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Uber & Food Trucks: How the Internet Stokes the Flame of Once Little-Known Causes

Internet users hope a grassroots campaign will give Uber a foothold in Houston.
Internet users hope a grassroots campaign will give Uber a foothold in Houston.

When Howard Dean was a Democratic candidate for president, he did something no other national candidate had ever done -- no, not the scream in Iowa -- he raised a significant portion of his campaign funds using the Internet. That might not sound like a big deal today, but at the time it was revolutionary, and it substantively changed how candidates, big and small, raise money for campaigns and causes.

Now anyone with a cause or a business offer can raise money online. And if you are able to tap into a small niche group and its desires, you can likely bring in quite a bit of cash. Social media, in particular, has become a rallying point for problems most of us didn't even know existed...and often didn't care about.

Last year, Houston city council chambers were packed with young mostly urban dwellers. Having raised awareness for their cause using social media, they rounded up followers on a Tuesday morning and, one after another, strode to the podium and passionately made their case. You might think the cause was violent crime plaguing neighborhoods or broken streets badly in need of repair, but you'd be wrong. In this case, it was food trucks, and not complaints over their health and safety, but rather the demand they be allowed to operate downtown -- an ordinance had long prevented it.

Before this "problem" was publicized through social media, very few people even realized it was an issue. In fact, despite the extreme rise in popularity of food trucks over the past few years for those who live in or near the city, it is barely a blip on the radar for the vast majority of Houstonians.

Yet food trucks are another example of a niche cause turning into a political debate thanks to the web.

Take the latest cause du jour for Houston: Uber. The app-based car service that is trying to revolutionize the world of taxis has come to Houston, but is prevented from accepting fares because the city has regulations that limit these services to licensed taxi and limo drivers. Because Uber's drivers are not licensed and not even technically employees of the service, they don't pass muster.

But that hasn't stopped a very vocal minority of app-happy technophiles from demanding services like Uber and Lyft be given access to the city's desperate riders. With cab service often terribly unreliable, particularly at peak times, it makes sense that other options be made available, but is it worthy of furious debate? The Mayor's office, in response to the companies seeking business here and numerous requests from supporters, is reviewing the issue this week.

Even Rockets GM Daryl Morey gave the thumbs up to Uber in a recent tweet and a link to a petition supporting the car services:

But much like the food truck dilemma, this is an issue that affects only a small percentage of people.

Ten years ago, before the rise of the gourmet food truck, no one was lining up in defense of the taco trucks that sat along roadways in some of our city's lower-income neighborhoods even if young chefs were discovering cuisine there that would later help to redefine our city's dining landscape. It only became an issue when it threatened a new trend and when there was a way to do grassroots politics differently.

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"Grassroots" is a term that first came into usage in the United States in the early part of the 20th century as a means of explaining that political candidates were going back to the root of a problem, starting from scratch. It no doubt had broad appeal with the large percentage of the country that lived and worked outside the cities.

The Internet has been a boon to grassroots causes, aiding in everything from fundraising to petitions to event planning. No candidate or initiative goes without a website, a social media presence and an e-mail campaign.

But because the demographics of the Internet are still skewed largely toward affluent, college-educated people under 50 who live in urban areas, it can lead to the popularization of ideas not widely considered until now and rarely of great concern to those who don't fit that demographic. That can deliver interesting and sometimes unintended results. On one hand, it might shine a light on oppression and even hasten the fall of a political regime as it did in Syria. On the other, it allows the spread of anti-government paranoia from 911 Truthers, which can further confuse an already confused and frustrated electorate. In essence, the web can be an unexpected hero or an asylum for the Boogie Man.

In the case of Uber or food trucks in Houston, there are questions of business regulations, safety and the like that must be answered. But more important, we as a city have to ask if these causes deserve the precious time required for our city officials to debate them. That isn't for me to decide. But when people online overwhelmingly supported saving the Astrodome yet the ballot initiative was soundly rejected, it gave me pause.

After all, I love a good food truck, but there's a reason why chain restaurants are so successful. And I think Uber and Lyft are great ideas, but my guess is that the majority of people who call cabs will still call them instead. Maybe one day there will be a food truck on every block serving up authentic Thai street food and Uber will dominate the world of car services. But for now, people still seem to prefer Applebee's and Yellow Cab and I doubt tweets and Facebook messages will do much to change that.


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