Article begins

Ride-hailing and food delivery drivers take to the streets of New Delhi and Mumbai on scooters and in cars sporting company logos, working long hours to dispatch meals and ferry passengers across the city. How do drivers cope with the pace and uncertainty of this platform economy, their jobs precarious, their work allotted by algorithmic black box?

These on-demand workers gossip, exchanging information and rumor, their experiences in the platform economy influenced by the things they hear. Drivers preface their answers to our questions with “Maine suna hai…” (I’ve heard that…). They have heard that there might be a new platform or heard something about how orders or rides are allocated or heard about how their payments are calculated. Although such hearsay is fleeting, what workers hear from one another, from the news, and from riders or customers shapes their decisions, work trajectories, and plans for the future. Workers’ building of hypotheses and nontechnical knowledge to navigate uncertainty in the everyday is similar to the algorithmic gossip Sophie Bishop finds social influencers engaging in. Influencers use gossip to gain visibility and ensure the financial viability of their work. The on-demand workers we met used hearsay or gossip to locate biographical trajectories within platform companies’ diverse activities. Their talk informs how they navigate platform work. They reflected on their own careers, the careers of founders, on platforms advertising on YouTube using film stars, using workers’ uniforms. They also shared techniques of pushing back against rude customers and engaging with women customers and questioned companies’ promises of nurturing enterprise.

In the audioscape, we make snatches of hearsay and gossip from gig work platforms “in the field” speak to memes on social media. We float across platforms with this talk and anchor our experiment with sirens, traffic sounds, and memes about two Sonus—one a delivery worker and another who appeared in a song. In 2020, a video of a smiling Zomato worker went viral. In the video, Sonu the delivery driver wears a helmet and sits on his bike, answering questions about his meager income and long work hours with a wide smile. Sonu became the “happy rider” meme in static pictures and videos across social platforms. In 2017, another Sonu, brought to the fore from the local music industry in the state of Maharashtra, was asked by his lover if he trusted her. The catchy music was accompanied by an accusatory, yet playful, question commonly asked by lovers, “Sonu, tula mazhyavar bharosa nahi ka?” (Don’t you trust me, Sonu?). This song and the question then became a meme. Most famously, a radio host asked a municipal corporation tough questions in the memetic format of the song. The happy rider meme might have gone viral because of Sonu’s charm, the oddness of the persistence of his smile—Why was he smiling if he was earning so little? But can asking Sonu if he trusts you, bringing him into a witness box, splinter the image of him as a happy rider? By bringing together the two Sonus, we experiment with audio to capture and stitch together the aural aspects of ride-hailing and food delivery platform work and workers’ trials, reflections, and promises floating in the everyday. We show how a range of workers talk about work but also of satisfaction, excitement, shame, awkwardness, compulsion, fatigue, and the future.

Sound editing credit: Gaurav Kapadia

English Transcript

[Traffic sounds]

[Sound of radio static followed by music playing] Sonu, don’t you trust me?

0:18.00 – 0:37.00 [Image description: Closely cropped photograph of a man smiling widely. He is wearing a motorcycle helmet (visor and sides partly visible) and a red jacket or vest.]

[Sonu “happy rider” meme audio]
So how much do you earn from Zomato?
350 per day?
Inclusive of the incentive…
And how many hours do you work?
12 hours
You earn Rs 350 after working for 12 hours, that’s it?
You seem to be very happy with Zomato, it seems?
Yes, I have no problems.

I had to join this job because
you know how things are going on in the market…it’s not very good.

I have been working in this company for almost four to four-and-a-half years now.
All the people who joined with me, of those 95 percent have left already.

My paternal grandfather used to drive a taxi, he used to drive a tram…
my maternal grandfather used to drive a taxi too.

Some lady customers that I have had can’t even walk straight.
Because it’s late at night I have had to drop them off up to the gates of their residence.
I have left after that.
But if they misbehave or talk rudely,
then I tell them straight that I will not do “waiting.”

