Même les géants du web sont vulnérables aux conséquences des mouvements sociaux surtout quand elles sont bien orchestrés.
Super Pumped The Battle for Uber, Mike Isaac, W. W. Norton Company, 2019, ISBN 978-0-393-65224-6
As Travis fought his way onto the Trump business advisory council, a Chicago tech worker named Dan O’Sullivan still believed Donald Trump was full of shit.
The president spent his entire first week arguing with the press over the size of his inauguration crowd. (“The biggest ever inauguration audience!” Trump’s press office announced, an obviously false statement.) Trump was a buffoon, O’Sullivan thought, an idiot foisted upon the office by an electorate poisoned by Fox News. By the time he left office, O’Sullivan prayed, Trump would be thwarted by his advisors and accomplish little of what he promised on the stump in 2016.
The Long Island–born son of a nurse and an Irish telephone lineman, Dan O’Sullivan grew up worlds away from Trump’s gold-plated tower in Manhattan. He was proud of his blue-collar background. His great-great-uncle, Mike Quill, co-founded the Transport Workers Union in New York City back in 1934. Quill’s ties to the Communist Party earned him the nickname “Red Mike.” On the night of his sister’s birth, O’Sullivan’s father was out on strike with fellow linemen in the Communication Workers Union.
After kicking around schools in Long Island and Maine, Dan O’Sullivan landed in Chicago, a place he liked though knew little about. At six-foot-three and pushing 220 pounds, O’Sullivan looked like a different kind of lineman—more Chicago Bear than Bell Atlantic like his father. He picked up a Chicago accent quickly, cutting short his “U’s” and “A’s.” His nasally vowels gave many the mistaken impression he was a native Chicagoan.
O’Sullivan dreamed of being a writer, and started freelancing political pieces for Gawker, Jacobin, and other left-leaning outlets. To pay the bills, he landed in a call center at a tech company, a lower-level peon answering angry customer support questions. The work was depressing, but he spent his off-hours pursuing his passion, hustling for opportunities to write.
More vivid than his dreary call center job was O’Sullivan’s digital life on Twitter. He mostly used it to follow political accounts and news and to connect with other writers. He started chatting with other leftists and joking around with people who began as anonymous avatars in his Twitter feed, then slowly grew to become his online friends. Even as Dan despaired at Trump’s popularity and success, at least he could make fun of Trump’s buffoonery with his friends on Twitter.
O’Sullivan cherished his digital anonymity. He was opinionated and crass on Twitter, and knew his obscenities towards Trump might not please his employer. And if he had to find a new job, some of the esoteric, vulgar in-jokes he shared with Twitter friends wouldn’t thrill a recruiter.
Still, Twitter was worth it. He chose a handle for himself, a pun his online friends could remember him by: @Bro_Pair.
The order came as night fell on Friday, January 27, a week after Trump took the oath of office. Effective immediately, Trump was closing the nation’s borders. Singling out predominantly Muslim countries, he barred refugees from places like Syria, which was in the midst of a violent civil war that was driving thousands to seek asylum from potential slaughter.
“We don’t want them here,” Trump said, referring to so-called “radical Islamic terrorists”—his name for Muslims—during the signing ceremony. “We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas. We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country, and love deeply our people.”
Trump had presaged such a proposal at the end of 2015 on the campaign trail, in which he called for a complete restriction of all Muslims from entering the United States as a response to bloody terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, California and Paris, France. Christians and other religious practitioners, he said, should be granted immigration priority over Muslims seeking asylum. The Muslim ban played extremely well at rallies. Trump’s base loved it. At the time, of course, politicians from both parties condemned the idea as inhumane and unconstitutional. But the outrage at the time passed almost as quickly as it arrived.
Now it was 2017, Donald Trump was the president of the United States, and he was following through with a campaign promise. Among ardent Trump opponents like Dan O’Sullivan, the Muslim Ban brought forth all of the rage that had simmered since November 9. The announcement confirmed that Trump would be every bit as monstrous as they had imagined.
That energy wasn’t squandered. Millions of people across the country rushed to airports and other places where immigrants seeking asylum might be turned away by the TSA, ICE, or other federal agencies. Thousands of lawyers arrived clad in neon yellow hats and T-shirts to offer pro bono legal advice to immigrants stuck in limbo. Throngs of protesters flooded baggage claim areas and TSA security lines with chants of outrage against Trump, carrying hastily written cardboard signs and posters with pro-immigrant messages.
As the protests continued through Friday night and into Saturday morning, the Muslim community of taxi drivers in New York banded together to strike at the airport, in part to show solidarity, and also to give America a glimpse of the country without Muslim workers. “NO PICKUPS @ JFK Airport 6 PM to 7 PM today,” the New York Taxi Workers Alliance posted to its Twitter account shortly after 2:00 p.m. Saturday afternoon. “Drivers stand in solidarity with thousands protesting inhumane & unconstitutional #MuslimBan.”
