Uber: A New Form of Media
New York City is a transportation hub. From taxis to the subway to buses to walking, Manhattan is navigable without having to buy a car, or even know how to drive! The invention of ride share applications such as Uber have completely reimagined how New Yorkers, and people worldwide, literally navigate their daily lives. The idea that you could request a car to your location with the touch of a button changed everything. This interactive interface, with its extremely participatory nature, altered the way that New Yorkers commute daily and think of their relationships with transportation in the form of digital media.
As a teenager growing up in this transportation hub, the invention and proliferation of Uber in Manhattan completely changed my entire experience navigating the city. With the help of my mother’s credit card, I could go anywhere at any time, without having to ask my parents to drive me, with the help of my mother’s credit card of course. I soon learned, however, that I couldn’t actually go anywhere I wanted because of one thing: money. When Uber first came to New York, and even today, it was extremely expensive. A subway ride from my house on the Upper East Side to the Upper West Side was $2.75; an Uber ride was around $20. This new form of media quickly became a way to segregate people by class and status due to its expensive nature. The expensive nature of Uber gave rise to other competitors such as Via and Lyft. Within any form of digital media, as new platforms emerge, there will continue to be competitors with different business strategies and layouts. For example, in New York and Atlanta, Via and Lyft respectively are large competitors for Uber as they are much cheaper; however, they are often much slower than Uber. Realistically, however, the layout of the applications and the media themselves function in exactly the same way.
The primary motivation I have for investigating rideshare applications as a form of digital media is due to their importance in my life right now. As I mentioned earlier, I am a native New Yorker. While this is one of my favorite parts of my identity, it also means I never needed to learn how to drive and never needed a car. At Emory, the only way I can navigate the city and go off campus is by using rideshare applications. If I need to go to the grocery store, I Uber. If I need to go to the airport, I Uber. If I just want to get away from Emory for the day, I Uber. This form of media has become such an integral part of my daily life that I often take it for granted. While Uber is extremely helpful in this respect, if I can’t access my phone or have no service, due to the nature of the medium, I can’t request a ride or even navigate within the application.
Additionally, in New York, Uber is a rather impersonal experience; you hardly speak to your driver with the exception of directions or exchanging pleasantries. The first time I took an Uber in Atlanta was entirely different to say the least. To make a long story short – I absolutely freaked out. My Uber driver asked me a million personal questions, solely attempting to make conversation; however, he had absolutely no idea I was hyperventilating in the back seat contemplating whether or not I was going to be kidnapped. As I had been previously been jaded by my experience, rather my lack of experience, talking to drivers in New York, I was paranoid. Thanks to the features of the Uber application, I was able to do several things in order to ensure my safety to the best of my ability. I immediately ‘shared’ my ride with a few of my friends which allowed them to track my route to see if I ever veered off course. I browsed through my driver’s past reviews and his rating in order to attempt to determine if I was being paranoid. Lastly, I frantically texted my mom and had her follow my Uber ride through our shared account found on our phones. While nothing actually happened within that ride and I was merely unreasonably paranoid due to a friendly stranger, in hindsight I learned a lot about the manifestation of the intersection between users and digital media.
While Uber is a ride share application primarily used for transportation, it also has a feature that allows Uber drivers, and passengers, to rate each other on a five-point scale. I distinctly remember the first time someone shamed me for my Uber rating. My Uber rating, on my family Uber account, was considered lackluster at the time: only 4.7 out of 5 stars. I think this is when I first realized that not only were ride share applications, particularly Uber, a milestone in this new world of digital media, but they were also a newfound form of status or hierarchy within digital media. This moment that I was shamed for my Uber rating was the moment that I realized that Uber was a form of digital media akin to other popular media applications such as Instagram or Twitter. Due to the interactive and practical nature of Uber, people often forget that ride share apps are a form of digital media. When you really think about it, however, Uber is really quite similar to Instagram in many different ways. On Instagram, we stare at photos of people we have never met from places we have never been; in Ubers we speak with, or merely sit five feet from, a stranger with an entirely unknown history. On Instagram, we make snap judgements of people based on their appearance, editing styles, or even something as trivial as a caption; on Uber, we judge people based on their accents, their behavior, and sometimes their appearance, or rather the appearance of their car. Most evidently, on Instagram, we leave an overall assessment of a person through a follow, like, or comment; on Uber, we literally leave a five star review of someone if we like them. The judgemental aspect of digital media is ever present in every form of media, even Uber.