And now women are starting to join Zomato as riders.
I mean, we all see ladies.
And people trust ladies too, I have seen it, they feel comfortable.

When people want to earn money, they get addicted to it…

I found out about this company later, before this there was Runnr, Roadrunner…
It wasn’t like there was more work back then, there was less work but salary was higher.
But after some time, the company stopped giving us salary after three months.
After that we worked on a contract basis.
If you complete so-and-so number of orders, you will get paid this much.
While Zomato was there in this field, Tiny Owl used to do its own deliveries.
Two employees from Tiny Owl were from Flipkart, who left to start Runnr.

They used to give us 2000 rupees, it was called Boot Cash.
If we have to collect a [cash-on-delivery] order from a restaurant we can pay them,
deliver the order to the customer, and collect cash from them.
And we used to get a smartphone and a billing SIM card…
We also have to make our profits; we need to answer to the investors as well.

Have you left the entrepreneur worthy of enterprise? You’ve made them a slave.

The T-shirts we wear become advertising for the company.
And nowadays celebrities are going on, Ranveer Singh and Gully Boy. It’s been going on YouTube.

I work nearly 12, 13, 14 hours and then take a 20- to 30-minute break.

We’re human beings, madam, we’re not machines; we also have a limit to which we can push ourselves.

The biggest fear was shame: What if I ran into a friend? What would they say?
“You used to work elsewhere? Why did you start doing this work?”

It’s what we call critical.
What do you think? What would things look like in the future?
It’s all up to God now, we’re doing this as long as we can…
till when it lasts, how it lasts.
When our resolve breaks, we’ll see then…
but 40 to 50 percent have already lost hope.
They’re at the verge of a breakdown, in fact they’re already beyond it.

Now recently, two months back, there has been a development in the app enabling emergency calls
to the police, ambulance, cops, or whatever else.
High order areas like Infiniti Mall see 100 to 150 riders gathered.
So the police disperse them.
Sometimes they resort to a lathi-charge.

Many people think that you are their personal driver.
So they don’t even use your names, “Oh driver, where are you?”
or “Driver, where are you?”
So we too feel awkward, we too hope for some respect.
Fine you don’t have to really respect but at least address us by our names.

I handle such situations na.
When they speak disrespectfully, I still speak courteously:
“Yes sir, ok sir,” “Sorry sir,” “I am coming to your place sir.”

[Zomato food delivery order siren]

[Folk song Sonu]
Sonu, you better speak to me sweetly.
Aye Sonu, don’t you trust me?
No, no, no, most certainly not!

Hinglish and Marathi Transcript

[traffic ki awaazein]

[radio ki avaaz] sonu, tula mazhyavar bharosa nai ka? sonu tu mazhyashi god bol

[Sonu happy rider meme ki avaaz]
Toh bhaiyya aap Zomato mein kitne paise kama lete ho?
350, daily ka?
Incentive laga ke!
Incentive laga ke!
Aur kitne ghante kaam karte ho?
12 hours
12 ghante kaam karne ke baad sirf Rs 350 kamate ho? Bas?
Kaafi khush ho lagta hai Zomato se?
Haan, koi dikkat nahi hoti..

Toh mujhe ye job join karne ki zaroorat isliye padi kyonki..
Abhi thoda..aap jaante ho market mein kitne problems hai…itna achcha chal nahi raha hai

main almost ye company mein 4-4.5 saal se kaam kar raha hoon,
mere saath jitne bhi jooney the, 95% sab chhod chuke..

..yani mere par dada taxi driver, car chalate the,
Humare nana bhi taxi chalate the..

–ek-do ladies aisi mili hai ki raat ka time agar lad-khada gaye toh
Raat ka time hain..unko gate par chhod dete hai…
Aur wohi agar badtameezi se baat ki hui hai..
Toh hum seedha bol dete hain ki hum waiting nahi karenge

..abhi toh zomato mein bhi ladies start ho rahe hai..
dikh rahe hai ladies..
aur woh log na trust bhi rakhte hai ladies pe..maine dekha hai ki mast feel karte hai..

