#Hashtag Activism Comes to Cambridge

#Hashtag Activism Comes to Cambridge

Uber rallies support via social media and Cambridge, surprisingly, responds

If, a number of years ago, you told people that social change might be accomplished by typing the pound sign and a few characters, you'd have been thought to have taken leave of your senses. If, even a year ago, you said that hashtag activism would come to Cambridge municipal government, you'd have been laughed at. It's not that hashtag activism hasn't had an impact on the world, it's that Cambridge government would have been thought insensate, not even noticing that it was a target of an online campaign.

This blindness to technological modernism was in evidence two years ago when Cambridge made Uber, a service that pairs riders with drivers, a target. Treating it as it would a rogue operator of unlicensed taxis, Cambridge used a sting operation to demonstrate what Uber proudly advertises: you can summon a car with a smartphone app and it will take you where you want to go. That led to a spate of bad publicity for Cambridge, intervention by the Governor's office, a lawsuit, City Council hearings, all leaving the impression of a regulatory regime more interested in preserving the taxi industry than facilitating new business models. When Uber CEO Travis Karalnik tweeted that "Cambridge, MA [was] home to Harvard, MIT and some of the most anti-competitive, corrupt transportation laws in the country," Cambridge didn't bother to respond. Meanwhile, Uber has grown into a company with a valuation of $18 billion and a reputation as a political brawler.

On Monday, Uber noted on its blog that the Cambridge Licensing Commission would be considering a draft policy that, according to Uber, would effectively end the service by setting a minimum cost per ride of $50 and restricting on-demand rides to officially licensed taxis. In its blog post, Uber included buttons to tweet with the hashtag #cambridgeneedsuber, make Facebook posts, send email to the Licensing Commission. In a piece of sly trolling, it linked City Manager Richard Rossi not with a means to send him email but, instead, to a boston.com story about his salary. And, to fan the flames of populism, Uber pointed out that this draft policy was made without consulting Cambridge residents. With that, an experiment in municipal hashtag activism began.

Many tweeters simply used the Uber supplied tweet button.

Others tried different approaches. There was a demand that Cambridge Mayor David Maher intervene, something that, under Cambridge's strong City Manager form of government he has no power to do.

Others told City Councilors that they should vote against these regulations which, again, they have no power to do.

One told City Councilor and Lieutenant Governor candidate Leland Cheung that they'd not vote for him in the Democratic primary unless he opposed these regulation.

Cheung, a former venture capitalist, is as reliable an advocate that Uber has had, calling City Council committee meetings to discuss technology innovation and the taxi industry, which, short of rewriting City ordinances, is all a Councilor can do.

By afternoon, the Cambridge License Commission, through a Twitter account few knew existed, announced that they had met with Uber and clarified that the evening's hearing would be for discussion and that no votes would be taken.

Mayor David Maher and a number of City Councilors issued statements supportive of regulation that would allow services like Uber to exist, as did City Manager Rich Rossi. By late in the day, the official Cambridge Twitter account was replying, one by one, to many of the tweets.

When time came for the License Commission meeting, the crowd overflowed to the hallways and stairs of the Lombardi Building.

In all, Uber's hashtag activism produced 1298 tweets from 748 individual Twitter usernames, an infinitesimal amount compared to recent national campaigns. However, Cambridge is a city where even important public meetings draw small numbers, and a City Councilor can get elected with just over a thousand votes. A one day campaign that engaged close to 750 people is a small earthquake when it comes to Cambridge politics.

Mainstream media, last seen covering Cambridge when former Mayor Henrietta Davis proposed banning large sugary drinks, were in attendance at Tuesday's License Commission meeting, as were at least two City Councilors. While there were taxi cab drivers who fear that services like Uber will drive them out of business in attendance, the majority of the crowd were Uber supporters. One woman, who said that Uber was the only way she felt safe traveling around the City because it leaves a record of where she went, said this was her first involvement in any civic process. This was just the start, she said. Now that she'd experienced this, she was ready to try and make a difference on two other issues about which she is passionate: corruption of international soccer and drones.

Update: Friend of NeighborMedia and MIT Center for Civic Media researcher Denise Cheng, whose research centers on peer economies, has written an excellent summary of the hearing for the Civic Media blog. You can read it here: http://civic.mit.edu/blog/hidenise/peer-economy-recap-transportation-lic....

[Updated June 19, 2014 to clarify attributions to the Uber blog.]

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