes to build a more robust system to send full paragraphs of information to customers’ email accounts.

Such is the depth to which Metro’s communications have plummeted: In the ’70s, complaints earned you a house visit. In 2011, its chief spokesman is talking about how it’s a good idea to send full paragraphs of information to riders instead of links to press releases.

Wow. This is the 1st time I’ve evr met a bad bus driver. Belittling intelligence of passengers whn her signs don’t work. bus 6407. #wmata
Jul 20 via txt

@nicknewman801 Sorry to hear that. So that we can follow up, would you mind providing formal feedback? http://j.mp/lPHI5A ^DS
Jul 20 via TweetDeck

San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit is a close cousin of Metro. The agencies began operating within a few years of one another and are almost the same size. Their riders are equally tech-savvy. But unlike Metro, BART embraced social media early on and avoided becoming the butt of a bad joke.

BART created @sfbart in July 2008, joining Twitter much earlier than most other U.S. transit agencies. A blog followed that November, with the tagline “Not quite as official as www.bart.gov.” This year, for National Dump the Pump Day—when Stessel was being heaped with praise just for being human—BART hosted a Facebook photo contest to find riders who could show off their pain at the gas pump. The winner pocketed $500 in free rides.

“It’s kind of a fish-where-the-fish-are strategy,” says Tim Moore, BART’s website manager and one half of the agency’s Web-and-social media team. He and colleague Melissa Jordan occasionally give advice to other transit professionals on how to break the social media ice. They laugh when colleagues in other cities ask them how many layers of approval a tweet has to pass through before posting.

“Agencies need to have a thick skin,” says Moore. “These conversations are valid. They’re happening—maybe not in public—but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be acted on.”

In some places, those tweeted conversations are happening in public. The Utah Transit Authority held a first-of-its-kind Twitter public meeting in February. The transcript of that meeting, during which 47 users pumped out 224 tweets, is now part of the official record.

“I was slightly terrified going into it, I’m not going to lie,” says Tauni Everett, UTA’s social media manager. Her fears turned out to be unfounded. Everett says the conversation went smoothly and riders appreciated it.

To be fair, that kind of meeting might be impossible here, with more riders and (most likely) more smartphones—Metro is such a popular topic of Twitter conversation that five Dan Stessels with iPads welded to their foreheads probably couldn’t handle the load. The hashtag #wmata is active all the time and spikes during delays. Which is why Metro drafted reinforcements in the form of Brian Anderson, the agency’s new social media manager, who introduced himself on Aug. 2.

Anderson comes to D.C. from the Philadelphia region’s SEPTA, where he was a communications manager and the star of a video podcast series. In one video, Anderson can be seen boogieing to music, demonstrating something verboten inside SEPTA’s QuietRide cars. Welcome to the future, D.C. (Video podcasts, not quiet cars—the subway here is deathly quiet already by Philadelphia standards.)

Stessel says he hopes Anderson will help take Metro’s social media campaign beyond what he calls “toe-in-the-water stuff.” When I visited Stessel’s office, the words “Twitter strategy” were scrawled in blue on a whiteboard. The phrase would have made Metro watchers giggle in years past. But they’re not laughing anymore, and now they want Stessel to follow through on his commitment.

BART’s Moore says this demand isn’t unusual but can make life difficult for someone who’s trying to manage expectations. “There’s an expectation that the customer speaks and the agency jumps,” he says.

No number of funny videos or glib tweets can hide the fact that Metro still has lots of operational problems. Some troubles have been kicking around for years, such as the agency’s escalator-failure rate, which hovers around 20 percent this summer. Others, such as broken rail-car air conditioners, have been thrust into the spotlight thanks to the rabid persistence of an IT whiz known on Twitter as @fixwmata.

The 32-year-old Atlanta native, who asked not to be named because he insists the story shouldn’t be about him, began riding Metro last April. Over the summer, he noticed complaints about hot subway cars on Twitter and decided to put his analytical skills to good use. He created what’s known as the #hotcar list, a crowdsourced database tracking rail cars with broken AC.

The 2010 list collected 206 reports between July and October, but FixWMATA says it was very clear that no one at Metro was listening. He never got a response and says he was “shouting into a void.”

Things changed when he kicked off the 2011 list and got a reply from Stessel. Their courtship started innocently enough.

