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Lyft, Uber, and How a Dominant Narrative Distorts the Marketplace

Lyft and Apple gain ground, yanny vs. laurel rages on, and more from the week in tech

Lyft and Uber logos Ringer illustration

The week in tech was filled with milestone announcements, a viral meme, and more apologetic commercials. Here’s what mattered and what you might have missed.


The Week in Market Share: Lyft vs. Uber

Earlier this week, Uber released a TV apology ad similar to Facebook’s spot that debuted last month. In it, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi says, “One of our core values as a company is to always do the right thing.” He continues to say that if there are times Uber “fall[s] short,” the company will own up to its mistakes and right them. The apology commercial arrived at the same time as its competitor Lyft announced it now controls 35 percent of the U.S. ridesharing market. Sharing internal numbers isn’t common, but Lyft likely feels confident. It’s enjoying success not only because of its own achievements, but also because of the narrative that Uber is mired in. Narratives can shift markets, and, in the case of Lyft and Uber, obscure industrywide issues.

It’s a bold move for a company to share internal numbers like this, but it did so with good reason. Lyft has long been cast as the hero to Uber’s villain, and Uber made that comparison hard to resist. Former CEO Travis Kalanick resembled the archetype for an ’80s movie bully, and he made it clear the company’s priority was to make money by infiltrating cities unprepared for its arrival. Uber created a business structure that won over drivers before subjecting them to a cycle of endless work, little pay, and no health benefits. Now the company has a new CEO and is attempting to rewrite its story, but whether consumers will accept it remains to be seen.

The issues are different, but the tone of Uber’s apology ad is strikingly similar to Facebook’s apology spot. The central thesis is that both screwed up, the mistakes went public, and now public opinion is forcing them to issue respective mea culpas and a pledge to stop screwing up. Neither Uber nor Facebook is singular in its errors, but both are synonymous with their markets, and the toll is hefty.

Meanwhile, Lyft is enjoying its role as Uber’s foil. In addition to celebrating its new market share, the company announced that the waitlist for its monthly subscription plan is getting longer; unveiled its colorful, neon-hued new branding; talked about its partnership with the ACLU; and shared its plans for the Lyft fleet to go carbon-neutral. Lyft doesn’t have a problem drumming up favorable press, much of which is deserved. But it has inarguably benefited from Uber’s missteps.

Lyft and Uber are forced to make many of the same compromises. Whether ride-hailing is helping reduce the number of cars on the road or is contributing to increased traffic by encouraging users to take a car rather than public transit remains the subject of much debate. Passenger safety is still a concern, and only after Uber announced it would allow riders and drivers to pursue sexual assault cases in open court did Lyft follow suit.

Early on, Uber became a symbol of the on-demand and sharing economy—the avatar of an exciting, new way of doing business. Now its identity is inexorable from its legal battles and its role in disrupting public services and community fabric. Apologetic ads won’t absolve these companies from the wrong they’ve done. Sentimentality goes only so far.

What Facebook and Uber are trying to do is change their narratives, but that fails to address the persistent issues. The onus is on the Facebooks and Ubers of the world to fix their companies from the inside in transparent ways, but it’s also on the people who follow the companies closely to recast the narrative to not overshadow the crux of a given scandal. Addressing bigger, tangible change across social media and the sharing economy requires holding the actors accountable and discarding lazy terminology.

Tech ICYMI

Milestone of the Week: Apple Music Plays On

Apple Music reached 50 million subscribers, closing the gap with Spotify, which has 75 million paying users, and keeping the streaming battle alive. Not too long ago, the streaming-music marketplace looked like a crowded space that seemed hard for Apple to penetrate, not to mention that Apple had already made missteps with music. Apple’s win came at the same time as reports surfaced that Tidal is “months behind” on paying out music royalties.

Surprise of the Week: The Senate Votes to Preserve Net Neutrality

Senate Democrats voted to overturn the repeal of net neutrality laws, but it doesn’t mean the code will be reinstated. The legislation will advance to the House, where Republicans hold a larger majority. The Senate result is unlikely to be repeated, but it bought time for proponents of net neutrality to rally constituent support that will sway lawmakers. The House has a long time to make its decision, and it could be as late as January 2019 before we know the fate of net neutrality.

Exhausting Meme of the Week: Yanny vs. Laurel

Almost as quickly as the internet was swept up in the great Yanny-versus-Laurel debate of 2018, the fatigue set in. Yanny vs. Laurel was a lot like The Dress: The illusion was part riddle, part trickery, and totally consuming. But The Dress was an oddity found in the wild (though subsequently engineered by BuzzFeed to go viral), and one that never seemed to have a resolution. It was born from Tumblr and had a surprising shelf life. Yanny vs. Laurel, on the other hand, was a manipulation from the start, and fatigue set in earlier this time around. The fun of it wore off more quickly, and I am part of the problem.