Twitter Activism on a Local Level: The Day a Bridge Tweeted

“I am frustrated….I am alone and cold and I have been left all alone here for a long time!”

These words make up the biography for the “Airport bridge” Twitter account. That’s right, the airport bridge.

Snapshot of Airport Bridge Twitter account

The Twitter account continuing to play up the non-human character.

Launched Monday of this week, the account personifies one of Ottawa’s longest-running municipal disasters, a proposed pedestrian bridge originally scheduled to be completed in October 2011. Nearly three years later and $4.5 million over budget, the bridge remains incomplete.

The bridge has faced a number of problems, from faulty concrete that needed to be torn down and re-poured to rethinking its entire design. While the city expects the bridge to be complete by this year, no construction is currently underway.

As a result, one fed-up citizen decided to take the matter into her/his own hands, and where better to turn than social media?

After a relatively quiet first two days, the Huffington Post published a story about the Twitter account on Wednesday night, when it had 35 followers. By Thursday, the account had taken off. At the time of writing, the bridge’s account was up to over 620 followers.

While the creator of the account has been extremely loyal to the idea of being a personified version of the bridge as opposed to revealing his/her identity, s/he has remained active in pursuing media attention.

The account first reached out to Robert Fife, CTV’s Ottawa Bureau Chief, on the first day. However, after the HuffPo article brought a wave of attention, reporters from both the local dailies (the Citizen and the Sun) have reached out to the account for comment and followed up with stories of their own, while local radio station CFRA also reached out to conduct an interview. The account responded in character, telling one CFRA host that it couldn’t get to the studio because it was fenced in, while thanking the other for a follow while admitting to not understand the word.

With the media attention, the account continued to grow in popularity. More than just gaining followers, people started interacting. Commuters who pass by began tweeting about seeing the bridge in the morning. Others started coming up with creative uses for the unfinished bridge, like a sanctioned street art exhibit or stretching a “Welcome to Ottawa” banner across it to welcome tourists who have just landed. Another user spoke of the bridge’s long lost brother, another incomplete pedestrian bridge to the city’s train station.

Putting aside the creativity, humour, and dedication (nearly 100 tweets in 5 days) exhibited by whoever it is controlling the account, it demonstrates the way that social media can bring attention to a specific issue.

While Twitter activism is often presented in the context of massive, national campaigns (currently drawing significant media attention is #CancelColbert), the same tactics can be successful on a more hyperlocal level.

Stephen Colbert with Peabody Award

(Credit: Anders Krusberg : Peabody Awards) A #CancelColbert campaign, and multiple spinoffs, is currently raging across Twitter

Using Twitter for municipal politics is usually limited to tweeting at councillors or the mayor to voice displeasure. Instead, this bridge account is building a growing group of citizens, and taking an issue that many Ottawans are aware of (there’s no shortage of mainstream media coverage), but  presenting it in a new light. Of course, the account remained relatively unknown until the HuffPo picked it up, so the importance of finding an appealing angle that the media can latch onto (this one being not just a bridge tweeting which is interesting in and of itself, but taking on Eeyore type characteristics) cannot be understated.

Despite the relative success, it hasn’t been without difficulty. The account has made some attempts to move the discussion to a hashtag (#airportbridge) and hinted at having accomplished her/his mission and shutting down the account in the future. The conversation has not moved to the hashtag, though, and increasingly the account is being inundated with people tweeting jokes rather than planning for future considerations or taking action to lobby officials to have the bridge completed.

In the end, whether they feel anger, despair, or embarrassment, people are talking about it. That appears to be mission accomplished.

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