Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My Uber Ex

leave a comment »

Uber Apps

Yesterday, I canceled my Uber account. Many of you probably already know why, but on the off chance you don’t, I can only quote the original report on Buzzfeed:

A senior executive at Uber suggested that the company should consider hiring a team of opposition researchers to dig up dirt on its critics in the media—and specifically to spread details of the personal life of a female journalist who has criticized the company…

Over dinner, he outlined the notion of spending “a million dollars” to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press—they’d look into “your personal lives, your families,” and give the media a taste of its own medicine.

[Senior vice president Emil] Michael was particularly focused on one journalist, Sarah Lacy, the editor of the Silicon Valley website PandoDaily, a sometimes combative voice inside the industry…Uber’s dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life.

Since the story was first reported by Ben Smith, who personally witnessed the remarks, both Michael and Uber chief Travis Kalanick have publicly apologized. But I frankly don’t trust them. And while my feelings have more than a little to do with the fact that I’m a freelance writer married to a journalist who has covered Uber in the past, they’re also reflection of larger, more troubling questions that should concern more than just members of the press and their families.

First, I should go on the record as saying that I love the service that Uber provides. It’s convenient, cheap, and has the potential to change people’s lives for the better: I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it’s the most innovative startup concept of the decade. If anything, though, this only makes the underlying point more stark, which is how toxic values—encouraged by the culture in which they emerge—can poison even great ideas. There’s the unstated assumption, for instance, that you can draw an equivalence between a reporter covering a corporation’s business practices and that same corporation “fighting back” by investigating the reporter’s personal life. This isn’t some theoretical consideration; there are documented cases of companies doing exactly this. What really startles me, though, is Uber’s lukewarm reaction. In a series of tweets issued in response to the report, Kalanick stated that Michael’s comments did not fairly represent the company, but he also made another curious statement: “His duties here at Uber do not involve communications strategy or plans.” This seems calculated to partially absolve Michael, or the company itself, but it only makes the lack of action harder to understand. Michael, who is not involved in communications strategy, made remarks that had an instant chilling effect on the very journalists on whom Uber depends for fair coverage, and he was careless enough to make them to Ben Smith, one of the most famous media figures in the country. As John Hodgman notes in a blog post on the same subject: “If this isn’t a fireable offense, are there any?”


The fact that Michael seems unlikely to face any additional consequences for his comments makes it clear that deep down, Uber itself doesn’t seem to think that they’re particularly offensive, and that this is just a fake controversy stirred up by reporters looking for attention. (If I had any doubt at all about this, I’d only have to reread the tweet from another Uber executive, since deleted, sharing a photo of employees celebrating after Kalanick’s apology, with the hashtag #HatersGonnaHate. That’s the moment I decided to cancel my account.) And this reflects a fundamental cultural problem. Last week, I noted that the unforgiving conditions of venture funding force startups to compress the process of testing new ideas into punishing, probably unsustainable timelines. Along with everything else, this kind of corporate Darwinism leads to a weirdly insecure, adversarial relationship with the media. In many cases, a company’s brand is all it has: money is raised for an idea that may be years away from delivery, and in the meantime, a reputation has to be spun out of nothing. Press coverage plays a huge part in shaping that narrative, so a startup with nothing but a sales pitch for an app is more likely to rage against a negative story than, say, General Electric, which has more important things to worry about. And when half of your perceived value as a company stems from what journalists have to say about you, it’s easy to conclude that if a reporter isn’t your friend, she’s your enemy.

I’d be tempted to say that it’s similar to how writers feel about critics, if it weren’t for the crucial difference that most writers don’t have the resources to bully or intimidate the critics they don’t like. And Uber stands only at one end of a continuum that extends way, way down to some of the ugliest recent developments in tech culture. If nothing else, they’re drawing from the same talent pool: the current startup market has evolved so that those who are most attracted to it are likely to share a common set of principles, including a sense that any criticism amounts to a personal attack, which can only have a freezing effect on innovation in the long run. Still, it isn’t difficult to see why Uber feels so threatened. Unlike most startups, they have a sensational core idea and tons of revenue, but their entire operation is predicated on trust. When their image suffers, that trust is diminished, and we’re less likely to order one of their cars. The fact that they maintain minimal infrastructure of their own, which is a big part of what makes them so exciting, exposes them to competition from shrewder rivals. And maybe they’re right to be worried. Enough customers have started canceling their accounts because of Michael’s comments that Uber has started to respond with a boilerplate email stating that his views don’t reflect that of the larger company. When I canceled my own account, I was halfway hoping to get the same reply. Instead, it only said: “Sorry to see you go!”

Written by nevalalee

November 20, 2014 at 10:17 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: