So you want to drive for Uber.
Maybe you’ve been thinking about it for awhile or maybe, like 30 million other Americans, you lost your job due to COVID and you need money. But you don’t know much about the gig economy — only what you’ve heard, and most of what you’ve heard isn’t great. So you head over to YouTube to get more information. There, you’re flooded with videos like “My $5,000 Uber Driver Monthly Earning,” and “Instacart Earnings 2020: $2,000 in One Week!”
There’s the viral Uber challenges too, like the one created by 27-year-old Sabbi Lyon, who claims to have made $8,357 by driving for 12 hours a day, every day for a month, putting him on track to make over $100,000 a year. You’re thinking, even if you make half that amount of money, it’s time well spent. From there, you click around and watch more videos. Only this time, you’re trying to learn the “secrets” or “tips and tricks” of the trade. In a matter of a few hours, thanks to a bevvy of channels dedicated to promoting the absolute best-case scenario — like one in which a gig-economy influencer shows you how to make $75 an hour driving for Uber — you’re feeling like someone just handed you a treasure map.
So you start driving. But instead of making $75 an hour, you’re making less than $10 (as you will later discover, the average driver makes between $8.55 to $11.77 per hour). After a month, you’ve made less than $400. You start thinking that maybe you’re not trying hard enough. Maybe you’re not following the instructions right. Maybe you’re not fit to be successful as a gig-economy worker.
Or maybe, the rise-and-grind gospel of gig-economy influencers isn’t as virtuous as they’d have you believe.
Harry Campbell is one such influencer. He’s the founder of The Rideshare Guy, a blog dedicated to all things having to do with the gig economy. With nearly 75,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel and hundreds of thousands of people subscribing to his email newsletter, Campbell is the Kylie Jenner of the rideshare influencer space (alternatively, in a 2015 profile, Wired referred to Campbell as “a sort of Tony Robbins” of the sharing economy). A former aerospace engineer, Campbell tells me that he started driving for Uber and Lyft “on the side” for a lot of the same reasons that attract other gig-economy workers. “I think about a year or so into that, it was a natural transition to also start a YouTube channel,” he says.
Having tried a lot of different gig jobs himself, Campbell realized that while being an Uber driver “isn’t rocket science,” it’s tougher than it looks. Thus, he started to create how-to content around the gig economy. “The tone of the business is really that anyone who wants to get into the gig economy — I’m not necessarily making a judgment whether you should do it or not — but if you’re going to do it, I’m going to help you do it better,” Campbell tells me.
The content published by Campbell and his team spans everything from training tutorials, to filing taxes as a gig-economy worker, to a $99 course to help maximize your rideshare profits. They’re undeniably helpful to gig-economy workers at every level. “More than anything, we’re there as a normalized co-worker resource,” says Campbell. With “normal jobs,” Campbell says, “you go into the office or you go into the restaurant and if you have questions, comments or concerns, you can ask your co-worker, right?” But with Uber and Lyft, there is no office for the independently contracted drivers. And so, Campbell tells me, “basically we’ve got credibility — we’re trying to lend that to drivers when they have questions or issues.”
Part of why he thinks they’ve been so successful — Campbell has said on the Mixergy podcast that his media company is worth somewhere between $3 million and $5 million — is because “Uber and Lyft are pretty terrible at customer support.” “And so we’ve tried to focus on the areas that Uber and Lyft do poorly,” he says. For example, one area where Campbell has focused his attention is on helping drivers who have been deactivated by Uber. He tells me that one of their advertisers is a lawyer who “will send a deactivation letter basically to Uber on your behalf,” says Campbell. “Basically, it’s like you have a lawyer semi-working on your behalf.” In that regard, Campbell’s blog, as he tells me, isn’t just a source of information but a “community” for gig-economy workers.
It’s also only part of his success. Because like other influencers in the gig-economy space, Campbell is closely affiliated with the rideshare companies he’s ostensibly helping drivers to game, and his revenue streams are built on cultivating a close connection with the companies that he’s reporting on.
