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The CTA Fails empire expands: Meet the man behind it all

CTA Fails creator Ryan Smith talks Instagram, popular complaints and more.

The man behind "CTA Fails" has expanded its social media footprint to Instagram, where people can see for themselves how much the transit agency's service sucks sometimes.

Ryan Smith, the 31-year-old Chicagoan who runs the Instagram account along with @CTAFails on Twitter and a corresponding Facebook page, thinks social media has at the very least spotlighted the problem, if not put a little pressure on the agency. A CTA spokesman isn't saying whether changes have been made as a result of the sometimes brutal and nagging criticism, but experts say that amount of shade would motivate anyone to do better.

And with Instagram, the seeing-is-believing effect is an even harder elbow in the side.

“Instagram is the place for photos and videos—it goes beyond the text. We get into that whole visual element, which is sometimes good and sometimes … not so good,” Smith said.

Smith started the @CTAFails Twitter account in 2012 out of frustration over what he says were long waits for Red Line trains at the Addison stop, the closest stop to his home at the time.

Initially, he was a one-man griping machine, but today dozens of dissatisfied riders tweet or Instagram the CTA Fails accounts or use the #CTAFails hashtag daily to vent their frustration about everything from stinky train cars or buses to delays.

Today, Smith lives off the Brown Line's Irving Park stop and still manages the Twitter account, which has more than 14,000 followers, and Instagram account, which has more than 3,000 followers. So far, Smith hasn't found a way to monetize CTA Fails but is working on launching a website very soon. But he's not too upset about the lack of cash considering he spends only about a half-hour per day managing the accounts, usually during his morning and evening commutes to work.

"I would normally be looking at some dumb thing on the Internet anyway, so why not look at some dumb thing on the Internet that I made?" Smith said.

Indeed, his life beyond CTA Fails includes a longtime girlfriend and work as a full-time faculty member at Columbia College, where he teaches both an accounting course and a digital marketing course. Luckily for him, he's got some serious CTA Fails social media analytics at his fingertips, which he says he uses frequently in his marketing class.

 

Asked how CTA Fails may have improved the transit agency, Smith said that the social media accounts have brought a heightened level of awareness about the problems riders are having on a daily basis, but he doesn’t think the complaints aired on CTA Fails have directly changed CTA’s service.

“Certainly it’s given people a forum to voice concerns and problems, and I have no doubt [the CTA] is seeing it,” Smith said. “But, I can’t think of anything that we’ve done directly to improve the CTA.”

Jeff Tolman, a CTA spokesman, said the transit authority appreciates feedback, both positive and negative, but didn't comment on whether complaints aired on the CTA Fails social media accounts have resulted in changes or improvements to its service.

Social media has provided a very public platform, ahem, for voicing individual and collective concerns about government agencies, like the CTA, as well as new means for public accountability, according to Jill Hopke, a social media expert and assistant professor of journalism in the College of Communication at DePaul University.

"We share content in an ongoing collective conversation, sharing information we think will be useful to others," Hopke said. "Anger or disgust can be powerful motivators as well, especially when it's personally relatable, such as in the case of having a negative experience on the CTA. In this way, anger as an emotion can promote action and the social transmission of information."

Popular grievances include: bus bunching, train delays, unpleasant odors and passenger fails (taking up more than one seat, etc.).

Using the @CTAFails handle or #CTAFails hashtag, passengers gripe about being late for work because of CTA delays or share pictures of what might be causing the nauseating smell on their train car. Smith said he’s seen it all in the way of complaints, from the hilarious to the disgusting.

“For whatever reason, in the last month or so, I’ve gotten a lot of vomit photos, which are always pleasant to wake up to,” Smith said. “I’ve been kind enough to retweet those photos to everyone, so they can also enjoy them.”

Overall, Smith said he’s learned to let a lot of his frustrations toward the CTA roll off his back. He said he thinks it’s been cathartic to see so many people experience the same issues and be able to share those grievances through something he’s created and watched grow.

“I’ve learned that people need to be heard, you know? I think many people feel like the CTA doesn’t hear them or doesn’t care to address these issues, and CTA Fails is a place for them to voice those concerns and to be heard by thousands of people,” Smith said. “It’s become a community in a lot of ways and a bit therapeutic for some people, certainly for me.”

@riannecoale  |  rcoale@redeyechicago.com

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