Image: Matteo Gallo

Newbie Drivers Meet Embittered Veterans on the UberPeople Forum

Workers unite online to dish advice, share horror stories, and bitch about their job.

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May 27 2016, 4:10pm

Image: Matteo Gallo

On a forum thread titled "New Uber driver seeking advice," a brave new Uber driver is having her dreams crushed.

"Hey There! I starting driving for Uber last weekend and loved it," her post begins. "I've met some really incredible people...they don't tip....but still incredible."

The replies are cynical, and swift. "Quit.....best advice EVER!" reads one.Another is a meme of James Van Der Beek crying in Dawson's Creek, which reads "AFTER YOU RECEIVE YOUR FIRST UBER CHECK." Another member replies, "I'm glad newish people are coming straight to this forum....... It is depressing... but a good place to learn."

The forum is UberPeople, the internet's largest community for Uber drivers. The site was founded in April 2014, five years after Uber itself appeared, and it has grown to over 51,300 members and one million posts.

Reading the forum as an outsider is a fascinating glimpse into the life of an Uber driver

UberPeople unites an increasingly fractured community. While Uber users are active on other social media—there are Facebook groups for most cities where Uber is active, walkie talkie app Zello, blogs like The Rideshare Guy, YouTubers, and Meetup groups around the world—UberPeople is by far the most prominent and wide-reaching online community for drivers. It provides an outlet for workers engaged in what can be at once a highly social and extremely lonely working experience.

The site was founded by an anonymous driver for Uber and Lyft who wanted to share their experiences, and who works on the forum to this day alongside a team of ten moderators with whom I spoke over email. "There are all types of interests on the site," they said of UberPeople's users. "New, current and ex-TNC drivers, traditional cab drivers and chauffeurs, fleet owners, those who have been in the transportation business a long time and those are just interested in this new economy. We welcome any opinion."

Reading the forum as an outsider, it's a fascinating glimpse into the life of an Uber driver.

Members crowdsource advice for morally dubious situations: What's the best thing to do when your passenger is blackout drunk and demands that you take them to where they left their car? Would you turn down a woman in labour? Should drivers carry a stun gun, or pepper spray, or something more lethal? What do you do when a group of male passengers aggressively propositions a female driver?

In these volatile circumstances, presided over by little more than a faceless app and a customer service rep if they're lucky, the words of other Uber drivers lend support.

The moderators discourage personal attacks between members, but arguments against Uber are very much fair game. Similarly, organising demonstrations and strikes are part of UberPeople's culture, with an advocacy subforum created especially for this purpose.

It becomes clear after reading through a few of UberPeople's more popular threads that the tone of the site is generally one of resentment—toward the passengers who pedantically scrutinise them, toward younger drivers who consider driving for Uber a "hobby," toward fluctuating regluations, and toward other UberPeople people who express differing opinions.

The average member's trajectory on the site seems to see them shift from optimism to profound disenchantment

UberPeople's members can be clearly divided into separate camps: the embittered veterans and the newbie drivers, with a smaller subcategory of "earnings truthers" who have driven for longer and claim to be making decent money.

The average member's trajectory on the site seems to see them shift from optimism to profound disenchantment, perhaps mirroring reports of Uber's employee retention problems. Users who show conspicuous faith in Uber as a company are quickly corrected, and very often told by others to quit.

A banner ad offering a Lyft signup bonus appears prominently on the pages of UberPeople, as though intended to rescue the disillusioned (asked about these ads, Lyft declined to comment).

I spoke to Victor, a pseudonym used by a long-term, prolific UberPeople member referred to me by the moderators. "UberPeople members go through phases," he said. "There are new drivers who discover this community and want to share their experiences. They're upbeat at first, then sooner or later they become lackadaisical, then finally they become Uber detractors having had really negative experiences as drivers."

Victor joined the forum in 2014, and noticed a shift in the tone of the site from a more balanced view of Uber to one of profound frustration. "It's a constant down," he said. "It's neverending. And it's very off-putting seeing all the complaints—drivers can't seem to get to grips with their bitterness and do something, instead of ranting and raving about it. They don't reach out and organise themselves."

Victor has stopped commenting now. "No one wants to go the extra step," he said. "It's very disenchanting for someone like me, who'd like to see a balance of power between the company and the drivers."

In one of the site's most replied-to threads, filed to the "Complaints" section, someone claiming to be an "Uber Support Rep here to dish" appears and answers questions. The moderators told me the forum had welcomed rogue Uber support reps before. "We have had several customer service reps from the company as members on the forum; a couple have claimed that they worked for Uber but nothing official," they said.

Victor added that he suspected Uber staff were present on the site in other places too. "They've never come on the forum to try to shut down conversations, but the site has attracted several individuals who may or may not be associated with the company," he said.

One user, posting under the name "ExUberEmployee" and identified as male and from San Francisco, appeared on the site in October of last year shortly before a three-day US-wide driver strike. In a lengthy and detailed post, he claimed he had heard through former work contacts that Uber would terminate "ungrateful drivers" who joined the strike over the course of a planned "Black Weekend," detecting them through an audio monitoring function built into the app which he claimed employees called "1984 mode." He even alleged that Uber was in discussion with Lyft to compile a joint employee blacklist, so that terminated strikers might never work in ridesharing again.

Asked about the thread, a rep from Uber denied that the company had anything to do with it. "That was definitely not written by the company, and we would not have a former employee write something as a scare tactic... In addition, Uber employees generally refrain from participating in the forums like 'uberpeople.'" They also pointed out the company's new deactivation guidelines, which clearly spell out what can and cannot get a driver terminated.

On UberPeople, the post triggered controversy almost instantly. Skeptics replied with "cool story bro," and pointed out that collaborating with Lyft would potentially break antitrust laws. Many dismissed "ExUberEmployee" as a troll, but along with other members of the community, Victor is convinced this commenter was a plant from Uber head office.

Driving for Uber is a lonely job often made all the more lonely by the mercenary nature of driver-customer interactions: Yes, customers and drivers are polite to each other, but under Uber this will always be in a bid to maintain good ratings. Uber drivers don't have a coffee room. They interact with an app, not a team of coworkers.

In a November 2015 piece for The Awl, John Hermann wrote of UberPeople as a medium through which drivers might grasp back power, or at the least, discourage new drivers from having illusions about how much they'll earn. "This is labor organisation refracted through forum culture: there are calls for collective action next to flame wars… There are memes!" he writes. "There is, in the absence of any sort of physical interaction or official means of driver communication, a work culture."

The forum is a work culture, one where every complaint is recorded online, essentially in public. There is something poignant about UberPeople: the two years of observations, suggestions and complaints it records are acknowledged by other drivers, but not by Uber. It's a community of atomised individuals trapped in their cars, alone together, weathering the ratings and scrutiny, venting and trolling and tapping out their anger on smartphones between car journeys.

On UberPeople, the button you click to sign up reads "Be a Person", and this wording seems very pointed. It implies that in sharing and recording their experiences, Uber drivers are reclaiming their humanity. And it implies that a driver without a voice is not a "person" at all.