Uber Anxiety: When Your Car Service Is Judging You Back

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Photo: Uber

I am not quite an Uber mensch.

I found this out the other day, when I asked my Uber driver about my passenger rating — the average of the 1-to-5-star grade passengers receive from drivers after every ride, which is shown to drivers before they agree to take a hail.

"You're a 4.8," he replied. "I usually don't pick people up if they're a 4 or less."

Most Uber users don't know their passenger ratings. In fact, many riders don't even know that they have ratings. (The only ratings visible on the passenger version of the Uber app are for drivers; to find out how you've scored as a rider, you either have to ask a driver or contact Uber customer service.) When I informed my friends that they were being rated by their Uber drivers, just as they're allowed to rate drivers after a trip, what followed was usually a panic-regret cocktail.

"Dammit, now I am thinking about the time we piled eight girls in a van and made the driver play ‘Trouble’ by Taylor Swift on his iPhone,” one told me.

You could call this feeling Uber anxiety — the fear that the world’s biggest car service is quietly judging you.

Keeping high approval ratings on car services like Uber and Lyft — which operates a ranking system very similar to Uber's — is a consequential mission for frequent riders. If you’re a 5-star Uber passenger, you get the best (and pickiest) drivers, speedy response times, and reliably good service. If your rating is worse, fewer drivers may be willing to open their doors to you, and you may find yourself taking the bus instead.

My 4.8 rating, while imperfect, is actually higher than I expected. One night, a year or so ago, I hailed an Uber car to take me home from a party in Brooklyn, and ten or so minutes later, when the poor driver had almost made it to my green pin, a yellow taxi pulled up beside me. In my impatient, late-night state, I decided to cancel the Uber and take the cab instead. (I know! Monstrous!) And for the next few weeks, I regretted my choice. Had the Uber driver given me a 1-star rating as punishment? Would Uber’s algorithm knock me down a notch for playing a game one of my friends calls “carbitrage”? When I opened the app for the next few weeks, it felt like I often got placed with lower-rated drivers, and waited longer for available cars. Had my impatience gotten me downgraded from first class to coach?

Luckily, Uber spokesperson Nairi Hourdajian reassured me I was in the clear. The company doesn't punish riders for a first-time cancellation, and in the case of my ill-fated Brooklyn ride, since I hadn't gotten into the Uber car in the first place, I hadn't been rated at all. "Rider cancellations do not lower a rider's rating because, in that scenario, there is no driver rating that rider (given the cancellation)," she wrote. Clearly, I'd done something less-than-ideal at some point in my Uber usage (or else I'd have a 5.0 rating), but that night in Brooklyn didn't cause any lasting damage.

I’ll probably never know which driver (or drivers) hurt my perfect score. But the knowledge that my Uber rating could fall at any moment, for anything at all, has forced me to adopt an aggressively friendly manner whenever I'm inside an Uber car.

“You’re from Atlanta? I love Atlanta!” I told one driver.

“This music is great!” I lied to another.

I’m not the only one stuck in the Uber guilt cycle. Earlier this week, when Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo sparked a Twitter thread about Uber ratings, several others confessed they’d stressed about them, too.

The importance of the ratings Uber passengers give drivers is well-known. (Uber says that drivers with ratings below 4.5 are no longer in good standing with the company.) But when it comes to the ratings our Uber drivers give us, the fallout is more mysterious. One Uber driver told me that although Uber doesn't normally take action against users with low ratings (though drivers can punish them simply by refusing to pick them up), a driver who rates a passenger lower than a 3 out of 5 stars will effectively trigger a "block" function that keeps that rider from appearing on the driver's app in the future. Drivers who are harassed, attacked, or otherwise harmed by riders can file complaints and, in extreme cases, get the offenders removed from Uber's system. But triggering real consequences requires drivers to take a stand — and few do.

"Some people might be dicks, but they need rides anyway," one Uber driver told me, while explaining why he almost never gives out fewer than 5 stars.

In a way, Uber’s bilateral rating system is an overdue equalizer. Businesses have lived and died on their Yelp reviews for years, and the ability to punish bad service has always been completely in the customer's hands. That's still the case in some industries. (A dry cleaner has no way to warn other dry cleaners about a rude or annoying customer, and there’s no centralized database for restaurants to compare notes on bad tippers.) But now, on peer-to-peer services like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb, both buyer and seller have an incentive to be on their best behavior. In a bilateral feedback universe where past behavior determines who's willing to serve you, a bad rating can be hugely influential. (Imagine getting the worst seat at every restaurant you step into, because you once yelled at a server.)

As a 4.8 Uber rider, I still get pretty good service. But I can’t help but wish that the company offered a little more transparency when it comes to user reputations. (Uber has said that it's "exploring ways to show the rider’s rating in the next generation of the app," but no such feature has materialized yet.)

Giving Uber passengers more information about their ratings would help root bad-rating paranoia in reality, and allow riders to appeal a bad rating if they felt it was in error. But even if Uber never thrusts its passenger ratings out in the open, I’ll still be overly generous with 5-star ratings for my drivers. When it comes to this kind of weaponized feedback, my new motto is: Downgrade not, lest ye be downgraded.