Case in point: Apart from sponsored ads by any one of his affiliates, some of Campbell’s revenue comes directly from the driver referral program — a kickback from the various rideshare companies for every person they refer. “Not a ton of Uber and Lyft rides happening, [because of COVID] but a lot of Postmates, DoorDash, Instacart,” Campbell said on the same episode of Mixergy. “So we’re referring thousands of new drivers for those services right now.” In fact, in the last four months alone, Campbell noted on Mixergy that through an affiliate network, they’ve signed up 2,500 people with DoorDash, 3,200 people with Instacart and 600 people with UberEats. “Not everyone activates, but a lot; those are all the signups, so, pretty big numbers.”
There’s nothing wrong with Campbell profiting off every referral to a rideshare company, of course. But as he mentioned earlier, his blog has “credibility.” And with videos like “Instacart Earnings 2020: $2000 in One Week!,” Campbell often uses this credibility with drivers to emphasize an unrealistic potential of the gig economy. For comparison, the average Instacart shopper making $14.54 per hour (including tips) would have to drive a little over 137 hours a week to achieve the same goal. That’s a week of nearly 20-hour days of grocery deliveries.
Veena Dubal, a law professor who specializes on the intersection of law, technology and precarious work, tells me she’s gleaned from conversations with one of Campbell’s former bloggers that there was “a shift over the years where [the blogger] felt like Harry, once he realized it was more profitable to sort of support the [rideshare] company’s position, ended up doing that.”
Which makes sense: Campbell’s business model only works if the content of his blog and YouTube channel convinces enough people to sign up. But in exchange for painting a bountiful picture of what it’s like to work in the gig economy, Campbell’s blog is inherently drawn toward propagating an image that isn’t true for most drivers. “The fact that it’s hard to know how to earn a living on this platform, the fact that there isn’t a wage floor, the fact that you can lose money working, is what has enabled these sort of rideshare entrepreneurs to become influencers,” says Dubal.
When I raise these criticisms with Campbell, he attests that in their annual survey — which he says is amongst their most popular posts — “we talk exclusively in averages and it’s not about potential [earnings].” Promoting best-case scenarios at other times is, in Campbell’s view, less of an intentional play as it is a byproduct of “variability in the gig economy at large.” From a content standpoint, Campbell tells me that the inclusion of videos often promoting unrealistic earnings is his way of “featuring stories of drivers that are doing things that the average driver isn’t even thinking about.”
“We’re just trying to provide information based off of collated experiences,” he continues. “We try to balance the earnings potential with very real experiences that the best drivers do make more money than the worst drivers.” In addition, he argues, “There’s no downside to trying these services. I’m not telling people to invest in anything.”
Campbell also sees his partnership with the rideshare companies as no different than other affiliated content sites. He compares his media company to that of Wirecutter, a product review website that was purchased by The New York Times Company for over $30 million in 2016. “This is a pretty big vertical these days,” says Campbell, referring to affiliate content. “They’re reviewing products in which they have a financial vested interest, but they know that their audience wouldn’t trust their reviews if they were just reviewing the shittiest products, right?” Campbell believes that there are examples of people who do “affiliate content poorly,” and examples of people who do it well. “I think I fall into the latter camp, but I’m sure it’s up for debate.”
The difference, says Dubal, is that verticals like Wirecutter aren’t actively “gaslighting workers” already working in a shaky industry. She’s interviewed drivers who are flummoxed by the reality that they just cannot earn what the influencers tell them they can. “They internalize this as a personal failure, instead of understanding it as a feature of the system,” she says. That these influencers wouldn’t have a reason to exist if the workers had time-based wages, or if they had all of the benefits of employment, demonstrates where their allegiance lies. “Their complete existence relies on the fact that this is precarious work,” says Dubal.
Further, Dubal tells me that this sort of content further undermines organization efforts by gig-economy workers. “It points to a different path forward,” she says. “And so, rather than building labor power and making demands of the companies, workers who are influenced by the gig-economy content machine are told that they can make it work by gaming the system.”