…apne ko paise kamaaney hai toh apne ko lat hoti hai..

Phir baadmein mujhe company ke baare mein pata chala, woh time pe runner company thi, roadrunner..
aise nahi hai ki woh time pe kaam zyaada tha, kaam kum tha lekin salary zyaada thi.
Lekin thode time ke baad, company ne 3 mahine ke baad salary band kardi.
Uske baad contract basis pe kardi..
aap itney, itney order complete karte ho toh aapko itna paise milega..

..aur iss field mein zomato to thi lekin own delivery karane wali tiny owl thi,
usmein se 2 employee flipkart ke the, unhonein kaam chhodke road runner banayi…

Hunko Rs 2000 diya jaata tha, boot cash kaha jaata tha
usko ke agar restaurant se order karna ho toh paisa do,
unse lo, jaake customer ko do, customer se cash collect kar lo.
aur humko smart phone diya jaata tha, billing sim card diya jaata tha..
humko apna profit bhi nikalna hai, aage investor ko jawab bhi dena hai

..entrepreneur layak chhoda hai kya? tumne usko ghulaam banaa diya hai..

..humlog jo t-shirt waghera pehente hai wohi unki advertising ho jaati hai..
aur abhi unki advertising bhi chalu ho gayi hai..Ranveer Singh ka, Gully Boy pe chal rahi hai..

…12, 13, 14 ghante ho jaati hai, break issmein main deta hoon 20 minute se aadha ghanta..

..hum aadmi hai madam, insaan hai, machine nahi hai, humari bhi mehnat ki ek limit hoti hai..

..sabse bada darr tha sharam, mera koi friend hi mil gaya toh kya bolega?
“tu je kaam hai? yahaan pe kaise join ho gayi?”

Critical jisko bolte hai na, waisa
..apko kya lagta hai? aage ka kya scene hai?
ram bharose hai, jab tak chal raha hai..
kahaan tak chalega, kaise chalta hai..
jab himmat toot jayegi tab dekha jaega…l
Lekin sau mein se 40-80% tak toh marr chuke hai,
matlab tootne ke kagaar par hai, kagaar kya..

..abhi recently 2 mahina hua hai ki app ke naya development aya ki aap emergency number pe call kar saket ho
..police, ambulance ho gaya, cop ho gaya, jo bhi hai..
..jahaan zyaada order aate hai, infinity pe 100-150 rider khade hote hai
toh police sab ko bhagaate hai,
kabhi kabar woh log lathi charge bhi kar dete hai..

Bohot logon ko aisa lagta hai ki aap unke personal driver ho
Toh woh naam se bhi nahi bulate hain, “oh driver, aap kahan pe ho?”
Ya phir “driver bhai sahab, kahan pe ho?”
Toh humko bhi awkward feel hota hai, hum bhi thoda respect ki umeed karte hai
Theek hai, aap humko ekdum respect mat do lekin naam se toh bulao

Main woh handle kar leta hoon na
Woh log ‘tere-mere’ se baat karenge, toh main ekdum pyaar se baat karta hoon
“Haan sir, ok sir” “sorry sir” “main aata hoon aapke place pe sir”

[zomato food delivery order aane ke siren ki avaaz]

[Folk song sonu meme]
Sonu, tu mazhya sang god bol
Sonu, tula mazhyavar bharosa nahi ka?
Nahi, nahi, nahi, ajeebat nahi!


Anushree Gupta

Anushree Gupta is a PhD scholar at the Department of Liberal Arts, Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad.

Sarah Zia

Sarah Zia is an independent researcher and journalist based in New Delhi.

Simiran Lalvani

Simiran Lalvani is a PhD student at the University of Oxford.

Cite as

Gupta, Anushree, Sarah Zia, and Simiran Lalvani. 2022. “Audioscapes of the Platform Economy.” Anthropology News website, July 6, 2022.