We’re getting quite used to our algorithmic overlords. We’ve ceded, for the most part, that complex and invisible rulesets determine who will see our missives, travel pics, and RT dunks. More substantially, millions of workers now toil, essentially, for algorithms, whether via Uber, Lyft, Postmates, or the like. And the DoorDash tipping fiasco that unfolded this week highlights how increasingly dangerous this is—both in terms of the worker exploitation that nebulous algorithmic employment allowed for in the first place, and in the fractious and sometimes surprising nature of the fallout.
When DoorDash, which, with 400,000 contract workers is the largest on-demand food delivery service in the nation, faced fresh criticism over its deceptive tipping policies—the app used tips from consumers to pay out the minimum delivery fee it promised its gig workers, called ‘Dashers’, instead of letting them keep the whole tip themselves, essentially putting the tip directly in DoorDash’s coffers—it finally capitulated. After six months of refusing to do so, CEO Tony Xu announced on Twitter he’d be changing the policy.
On forums for Dashers online, like the lively and well-trafficked one on Reddit, the response was divided at best. Some users argued having a minimum guaranteed fee was advantageous and worried they’d wind up making less if the company removed it. Arguments, speculation, finger-pointing, and white-hot rage-posting ensued.
“Bravo, idiots who upset customers by lying [to] them about DD taking tips away,” one wrote in a fairly typical post. “The base rate has been 1 dollar for some time now...should have enjoyed the guarantee while we had it.” Another one: “To all the complainers. Thanks... because y’all bitched and don’t know how to play the game right these $10 offers where the customer tips 0 (or 1 or 2 bucks) will now be $5.”
It’s remarkable how many posts and comments blame other drivers for complaining and presumably ruining their pay rates—DoorDash hasn’t yet changed anything—instead of a $7 billion company and its millionaire founder whose willfully deceptive policies sowed the confusion and outrage in the first place. “All you dumb fucks just ruined my livelihood by bitching about having 2-4 bucks on top of your guarentee,” went another comment. One notion I never stumbled across: that DoorDash may both establish a minimum guarantee and let deliverers keep the tips, but I digress.
There were so many such posts that eventually a Drake meme was voted up to close to the top of the page, mocking those who, rather than blame DoorDash CEO Tony Xu, chose to “blame every other driver on reddit who doesn’t have the same opinion as me.”
But infighting on internet forums is what’s prone to happen when your manager is an algorithm—there’s no sense in arguing with a set of instructions encoded in software, after all. It may be uncharitable, but if you felt like you, personally, had finally mastered the rules, lashing out at those who spoiled the game at least makes a certain kind of sense. The only means a lot of gig workers have to register grievances are ineffectual customer support email addresses—which often connect them to equally poorly paid representatives around the world—and each other.
The company, after all, typically only gets in touch via the app, and only with automated boilerplate. “In lieu of clear and direct communications from companies, many gig workers turn to online forums and groups, looking for others who might have more information and banding together to trade documents and tips to ensure they are receiving what they have been promised,” Johana Bhuiyan wrote for the LA Times. “The asymmetry in information, fragmented nature of the workforce and fear of retaliation make it possible for companies like DoorDash and Amazon to implement questionable labor practices like these, often without significant pushback.”
Now, there are a lot of workers, from Uber drivers to Dashers, who are organizing for change. Groups like Gig Workers Rising are gaining steam. But the blowback on Dasher forums highlights the steepness of their challenge: By imparting the rules and expectations of the job onto a faceless algorithm—rules that govern pickup rates, bonus terms, and payscale, and rules that are always wildly in flux—on-demand app companies have fundamentally altered how workers perceive and engage with the authorities that manage them.
They’ve steered the focus onto the nature and fairness of the algorithm—which workers must spend their own time and resources dissecting and strategizing against—as opposed to the nature and fairness of the bosses who wrote it and deployed it. The phenomenon jibes with the other vagaries of digital algorithms we’ve accepted as a fact of modern life lived from platform to platform—all of whose expansiveness can make them feel daunting if not impossible to change.
This state of rampant uncertainty and inscrutability is precisely how DoorDash—and nearly every other app-based company that uses an algorithm to connect independent contracts to low-paid gig work—prefers it. On-demand app workers have more or less been made to surrender any expectations of transparency or reliability to the opaque, proprietary algorithms that define how much they work they get and how much they ultimately earn. (Talk to any Uber driver long enough—even generally satisfied ones—and you’ll hear gripes about shifting bonus goalposts or mysterious pickup logic.)
Scan further back through those DoorDash forum threads and you’ll find post after post discussing quirks of the system, strategies for maximizing bonuses in spite of the opacity, and endless speculation on how the algorithm that decides who goes where and gets paid what actually works—if, that is, there really is an algorithm, they jest:
“I’ve done it for 9 months and am rapidly approaching 2,000 deliveries, and I am unable to provide logic for the algorithm, pay scales, the hotspot nonsense, or anything else really!” one user wrote.
“Sometimes I get offered like 9 bucks for 6 miles and other times I’m offered like 8 bucks for 20 miles (like who would ever take that.) Is there a real algorithm?” wrote another. “For the record I have 103 deliveries I know how this works I’ve done this for a couple months I just don’t understand this stuff. It boggles my mind.”
Most commonly, workers wonder why they’re not getting more orders, why the app sends them to far-flung locations, and why the pay rates shift so dramatically. This is not unique to DoorDash—ride-hailing app workers for Uber, Lyft, and so on have similar socially mediated debates about how to take on the algorithm that underpins their livelihoods.
This lack of comprehension, which, again, is by design—on-demand app companies could certainly be more open with their employees if they wanted to; they could share how they assign pickups, how they determine payscale on a certain day, and so forth, but they don’t—and allows those who code the algorithms to do so relentlessly in their favor. Sometimes, that’s going to mean exploitation.
“What worries me is that DoorDash’s pay injustice was only a small, emblematic horror, and that technology is creating a vast digital underclass here in the United States and across the planet who will toil permanently without decent protections,” writes the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo. Not only is no one offering protections for these precarious workers, but the companies have also trapped them in a series of automated and algorithmically driven systems. “What worries me is that these laborers are invisible ‘ghost workers’ hidden behind screens and apps and algorithms and digital tip jars,” Manjoo continues, “working for unpredictable, A.I.-dictated, sub-minimum wage, beckoned into furious action when you press this or that button on your $1,000 aluminum-and-glass happy machine.”
What worries me is that we’re getting sucked into these systems—systems that are very good at making us forget they were built by humans and encoded with human rules, and that those rules are expressly written to profit a small handful of people, probably men, in Silicon Valley—and that they are turning us against each other, for lack of more accessible targets.
“I just want DD to be transparent and upfront about how much we’re getting,” one user wrote. “I hate this not knowing the full amount crap. Just show us everything including tip off the bat.”