It looked like the gentlest MIT prank of all time: The lyrics to “Deck the Halls,” dancing across the digital message board at Park Street Station, to the delight of Red Line riders on Christmas night.
It was not an outside hack, though, but an inside job. An MBTA dispatcher working the holiday shift injected a bit of unauthorized whimsy into the normally staid LED signs at Park Street. He programmed them to scroll the lyrics to the carol four times in five minutes Sunday night, before, mirage-like, they resumed their ordinary display of date, time, and the T logo.
That employee, whom the T declined to name, will be reprimanded when he returns to work Tuesday, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said. The punishment will be determined in part by the employee’s past record and could be a written warning, suspension, or termination, he said.
The Yuletide message had Twitter abuzz Sunday, after a Harvard University graduate student who captured a brief video of it with her cellphone posted it alongside the caption, “I think someone hacked the MBTA Red Line.”
By the afternoon, it had been retweeted dozens of times, the 10-second clip viewed by 1,600 people. Some seemed to think it was an official message, tweeting their thanks to the T for embracing the holiday spirit.
Maryam Monalisa Gharavi, the comparative literature student who posted the video, said she hoped the T would be lenient on the dispatcher.
“It made the machine, which is so un-self-aware, seem thoughtful and even kind,” she said. “The effect on everybody there was laughter.”
Gharavi, a member of Occupy Harvard, was returning from delivering Christmas dinner and attending a general assembly of Occupy Boston when she noticed the flashing lyrics while waiting for the subway home at about 7:15 p.m.
One by one, the scattered riders on the platform all noticed it. “One man was there with his wife, and he couldn’t stop grinning, and he looked at me said, ‘It got hacked!’” she said.
The screen size, limited character display, and lack of capital letters gave the lyrics of the cheery classic the look of modern poetry.
“deck the halls with
boughs of holly. fa la,” the screens glowed, before showing another two lines.
“la la la la la la la.
tis the season to be,” the next read.
For Red Line riders, who contend with decades-old cars, periodic delays, and weekend construction shutdowns, the digitized carol brought brief, unexpected joy, as if Santa’s elves had hacked the T’s central computers.
“As far as PR goes, it’s probably one of the best things they’ve ever done,” Gharavi said. “I can’t remember the last time the T made somebody smile.”