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What SEPTA, the Pope, and Social Media Can Teach Us


The first time I took the train from Trenton into Philadelphia for work here at Penn Medicine, I remember staring out the window, awestruck like a small child. The woods and suburbs of Pennsylvania flew by, and I thought to myself, Wow, there's no way this ever gets old.

It took maybe a month for it to get old.

That said, my experience with SEPTA's Regional Rail has been pretty solid. Folks around me and on social media complain all the time about their service, but to me, they've never proven to be anything other than reliable. 

Still, I was concerned when, over the weekend of July 4th, news broke that SEPTA was removing a third of their fleet from Regional Rail service to deal with a serious structural issue.

First and foremost: This is not another SEPTA-bashing article. They've taken their share of abuse—some warranted, some unwarranted—but I think they've done a fantastic job getting things into somewhat working order despite losing a third of their trains. They took their own trains out of service before tragedy had the chance, and that's to be commended. They were able to, within a few days, put together a schedule that didn't completely strand or displace thousands upon thousands of riders. What's more, the people running the SEPTA_SOCIAL Twitter deserve some kind of medal for the amount and quality of communication they've provided (and angry-rider insanity they've had to endure all the while).

Nor is this an article about how the SEPTA situation is causing problems or impacting patient care here at Penn Medicine, because, well, it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong: We have more than 30,000 employees, a not-insignificant number of which utilize the regional rail (including myself) and have been inconvenienced at least to some extent…but we’ve made it work just fine. Things have run smoothly.

What I really want to talk about is the fascinating little phenomenon I noticed brewing on Twitter as the size and scope of the SEPTA debacle became clear. To some extent, it's the same thing I saw when the Pope came to town nearly a year ago.

Check out this very small handful of Tweets from July 5th (the first business day of SEPTA's reduced service):

Rest assured, there were thousands more—and a lot of them were pretty funny.

For all its flaws and shortcomings—for all it can sometimes allow the absolute dregs of humanity to express themselves in grotesquely offensive fashion—social media is very good at bringing people together around one specific event or idea. That's the whole point of hashtags, after all: the creation of one small shibboleth connecting thousands or millions in a city or around the globe. Perhaps nothing brings that to the forefront better than adversity. Sometimes the stakes are critical, sometimes they're just comical—but each and every time you have a bunch of people congregating around a specific moment (or movement, as it were). Lots of folks, flocking together to be involved in a conversation.

Last year, when the Pope came around and we basically, like, shut Philadelphia down for a few days, here at Penn Medicine we decided to handle this once-in-a-generation event...well, differently. The citywide lockdown meant hundreds upon hundreds of workers were going to have to live inside our hospitals for a few days. It was going to be new and interesting and weird, and why wouldn't we want to document every second possible?

So we told people to send us pictures. And they did! Believe me. I saw every single one of 'em. Multiple times. And made that slideshow you can find at the post I linked above.

Obviously, the chance to display that we were more than prepared was a huge aspect of making the whole photo project work. But beyond that, it was a chance to show off our personality. People were having fun with it, they were going above and beyond to make the most out of a unique, difficult situation. And they jumped at the chance to share images of that experience with the rest of the world.

The principle at work when folks were making the most of things during the Papal weekend is the same principle at work during the worst of this SEPTA mess: When it really comes down to it, people just really want to be able to look around, say "Oh man, isn't this awesome?" or "Geez, this sucks out loud, doesn't it?" and know that there are tons of folks out there who either agree wholeheartedly or can sympathize with their plight.

If only we didn't need such significant events to recognize that desire in one another.

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