Maybe the biggest surprise of this week’s widespread #DeleteUber campaign was that it worked at all. For a company notable for its willingness to ignore external pressure — whether in the form of criticism or, like, actual laws — Uber spent most of the week on the back foot, reeling from the force of a sustained social-media campaign encouraging people to delete their Uber accounts. It took out ads on Twitter and Instagram (targeted at people who’d “liked” the ACLU), trumpeted its financial assistance to drivers stuck overseas following last Friday’s sudden, shocking executive order, and, finally, yesterday, announced that CEO Travis Kalanick would resign from his position on a panel advising President Trump. Kalanick, a hardheaded objectivist, had acquiesced to the demands of his employees and customers. The number of riders who deleted accounts? According to the New York Times, a mere 200,000 of the business’s 40 million global riders.
So how did it work? And is it replicable? The bad news for activists is that Uber was uniquely vulnerable to a campaign like this one. But being aware of the structural reasons that Uber was susceptible to pressure can help future protesters figure out how to drive a wedge between President Trump and the business community he’s eager to align himself with.
Uber faced pressure both internally and externally. It wasn’t just customers complaining about Kalanick’s relationship with Trump, or Uber’s missteps around the protests at JFK over the weekend. At a Tuesday meeting, the Times reported, two employees asked Kalanick, “What would it take for you to quit the economic council?” Just as dangerously for the company, its drivers — many of them immigrants, many from the countries targeted by Trump’s draconian executive order — were frustrated. (Kalanick mentioned “what I heard from drivers” in his email announcing his resignation from the Trump panel.)
Uber already had problems. Exacerbating Uber’s internal-pressure problem was its already-fraught relationship with its drivers. Many of those who drive for Uber do so reluctantly, acquiescing to the biggest ride-share game in town. Even as Uber decreased wages for drivers and resisted classifying full-time drivers as employees, they stuck with it. The “gig-economy” apps that make up the rising generation of Silicon Valley superstars rely on armies of often ill-paid workers who likely already have grievances against their contractors. Why would they defend or stick with a company that doesn’t give them benefits and obligates some to sleep in 7-Eleven parking lots?
Uber exists in a strong competitive environment. One of the perils of refusing to regard your drivers as employees is that it cultivates their willingness to simultaneously work for a competitor. Uber was vulnerable because those peeved drivers could seamlessly switch to any one of a host of other ride-sharing apps. Even worse for Uber, so could riders. Lyft, Gett, Juno, Arro, Way2Go, and, I assume, 400 other apps were ready to step in when Uber users and drivers got fed up.
Building a business as a “platform” with few real employees, reliant on software rather than physical infrastructure — Uber doesn’t own any of its cars — has many benefits. But it also has an enormous weakness: You’re only as good as your network. If that network is threatened, by a significant number of riders and drivers leaving it for a competitor with a nearly identical app, route-mapping software, and prices, you have nothing to fall back on — no assets, no investments, and no way to get back.
Uber collects money directly from its users. Maybe above all else, Uber is a relatively rare start-up that collects revenue directly from its users, rather than from advertisers looking to purchase the attention of those users. Any company that relies on money taken directly from users — like Uber — gives those users power to influence a tech company.
These overlapping vulnerabilities — combined with the urgency and outrage that come with a pressing political crisis — put Uber in a particularly tough spot. For activists, the next step is figuring out whether other companies can be put in a similarly tough spot. For the hell of it, let’s imagine how one might take on Facebook or Google to try and force their hand.
To start with, Facebook is free for most users, so it’s hard to boycott them in the sense of denying them direct revenue. This is the case with most start-ups — their real clients are advertisers. Demanding advertisers pull campaigns could do … something, but the structure of the business at sites like Google and Facebook means that their revenue is distributed across millions of different clients, who buy ads in relatively small amounts. Killing one big whale will not stop the other tiny fish.
Just as discouragingly, if you (or advertisers!) wanted to leave Facebook — where would you go? Unlike with Uber, there isn’t a clear, immediate competitor offering an identical service with no cost of switching. No other social network has the same collection of friend groups; no other site lets you know about low-key social events you might attend; no other network lets you stalk crushes as comprehensively.
If you wanted to leave Google, you’d have to find alternative services for email, video hosting (YouTube remains unmatched in terms of ubiquity), document collaboration, and other productivity tools. And convincing your workplace to migrate off of Google’s enterprise products is a monthlong technical task without guarantee of a payoff.
But there’s good news: There is internal dissent. Google campuses across the globe had rallies in protest of the immigration order (and co-founder Sergey Brin was at SFO on Saturday), and Facebook has reportedly seen protests — but it’s unclear what change any of this has spurred at a corporate level. Zuckerberg even reportedly speaks very candidly at his all-hands meetings, and few of those details ever leak out.
This is not to say that the rest of the tech world is immune to protest — it’s not. Their brand is heavily reliant on a perpetual utopian sheen. But Uber was uniquely vulnerable, and the tactics that put it in peril won’t work elsewhere. Protesters are going to have to get creative.