Damn it Uber, I like you so much as a service. You’re everything I look for in a disruptive business concept: grass roots, reliable, demonstrably better than the status quo. So why do you keep doing such terrible, terrible things as a company? You’re coming perilously close to my Chicken McNugget line.
Everyone has a Chicken McNugget line. It works like this. The average American attempt at dieting lasts a day and a half – it gets broken at about 3pm the second afternoon. That’s the point at which the brain says, “Listen – I respect that you’re dieting, really! But here’s this doughnut. Isn’t it possible that this is an unusual exception? I mean, you’ve had a really rough day/ you’re unusually hungry right now/ you deserve a reward/ not eating it is wasteful/ you promised yourself treats now and then/ whatever other excuse will fit in here to SHORT CIRCUIT YOUR LOGIC AND EAT THIS DOUGHNUT.” A serious dieter will take a step back and say waaaaaitaminit, this is exactly the type of situation where I said I wasn’t going to eat a doughnut. But most of us won’t.
When a person doesn’t want to diet, there will always be a completely logical reason why they can’t diet today. When a student doesn’t want to do their work there will always be a completely valid reason why they couldn’t possibly have done it. And they will believe, truly believe that they were totally, powerless over the situation, no matter how ridiculous the excuse. Studies show that the same is true of many folks convicted of violent felonies – they have completely plausible and valid reasons why it was everyone else’s fault that they were forced to track down and stab that one dude.
But everyone has a Chicken McNugget line. That’s the point at which the junk food you crave is so godawful disgusting that your brain just can’t find an excuse ridiculous enough to eat it. Chicken McNuggets are an unholy mix of cartilage, nerves, and skin, mixed with grain-based fillers, and held together with silicone. They qualify as food only under the definition “items that fit in my mouth”. I pass a McDonalds every day on the way to work, and sometimes the smell tempts me. My brain steps in with its siren song: I know you don’t eat crap like this, but isn’t it possible this is a totally different situation where you should reward yourself with an arg arg arg they’re just so so nasty, for the love of god don’t do it…
Car service Uber is getting perilously close to my McNugget line. Their app has resulted in at least one death, a whole bunch of rape cases, generalized attacks (with a hammer?) and one “slapping in response to a burp“, all of which they’ve denied any responsibility for. They’re accused of everything from failing to enforce the background checks they claim protect their customers, to engaging in aggressive campaigns shaming and discrediting the victims who have been assaulted by their drivers. They use startlingly icky sabotage tactics against competitors, which, if not illegal, are at least creepy as hell. And not that it makes a lick of difference, but their misleading pricing has given them and F rating from the Better Business Bureau, which isn’t easy. Hell, even some Ikea locations have a A+, so it can’t be that hard.
But today’s snafu is particularly ‘eek’-inducing – at a recent dinner, Uber’s senior vice president of business, Emil Michael, explained his plan to spend a million dollars on a smear campaign against journalists who dare report on Uber’s failings. The focus for his ire was PandoDaily editor-in-chief Sarah Lacy, who’s been key in exposing some of Uber’s scarier infractions, particularly against women. Michael suggested that researchers could be hired to “dig up the dirt” on journalists and their families, and use what they found as a threat to keep them silent. In his own words, it would give the media “a taste of its own medicine”. When it was pointed out how this might backfire, he responded, “Nobody would know it was us”.
Now, besides the basic first amendment issues at work here, this is about as bad PR as a company can manufacture. Using threats of violence and intimidation against a plucky underdog who dares to stand up to a powerful business is a classic Hollywood trope.
At the same time, it’s easy to understand the allure. Terror is an extremely effective weapon in silencing critics, particularly when the victims are women with families to protect. For all that movies are full of square-jawed fathers trying to save their wife and kids from kidnappers/burglers/ terrorists/dinosaurs, in reality these soft targets are much more likely to be used against a mom. Few dudes consider sending their family into hiding or requesting FBI protection before publishing an exposé, whereas their female counterparts are often forced to do just that. Just ask any of the brave lady journalists recently targeted by Gamer-Gaters. But while it’s easy to silence critics, it’s much harder to silence the fact that they’ve been silenced.
When asked for comment, Michael gave a carefully worded response that said, in summation “LOL/JK, I was just a little annoyed”. It’s still better than an earlier response where he said Lacy should be held responsible for any woman who got themselves raped by a taxi driver after deciding not to use Uber. I swear I couldn’t make this stuff up.
So, it begs the question, why the hell is this guy still talking? Or more importantly, why is Uber still letting him talk? In public? Don’t they have any sense of self-preservation at all? I don’t know enough about the financial ins-and-outs to say if he should fired or not (I mean, obviously, but he hasn’t been yet, so…?). But Uber, at the very least, for your own good, lock him in a basement somewhere with a gag on so he can’t keep making these outrageous PR blunders every time he opens his mouth. While you’re at it, lock up most of your senior staff – very few of them are passing the basic “pretend to be human” test right now.
I want to use Uber. I want to use them so badly. And I can always find an excuse why this time is the exception. The local drivers aren’t to blame for corporate error/ yellow cab drivers are often so much worse/ it’s cold out/ I’ve got my puppy Oyster with me/ I’m wearing these awesome heels. And as of yet, my willing suspension of disbelief is still gamely chugging away, defending what I really want to do from what I really know is right. Especially if I can’t get a ‘Go Green Ride‘ car. Hey Go Green, do some usability testing already – you’re fantastic, but your app sucks.
So if that doesn’t work out, I may still use an Uber. We haven’t crossed my Chicken McNugget line…yet. But it’s not going to take much more – this camel is already carrying a whole lot of straw. Just try me, Uber, just one more revelation, one more horrible remark, one more incident. I’m using you today, maybe, but tomorrow, who knows.