Earlier this week, Uber was hit with yet another high-profile resignation, as president Jeff Jones stepped down only six months after being appointed to the role. The reasons behind his departure are still being debated, with one camp claiming he was angry at being overlooked in the search for Uber’s new chief operating officer, and others saying he left due to Uber’s continuing issues with sexism and sexual harassment. Either way, the shine is definitely off the apple for what was once the golden child of the new mobile-first economy.
Uber has been a controversial company since day one, beset with protests from taxi drivers who claimed it was destroying their way of life. However, as a disruptive startup, that was almost part of its mission statement – shake up the old established ways of doing things with exciting, risky new ideas.
The problems that have beleaguered the firm over the past 12 months have been of a different flavour. A supposedly toxic corporate culture. Accusations of stolen self-driving car tech from Google. Pressure on CEO Travis Kalanick to cut his ties with President Trump’s economy advisory council. These aren’t the problems of an innovative, dynamic young firm fighting for its place in the world. These are the kind of issues we associate with entrenched giants of industry.
The changing public face of Uber isn’t an isolated problem. As the technology firms that govern our lives grow and become more established, they look less like cutting-edge upstarts and more like every other business. Founders who were once iconoclastic young creators are now hyper-wealthy business leaders approaching middle age. And as brands lose that aura of cool, it becomes harder for them to shrug off criticism.
Google, a company who enshrined “Don’t be evil” into the core of its business, has spent the week apologising to businesses and being grilled by the UK government for inadvertently helping to fund extremists and hatemongers. Twitter has spent the last few years struggling to stem the tide of harassment and abuse that its platform has been host to. Facebook’s fake news problem is cited as a huge contributing factor in the growth of distrust in the traditional press and in helping the election of one of the most controversial US presidents in living memory.
Part of the swell of controversy and criticism the surrounds these tech giants is due to the changing way we live. Back in the late 90s and early 00s, when the internet wasn’t so centrally enshrined in the majority of people’s daily lives, something like AOL’s domination of the internet provider market barely raised an eyebrow. Today, we would be much more aware of the kind of power over the flow of information that gave them, and that same information would enable them to do much more.
Tech firms today have an ever-greater impact on every aspect of our lives. They govern how we communicate, how we work, how we shop, how we travel and even the relationships we have. With that level of power comes a greater scrutiny, and the growing awareness over how impacted we are by technology has led to consumers pushing back through methods like ad blocking and ‘digital detoxes’.
Some large tech firms have managed to avoid this backlash. Amazon exists largely as a retailer and enterprise software provider, so feels less intrusive to the average consumer. Apple’s focus on design and brand, combined with its position as a hardware manufacturer, has helped it mature while avoiding feeling omnipresent. And there are thousands of enterprise-focused or non-consumer facing firms that wield huge amounts of information, but do so out of the eyeline of the general public.
If large, consumer-facing tech brands want to mature, expand and truly establish themselves as the next generation of industry titans, they will not only need to invest in some brand building themselves, growing their portfolios beyond a single service, but they’ll need to pay attention to some basic brand safety lessons. Deliver on promises. Value employees. Protect customers. And above all, don’t be evil.