It's called "JerkTech," the application of technology to, well, being a gigantic jerk to people. The term, seemingly only recently coined, leapt into American tech-savvy consumers' consciousness earlier this month with the launch of two unrelated start-ups in San Francisco. One was ReservationHop, a service that snatches up restaurant reservations under false names – without, obviously, informing or involving the restaurant owners – and then sells the reservations to diners looking for tables. The other was MonkeyParking, a mobile app that allows drivers parked in public spaces to accept bids from other drivers looking for a place to park. Both apps are based on the same predatory concept: Take something publicly available, reserve it for free, and then withhold it from others until they fork over their cash.
When City Attorney Dennis Herrera ordered MonkeyParking to halt operations in San Francisco, MonkeyParking's CEO, Paolo Dobrowolny, was defiant. "I have the right to tell people if I am about to leave a parking spot, and they have the right to pay me for such information," SFGate quotes him. At issue is was whether the iPhone app violates San Francisco's Police Code by illegally selling or leasing city streets or sidewalks, creating what Herrera described as a "predatory private market for public parking spaces." There are at least two other money-for-parking applications the city seeks to forbid.
"The company's value is wholly premised on having paying members block access to parking spots on public streets until another paying member can replace the seller in the same spot," writes John Cote. Jeff Siegel, however, disagrees. In defending the operation of MonkeyParking, he writes, "Yes, the city owns the property, but the driver searched out and occupied the spot – which, as the city states, is public property. Taxpayers have the right to use those spots. So why don't they have the right to relinquish those spots to others who need them more? … The way I see it, if you find it and secure it, you can leave your car there as long as you want. … I'd be happy to pay a couple of bucks to get a good spot. My time is worth that much."
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By July, however, MonkeyParking had changed its tune. The Bay City News Service quotes the company's blog post: "In light of the cease and desist letter that we received from the City of San Francisco, we are currently reviewing our service to clarify our value proposition and avoid any future misunderstandings. Street parking is currently not a first-come-first-served process, but still a random-served one. You can go in circles for hours while a lucky driver can find a spot in a minute, right in front of you. It is an old and painful problem, and we believe that drivers deserve a better solution." That "better solution" won't be found through the MonkeyParking app, at least not for a while, as the company has "temporarily disabled" the service in San Francisco.
CNET called Brian Mayer, the creator of ReservationHop, "the most hated person in San Francisco." Nick Statt's piece on the controversy over Mayer's JerkTech app, as well as SFGate's ongoing discussion of it, both highlight the concept of "disruptive" technology. "That buzzword and guiding philosophy of start-up culture," writes Nick Statt, "underpins the pledge to change the world by ousting industry incumbents through sheer will and the glory of efficiency." Snatching up restaurant reservations without compensating the restaurant owners, or blocking a parking space to prevent "lucky" drivers from parking in favor of paying motorists, isn't the act of a jerk, argue the JerkTech purveyors. They're simply "disrupting" an outdated tech-paradigm and substituting for it their more efficient paying model. And, hey, if you're a consumer who doesn't have the app or – unthinkably – doesn't have a smartphone, well, consider yourself "disrupted," too.
"Brian Mayer learned that the hard way earlier this month when his brand-new service, ReservationHop.com, instantly became a lightning rod for heated discussion over how far start-ups will venture to make a buck under the guise of problem-solving," writes Statt. "Mayer's service, born from an unpleasant wait for a popular food-truck burrito, was created to snatch up popular restaurants' prime-time reservations in San Francisco under fake names and sell them a few days in advance without the establishment's knowledge. If no one bought the reservation, Mayer would call up and cancel the reservation a few hours before. The service was live for a long weekend, from July 3 until July 8, before Mayer stopped taking orders."
Statt credits Josh Constine for christening ReservationHop and MonkeyParking "JerkTech." Constine pulled no punches in telling both start-ups to go disrupt themselves. "They're emblematic of a compassionless new wave of self-serving start-ups that exploit small businesses and public infrastructure to make a buck and aid the wealthy," whined Constine over the July Fourth weekend. Constine rightly points out that MonkeyParking's operation is "essentially co-opting city infrastructure and profiting by reserving it for people with smartphones," while ReservationHop operates at the expense, and through the exploitation of, the restaurants whose tables it reserves. "And if ReservationHop doesn't sell the spots it stole?" he goes on. "Tough luck for the restaurant, which just had a table go empty or wasted a half hour because the fake [name] that ReservationHop put as the name on the [reservation] never showed up."
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The owners of start-ups like MonkeyParking and ReservationHop argue that they are capitalist entrepreneurs, offering "disruptive" solutions to inefficient business models. They assert that in a free society, their apps should be available to a public willing to exchange money for improved efficiency. But capitalism is based on the exchange of value for value. When public infrastructure built and maintained at taxpayer expense is staked out for private profit, theft has occurred. When the owners of the property being sold or auctioned are not involved in or compensated for the use of their property, those responsible are stealing from all concerned. Using an app to steal doesn't make it OK. Thieving isn't capitalism, and it isn't the operation of a free market.
It's just, well, JerkTech.
Media wishing to interview Phil Elmore, please contact [email protected].