For those reasons, Dubal sees the relationship between gig-economy influencers and the rideshare companies as just another example of the myriad ways rideshare companies “flex their structural power, using financial incentives to create alliances with bloggers who have a wide reach and who are trusted by workers and who have a name amongst workers to spread their message,” she says. “It’s like they become propaganda machines.”
Most recently, this “propaganda machine” went to work to try to promote Proposition 22 — a ballot measure that would effectively override a California law passed last year that requires companies like Uber, Lyft, Instacart and DoorDash that hire independent contractors to reclassify them as employees.
If Prop 22 passes, the rideshare companies would once again be exempt from having to provide basic employment benefits to its workers, like health insurance, overtime pay, reimbursement for work expenses, paid time off and unemployment benefits, should gig-economy workers find themselves out of work.
Last year, California passed AB 5, a bill that would have reclassified app drivers as employees, which would have forced the rideshare companies to guarantee all the benefits that come with that status. But Uber and Lyft refused to comply with the new law, and instead, the rideshare companies, including DoorDash and Postmates, have poured $170 million into campaigning for Proposition 22, bringing the total contributions for the measure (including just under $10 million devoted to its defeat) to $192 million. This makes it the most expensive ballot initiative in California history, according to nonprofit site Ballotpedia.
But amidst the above-ground fight to deny gig-economy workers basic employment benefits, there’s the far more sanguine campaign undertaken by their affiliated influencers (especially when considering that Campbell himself plainly admits that he doesn’t “really drive much anymore”). This campaign began in 2019, when Campbell wrote an op-ed in the New York Times advocating against AB 5, and it continues when he publishes videos in favor of Prop 22. Thanks to his standing with drivers, this message carries more weight, and more perceived honesty than the ads paid for by the rideshare companies themselves — some of which appear before Campbell’s videos advocating in favor of passing the proposition. And though Campbell is far from the only gig-economy influencer doing so, he is the most influential.
Another such influencer is Dylan Himmerich, CEO of The Rideshare Hub, whose channel has over 44,000 subscribers. Himmerich, like Campbell, offers his audience a library of content focused around how to game the Uber algorithms. He also has his own “Vote Yes on Prop 22” video. Most telling is that, before diving into a laundry list of reasons why gig-economy workers should vote in favor of the proposition that would deny them employment benefits, Himmerich actually plugs a third-party app that offers drivers a fraction of those benefits for $7 a month.
Campbell defends his videos in support of the proposition by explaining that his position is based on “sponsored surveys and third-party surveys” that he’s seen which suggest that “almost always 60 to 70 percent [of gig-economy workers] want to be independent contractors.” “You can dig down into that and say, ‘Okay, well, the 10 to 20 percent of drivers that are full-time, doing 30 to 40 hours a week or more, actually make up a majority of the total trips,’” he says. Which in his opinion is a legitimate argument, but he also feels like it’s been turned into a political debate, while he’s “more focused on their reality” and trying to help the largest number of people.
But the reality, according to a study commissioned by the City of San Francisco and released in May, is that 71 percent of the city’s gig drivers work at least 30 hours per week. “It’s these drivers who give the majority of the rides,” writes a software engineer at Uber, who’s voting against Prop 22, for TechCrunch. “California legally requires employers to provide benefits to all workers working at least 30 hours per week, so 71 percent of daily drivers are currently denied benefits required by the state.”
If the proposition passes — and a recent poll suggests that it’s likely to — Dubal thinks that we “may see a growth in creators who try to monetize content.” This is because the proposition would legalize precarity, and gig workers — especially new ones — will again be relegated to searching for ways to game the system to optimize their earnings. “But gaming the system is impossible because the companies have the power to restructure the system,” says Dubal. “Drivers tell me that once they think they’ve figured out something that works for them, the companies change their algorithms, effectively undermining their strategies to earn.”
But new algorithms also means more videos and more blogs, which means more opportunities to monetize around the new rideshare system. Granting gig-economy workers basic employment benefits takes away the need for workers to subscribe to a means of earning a living dependent on a cheat sheet — so you can see why the influencers are in favor of keeping the system intact.