As taxi workers organized, employees in Uber’s New York office watched and began to worry. People were traveling to airports in droves, often using Uber to get there. JFK was slammed, its terminals were drawing one of the largest crowds in the country that weekend. If passengers kept Ubering to JFK in large numbers, Uber’s “surge pricing” would kick in. That meant people would be charged multiples of the base fare—two, three, four times as much or even greater—just to go and protest. Managers in New York and San Francisco could predict the negative headlines if surge pricing kicked in: big bad Uber fleecing honest citizens during a humanitarian protest.
Uber didn’t need that headache now. A manager in San Francisco gave New York the all-clear to turn off surge pricing for Uber trips to JFK. Later that evening, @Uber_NYC sent a tweet: “Surge pricing has been turned off at #JFK Airport. This may result in longer wait times,” the tweet read. “Please be patient.”
The tweet would end up costing Uber millions.
O’Sullivan couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
Election night had broken him. He wrote a final piece for the leftist magazine Jacobin on the Trump victory—a half-delirious meditation on Trumpism and the forces it took to bring America to propel such a man to victory—and subsequently swore off political writing for good. He wandered the empty streets of Chicago in a stupor after the race was called, sensing a deep depression coming on, one that would carry into 2017 and add another ten pounds to his frame.
The swearing-in ceremony in January was painful to watch. He winced as the group of tycoons and robber barons surrounded Trump at the Capitol, celebrating the triumph of evil over good. The travel ban carried out less than a week later seemed sadistic to him. The cruel execution of the announcement perfectly symbolized Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon—two of Trump’s most xenophobic, nationalistic advisors—and their desire to inflict pain on immigrants.
But O’Sullivan felt a glimmer of hope as the news reported crowds of people gathering at the airport to protest Trump’s unjust ban. Thousands of other people like him, fed up with fear and anger, were fighting the administration through protest, one of the most American acts there is. And as @Bro_Pair, he scanned his Twitter account and monitored chatter from reporters, newspapers, and his digital friends who, too, were speaking out against the president. As Saturday wore on, @Bro_Pair noticed a tweet from the New York Taxi Workers Alliance scroll through his Twitter feed, noting their strike on the JFK airport. He appreciated the solidarity.
A few minutes later, he noticed another tweet—this one from Uber, claiming it was shutting off surge pricing at JFK.
Up until that point, O’Sullivan had never really liked Uber. He had passively followed its various controversies; everyone in tech did. To the leftist O’Sullivan, Travis Kalanick was an avatar of Silicon Valley’s capitalist id, concerned only with user and revenue growth, not the lives of everyday workers like himself. He used Uber occasionally—it was, after all, a great product and very convenient—but always felt guilty afterwards.
But at that moment, seeing Uber’s tweet pass through his feed, he saw it as an act of subversion—a betrayal of solidarity. O’Sullivan and others interpreted Uber’s tweet as company trying to profit off the backs of striking cab workers, a cash grab during a vulnerable public moment. Even beyond the immediate circumstances, the tweet reminded him of his larger ideological grievances towards Uber, and the core of how its business operates. The contract-based labor model that eschewed directly employing drivers. The campaigns against drivers who wanted to unionize. To him, this faceless, monolithic tech company would never defend its Muslim cab drivers. O’Sullivan couldn’t pinpoint whether it was his deep, familial ties to organized labor, the frustration he felt towards his shitty call center tech job, or the deep-seated need to fight back against Trump. He just snapped: he had had it with Uber.
Sitting alone in his cold apartment in the dead of a Chicago winter, he started typing a response to Uber’s tweet, still fuming with anger. “congrats to @Uber_NYC on breaking a strike to profit off of refugees being consigned to Hell,” @Bro_Pair tweeted, “eat shit and die.” He quickly followed up with an idea for a hashtag, something people could add to their angry tweets about the company: “#deleteUber.”
“Don’t like @Uber’s exploitative anti-labor policies & Trump collaboration, now profiting off xenophobia? #deleteUber,” he tweeted. O’Sullivan dug into Uber’s support pages on its website to figure out how to actually delete his Uber account, a feat that was surprisingly difficult and required filling out a form and sending it to engineers at the company. O’Sullivan started tweeting out screenshots and links to the online account deletion form, making it simpler for others to find it and delete their own accounts.
The hashtag began to resonate. Others tweeted angrily at Uber, joining @Bro_Pair. People started adding #deleteUber to the end of their tweets. As seething Americans sought an outlet for their helpless rage, the idea that Uber was not just subverting the protest but actively trying to profit from it was maddening. Hundreds of people started replying and retweeting @Bro_Pair’s tweet, catching the attention of other angry onlookers. Hundreds turned to thousands, which turned to tens of thousands of people chanting, digitally: #deleteUber.