“One of the first responses I got back was from @metroopensdoors, which kind of blew me away,” FixWMATA says. The reply spurred him to be part of the solution to Metro’s air-conditioning woes instead of another angry voice. An informal partnership was born. FixWMATA forged ahead with the #hotcar list, enjoying a thumbs-up endorsement from Metro.

“We like this!” @metroopensdoors gushed on June 16, when FixWMATA created a search option for users viewing the #hotcar list on a mobile device.

The honeymoon ended just a few weeks later—when FixWMATA began badgering Stessel for updates on the broken AC units. (There have been 430 unique reports, comprising about a third of Metro’s rail fleet, so far this year.) He asked Metro for specific proof the cars were being addressed, but he never got a response that satisfied him.

metro only tweets white passengers and tweeters RT @metroopensdoors @thereal_SNL Good to hear. Thanks. ^DS
Jul 21 via Tweet Button

@iGetZOOtED That’s not true. We have responded to you before. Is there something we can help with? ^DS
Jul 21 via TweetDeck

At first, Stessel kept listening. “Just want to assure everyone who’s reported a #hotcar lately that we’re listening. Our thanks to @fixwmata for compiling these. ^DS,” he tweeted on July 8.

FixWMATA hammered away (sample: “@metroopensdoors 6 #wmata #hotcars were reported yesterday. 1 was a repeat from Friday. Which ones did you fix last night?”), eventually provoking a measured response. Stessel said—and maintains today—that it’s sometimes hard to give a specific, Twitter-friendly answer to an operational problem.

“We can give a wholistic update. Something more ‘micro’ than that is not possible,” came his July 26 reply. The #hotcar lists are still monitored, but now, Stessel says, if you’re stuck in a car with no air conditioning, the best way to fix it is to get on the intercom, not the Internet. (Which, inevitably, leads people on Twitter to complain that the intercoms aren’t working, either.)

FixWMATA, who has about 1,300 followers on Twitter, isn’t buying it. And now he believes that the rosy media coverage of Metro’s latest PR effort is harmful. He called the Post “an advertising arm of WMATA” when the paper covered Stessel’s social media frenzy last month.

“Not having a response from Metro last year actually worked out a little bit better,” he says. “Because Metro last year also wasn’t really talking to the media. So we had the media on our side last year, and we had a lot of reports—both on TV and on the Web—from journalists interested in what’s going on.”

He’s not the only one who thinks the local media have fallen for Metro’s tricks. The journalist behind the Unsuck DC Metro blog—complaint central for disgruntled riders since 2009—calls Stessel’s effort “Band-Aids on the public image” for a reactive agency that lacks accountability. He thinks Metro’s campaign is better than nothing but doesn’t address the malaise he says afflicts the agency’s middle management.

“People do seem to respond to Dan saying, if somebody tweets, ‘Oh, this car’s hot,’ Dan tweets back, ‘We’re on it’ or ‘We’re checking it out. We’ll check it out tonight,’” says Unsuck, who also asked to remain anonymous, because he says he’s received threats from Metro employees. “That seems to convince some people that they really are. You decide for yourself if they really are. I know they’re not.”

After we chatted, Unsuck posted his evidence, in the form of reports from unnamed Metro sources who called shenanigans on the AC-repair efforts. Stessel pushed back, tweeting that repair crews fixed an average of nearly 19 cars a night in July, and that some reported cars were found to be working properly. (Unsuck asked for the list.)

Stessel—who’s in a long-distance relationship with someone else named Dan—says he rides Metro to work every day. He does, however, own a car, which he says is crucial when it comes to taking his rescued Patterdale terrier, Boomer, to the vet. (It wouldn’t do for Metro’s flack to break the system’s pet policy.) He insists he doesn’t take the criticism personally, even if it’s sometimes hard to explain that Metro is digging out of a deep hole and improvements will take a long time. “We’re building the bike while we’re riding it,” he says. “And it’s like having a handful of people on the side of the road yelling, ‘Ride faster! Ride harder!’”

He’d better be careful, because that crowd is getting larger by the day: An account called @fixmetrobus—not affiliated with FixWMATA or Unsuck—made its debut on Twitter on July 29.

In some ways, Dan Stessel’s success or failure isn’t really up to Dan Stessel. Metro Forward, the much-hyped capital-rebuilding effort, was put in motion before he arrived. The agency still depends on the whims of three local jurisdictions to provide it with adequate funding. Without a few wins to tell people about, he might just become another sacrifice to Metro’s recent history of disappointments.

