The newest big trend in tech startups is in turn fueling an emergent youth culture, as teenagers and young adults spend their free time collecting and charging electric scooters. Some compare it to a game—one that they’re getting paid pretty well for playing, but also comes with some real-world risks.
As reported by The Atlantic, the part-time gig is sometimes called ‘Bird hunting.’ That name comes from Bird, the most prominent company in a wave of new “dockless” scooter and bike rental startups, which use smartphone apps to both rent and track light vehicles.
The systems offer a potentially innovative solution to urban transportation, particularly what’s known as the “last mile” problem: how to get users of public transit from stations to their doorsteps. Because they can be dropped off anywhere, the rental vehicles can be more convenient for riders than personal scooters or bikes (though they can also, according to some city officials, create a “public nuisance”).
The apparent convenience of those systems, though, is created by a lot of behind-the-scenes work, much of it done by contractors, known as “chargers,” who collect and charge the scooters. Several young chargers described their work to The Atlantic as a fun side-hustle—one even compared it to playing Pokémon GO, since it involves using an app to find the GPS-tagged scooters. The “prizes” for finding scooters are also game-like, with chargers paid more for retrieving scooters that are harder to find. Young chargers report teaming up to do the work faster, starting what amount to small businesses with some socializing thrown in for good measure.
Rewards can range up to $20 for a single scooter, and chargers described making up to several hundred dollars per night. Those rewards are likely to decline, assuming that Bird and other startups are following the standard tech-industry model of sacrificing revenue for market share early on (at least $250 million in venture capital supports Bird and similar companies). But the game-like aspects of charging may make workers less price sensitive.
That said, just as Uber has become a primary source of income for many of its drivers, it’s clear that recharging scooters is not a game for everyone. Chargers interviewed by The Atlantic describe occasional conflicts over scooter bounties, manipulation of the reward systems, and outright theft of the scooters, which criminals have been known to chop up for parts. Perhaps worst of all, some report that criminals are hunting the hunters—using scooters as bait, then mugging the chargers who arrive to retrieve them.