To O’Sullivan’s amazement, people started tweeting their screenshots of their account deletions back to him. “You’re fascist colluding scabs,” one user’s screenshot said. “Taking advantage of the taxi strike in NYC is a disgusting example of predatory capitalism and collusion with an overtly fascist administration,” another user wrote, tweeting back at @Bro_Pair. Another person added: “Catch a rideshare to hell.”
O’Sullivan was dumbstruck. Celebrities were tweeting him screenshots of themselves deleting Uber. The press started calling him for interviews. He had tapped into a rage shared by more people than he had realized. Most immediately, those who retweeted him expressed anger towards the Trump administration and its discriminatory actions. But deleting Uber went beyond that; it became something people could do, an action they could broadcast as part of their protest, a repudiation of tech culture, of fake news, of Silicon Valley—the industry that many believed duped Americans into electing Trump in the first place. To #deleteUber wasn’t just to remove a ride-hailing app from one’s phone. It was also to give a giant middle finger to greed, to “bro culture,” to Big Tech—to everything the app stood for.
As O’Sullivan logged out of the @Bro_Pair account on Twitter and turned off his computer later that night, he felt a twinge of happiness for the first time in months. #deleteUber was trending across Twitter around the entire world. The press was covering the fallout, and Uber was scrambling to try and contain the damage.
“Okay I have to go to bed,” @Bro_Pair tweeted. “But this has been the only good thing I’ve seen come from hashtags ever. thank you all, keep it going.”
He signed his tweet with a hashtag: “#deleteUber.”
All hell broke loose at 1455 Market Street.
As the #deleteUber hashtag gained traction, engineers had account deletion requests flood in by the thousands from across the world. Up until that point, the company had received few deletion requests. Everyone loved the product, and those who didn’t merely erased the app from their phone without deleting their account. There was no automated mechanism in place to handle such requests. By the time @Bro_Pair’s protest spurred a mass revolt, Kalanick was forced to assign an engineer the task of implementing a system to process the flood of account deletions.
Uber’s public relations team scrambled to try and convince reporters that Uber wasn’t breaking a strike but actually trying to help protesters get to the JFK protests by eliminating surge pricing. Kalanick had attempted a mealy-mouthed apology that weekend, noting that he planned to raise Uber’s issues with the travel ban the following week with President Trump in person. He was days away from the first meeting of Trump’s policy council of executives. But the statement had the opposite effect, instead reminding people that Kalanick was actively working with the administration. Outsiders saw Kalanick’s position as a tacit endorsement of Trump. Eventually, his own employees began to see it that way, too.
“I understand that many people internally and externally may not agree with that decision, and that’s OK,” Kalanick said to employees in an email. “It’s the magic of living in America that people are free to disagree.”
His thinking on keeping his seat on the council didn’t last long. In the span of a week, more than 500,000 people deleted their Uber accounts entirely, not counting the incalculable others who simply deleted the app from their phones. Uber’s all-important ridership growth curves—for years always hockey-sticking up and to the right—started turning downward. Kalanick began to sweat.
Lyft, at that point running out of money and on the verge of surrender, benefitted enormously from the backlash. People began to ditch Uber and switch over to Lyft. (Protest felt good, but people still needed to be able to call a car sometimes.) Lyft’s executives then pulled a well-executed PR stunt, publicly donating $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union over four years, making themselves look like white knights while Uber was groveling before Trump.
The resultant surge in ridership brought Lyft back from the brink of failure. At last showing positive signs of growth, Lyft soon attracted investment from Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, the private equity firm, buoying the ride-hailing company with more than a half-billion dollars in additional capital.
Lyft’s fundraising sunk Kalanick’s spirits. He had spent the entire summer trying, and failing, to defeat his largest competitor in China. And now, just as the new year began, his chance to kill his strongest American opponent had slipped away as well. He was so close to rubbing John Zimmer’s nose in defeat. No longer.
Less than a week later, at the Tuesday all-hands meeting, multiple employees confronted Kalanick for keeping his position on Trump’s advisory council. Two different engineers asked him what it would take for him to step down from the position, a question he repeatedly dodged. But by Thursday, with ridership losses mounting and employees fast losing faith in their leader, Kalanick acceded.
With less than twenty-four hours before he was scheduled to be at his first advisory council meeting at the White House, a call was arranged between Kalanick and President Trump so he could tell him he was withdrawing from his position.
The call was brief and awkward; Kalanick apologized and gave a pitiful explanation. Trump grumbled through it. The two men had never met before, but Kalanick ended the call knowing that he had annoyed the president of the United States.
Later that day, he wrote a conciliatory email to staff, noting he had left the council, though for many both inside and outside of Uber, the concession felt too little, too late. It didn’t stop the downturn of Uber’s growth numbers, either, as ill will toward the company continued to damage the brand and overall ridership. But for the moment, Kalanick had neutralized the immediate threat and knocked Uber’s name out of negative headlines.
For the moment.