“I can’t change that history,” says Lynn Bowersox, Stessel’s boss and Metro’s managing director for public relations. “I can only do what we know how to do going forward, and what we know how to do going forward is make the right strategic investments in rebuilding the system, talk about them, give our customers the information they need to travel through the system every day, and deliver on what we commit to.”

“Rebuilding.” “Commitment.” “Delivery.” Bowersox and Stessel use all the right buzzwords. We’ve heard them before, and this time, there may be evidence they’re actually doing what they say—though it’s way too early to judge. Online refills for SmarTrip are coming at the end of the month, and the long-awaited “virtual tunnel” between Farragut North and Farragut West is slated for the fall. There’s also an alert system for bus customers in the works, built from scratch.

Hey, how about you schedule your track maintenance at night when it doesn’t screw everything up? #wmata
Jul 23 via Twitter for Android

@king_of_bees We do. But for these kinds of projects, the 3-4 hour window at night is not enough. ^DS
Jul 23 via TweetDeck

Then there are the escalators. I’ve seen the brand-new one at Foggy Bottom—the agency’s first in 15 years—twice since it opened. Bowersox calls it “a symbol of what our focused attention and investment is delivering.”

On my first visit, it worked perfectly—it even smelled new. The next time around, it was busted. Sure enough, legions of riders give Stessel an earful about it every time it hiccups. But he says he hasn’t seen any reports of the escalator’s having been out for an extended period of time, and that any outages probably happened because somebody tripped a safety sensor.

That very instinct, which compels some Metro followers to rub the agency’s nose in every mistake it makes, shows that Washington’s boosterish adoration of Metro is gone—probably for good. It’s a fall from grace that’s familiar to another formerly brag-worthy local institution.

“The two things that brought us together were the Redskins and Metro,” says Mack, the longtime board member. “And in later years, they’ve both been in decline.”

But does that mean Metro riders have as little faith in Dan Stessel as Redskins fans have in Dan Snyder? Not necessarily. People don’t generally bother to comment on anything unless they’ve got something to bitch about, and Twitter is great for complaining. Metro’s 14,000 Twitter followers—who make up just a tiny sliver of the 1 million daily riders—don’t make for a representative sample. And no matter what Metro does, there will always be people who “find complaint in chocolate cake,” as one user put it in her welcome message to Anderson.

Still, Metro’s social media team can’t afford to slack off now that it’s created an expectation of responsiveness. FixWMATA has taken to castigating Anderson—who’s been with Metro just over a week—for not tweeting during rush hours. And the tools themselves can backfire: TBD.com reported Tuesday that a Metro station manager complained on his personal Facebook account about “these white people who hate Metro.”

@dstessel just a thanks for keeping up on the communication front. Hope you’re gonna get youself a cold beer when you get home tonight!
Jun 30 via Twidroyd for Android

@p5k6 vodka most likely
Jun 30 via TweetDeck

Soon afterward, Stessel jumped into the TBD story’s comment thread to reply. Metro’s Office of Civil Rights, he said, had deemed the comments “offensive and divisive.” He didn’t indicate whether the staffer would be punished.

By engaging with riders through social media channels, Metro won’t be able to shape the message all the time, but Stessel isn’t interested in begging riders to believe what he’s telling them.

“I’m here to demonstrate that we’re worthy of being believed,” he says. That’s not the same as the romance of yore, but it’s a start.

A successful rebuilding effort will help. Resources, as BART’s team pointed out, are a zero-sum game. Metro has to spend them wisely. Stessel’s arrival might be big news to the region’s smart-growth set, but social media like Twitter and Facebook aren’t even among the top 10 drivers of Metro’s Web traffic. The long-term program to improve Metro’s infrastructure matters a lot more than Stessel’s ability to dash off updates to every whiner with an iPhone.

And even if Metro does make progress, Stessel still has his work cut out for him. Though that’s not really new territory for Metro’s chief spokesman. When Cody Pfanstiehl sang his last verse of “Happy Days Are Here Again” back in 1971, even Metro’s biggest booster knew there’d be tough times ahead:

Happy days are here again.

There’s time for brand new woes again

To keep us on our toes again.

Happy days are here again?

It’s a question as old as Metro, but it’s one that we can still ask 40 years later—in fewer than 140 characters, even.