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Uber’s 5th birthday party was pure theater, and here’s our review

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An ensemble drama to make you feel good about ride-hailing

Travis Kalanick was choking up. On stage at Uber’s birthday party, looking out on an audience that included drivers, employees, the press, and his parents, Uber’s pugnacious CEO found himself overcome with emotion. "I realize I can come across as a somewhat fierce advocate for Uber," Kalanick would go on to say, as the crowd chuckled appreciatively. "I also realize some people have used a different ‘A’ word to describe me." More laughter. "I’ll be the first to admit I’m not perfect, and neither is this company. Like everyone else, we’ve made mistakes. But at Uber, we’re passionate about learning from them."

Five years into its run, Uber is a marvel. Available in 311 cities in 58 countries, it employs 3,000 people full time and has onboarded more than 1 million drivers. Uber has greatly expanded the market for taxi service, and has told investors its revenues will grow 400 percent this year, to $2 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal. The company is currently said to be raising between $1.5 billion and $2 billion in new capital, valuing it at $50 billion. That would make it the most valuable venture-backed company ever.

"Some people have used a different 'A' word to describe me."

And yet Uber makes some people enormously uncomfortable, thanks to a series of missteps last year that vaulted it into the upper ranks of corporate supervillainy. Most famously, it casually threatened one journalist with a smear campaign and creepily tracked another using its all-seeing "God View." But it also regularly misled drivers about the amount of pay they could expect to take home; armed street teams with burner phones and credit cards to recruit competitors’ drivers; and coldly pledged to replace those drivers with autonomous vehicles as soon as it became feasible.

Do enough things like that, and people start using a different "A" word to describe you.

But hey — this is a party! There are balloons! There is … bottled water! And somehow … not any cake? Like, at all? Anyway, Kalanick has a vision he would like to share with you. It involves reducing traffic in your city, cutting down on pollution, and creating good jobs for your neighbors. And what he wants more than any of those things, as judged by the sheer vehemence with which he defends Uber on what is (after all) his baby’s fifth birthday party, is for you to feel good about taking Uber. "It’s a future we will imagine together," Kalanick said, after describing a world in which we stop buying cars and take Uber everywhere. "And I know that each and every one of us can’t wait to get back to work and start helping the cities around the world building a better tomorrow."

Improving stagecraft at the expense of authenticity

The only rational response to #UberTurns5, as the event was hashtagged, is to review it as theater. The effect of hiring a former political operative to run your communications operation, as Uber did, is to improve your stagecraft at the expense of authenticity. #UberTurns5 was a roughly hour-long ensemble drama designed to make you feel good about ride-hailing — and to consider, with disgust, the trafficky, polluted, dependent-on-balky-public-transit world that would exist without it.

The play unfolded in the cafeteria of Uber’s headquarters, which had been transformed into a clubby event space filled with low ultra-lounge couches and mood lighting. Flat-screen TVs stationed around the perimeter alternated between showing Uber milestones and testimonials from drivers. Twin bunches of turquoise balloons flanked the podium, which was bathed in neon-blue mood lighting.

garrett camp

Garrett Camp

Garrett Camp, Kalanick’s rarely seen co-founder, took the stage first and offered us Uber’s meet-cute origin story. Would you believe it all started in Paris? It’s a story that has been revised more than once, but tonight the tale takes place at the Eiffel Tower, where Camp idly asks his friend, wouldn’t it be nice if you could tap a button and get a ride?

Camp is followed on stage first by Austin Geidt, a plucky former intern-turned-leader of global expansion for the company, and then by Ryan Graves, Uber’s director of operations, who famously got a job at Uber by tweeting at the CEO. Their role is to marvel at how far Uber has come in such a short time, and to describe the space in which they worked when the company was very small. (The space was very small, too.)

A meet cute in Paris

Graves introduces Theresa Ferguson, who has driven for the company since earlier this year. Ferguson’s monologue is the highlight of the play: a working mother who used to manage a restaurant for 55 hours a week while her husband served in the Army. "Back then I felt really, really guilty as a mom when I had to take time off work, or for doctor’s appointments," Ferguson said, crying a little as she talked about being away from her family so much. Uber lets her set her own schedule, she says, and this year she was able to volunteer at her son’s class for Valentine’s Day for the first time in five years. "It really, really means a lot," she said. Thanks to Uber, she’s about to take her first two-week vacation with her family.

It’s theater, sure. But I believed everything she said.

ferguson

Theresa Ferguson

For the finale, Kalanick takes the stage and outlines his vision. Political consultants have written a speech for him that makes him sound less like a CEO and more like he’s running for president. Like any good candidate, he repeats key words and phrases: There’s "the transportation system is broken," meant to convey an air of inevitability. And there’s "let us serve," Kalanick’s repeated plea to cities that haven’t yet legalized Uber, which gives him the air of a missionary.

Eventually, Kalanick makes his goal plain: to make Uber so inexpensive that it’s cheaper not just than owning a car, but even taking public transportation. Uber will go where transit won’t, he says, and will deliver riders to their destinations more safely and efficiently. Already, almost half of Uber rides in San Francisco are Uber Pool rides, which match riders going in the same direction into a single car, and deliver them anywhere in the city for $7. "This is our ultimate vision of the future," Kalanick says. "Smarter transportation with fewer cars and greater access."

The most valuable company of its generation still has a siege mentality

As agitprop, it’s all just fine, though you can’t help but wonder if Uber couldn’t have marshaled a slightly more celebratory air. The most valuable company of its generation still has a siege mentality, even despite its expensive (and effective!) new messaging portraying it as an unqualified public good. And Uber’s paranoia will do it good — no one wants to deliver a speech in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner too soon.

Ultimately, of course, Uber will be judged not on its theater but on whether Kalanick can deliver on his promises. In part, that will depend on whether riders feel good about taking his company’s cars. And little has happened in the past several months to shift opinion on that subject one way or another.

So that part we’ll have to leave for the sequel. Kalanick finished his speech and smiled. Stevie Wonder’s "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" blared over the speakers. The CEO left the stage to a standing ovation and hugged his parents.