Proxy Users in the Sharing Economy

Abstract for the Reshaping Work Conference

Proxy Users in the Sharing Economy

Gemma Newlands

Nordic Centre for Internet & Society
BI Norwegian Business School, Oslo, Norway

Christoph Lutz

Nordic Centre for Internet & Society
BI Norwegian Business School, Oslo, Norway 

Christian Pieter Hoffmann

Institute of Communication and Media Studies University of Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany 


Recent years have seen a surge in research on a phenomenon widely referred to as the ‘sharing economy’ (Benkler, 2004; Botsman & Rogers, 2010; Sundararajan, 2016). Key research areas have included conceptual clarifications, business models, and motivations for sharing (Bucher et al., 2016; Cheng, 2016). Under a more critical lens, scholars have begun to explore questions of power (Newlands et al., 2017), privacy (Lutz et al., 2017), algorithms (Calo & Rosenblat, 2017), information asymmetries (van Doorn, 2017), and ratings (Fradkin et al., 2015; Lee et al., 2015).

With the future of work increasingly data-driven, platforms automate decisions, such as the allocation of labor, based on the collection of vast quantities of user data. However, non-users constitute a challenge as they provide little to no data for platforms. To date, only limited research has explored demographic and socio-economic inequalities between users and non-users (Andreotti et al., 2017; Flash Eurobarometer, 2016; Hausemer et al., 2017). Non-users range between those unwilling to use such services, those unaware of such services, and those not able to use sharing services due to limited availability or a missing requirement such as a credit card.

However, we focus on a category of (non-)users that has not received any attention in research: proxy users. Proxy users make use of sharing services but they are not themselves part of the sharing transaction. Typical examples would be guests, partners, or family members of users who may join in the ride or also stay in the apartment.

Proxy users represent a significant challenge as platforms cannot analyse proxy user behaviour to tailor services or allocate labor most effectively. Proxy users are difficult to track and thereby distort information on the actual composition of the user base. To address this challenge, Airbnb, for instance, now prompts users to indicate which additional people will stay in the property.

Proxy users, whose identities are not known in advance and for whom there is no profile on the sharing platform, also have significant implications for the trust and reputation mechanisms which increasingly shape the working experience within the sharing economy (Fagerstrøm et al., 2017). Since proxy users receive neither ratings nor reviews, undesirable user behaviour faces limited to no repercussions. Since proxy users give neither ratings nor reviews, desirable behaviour on behalf of platform providers also receives no reward. Moreover, the presence of proxy users also creates a ceiling for trust, as providers cannot be certain about who will make use of their goods and services.

In this conceptual contribution, we provide a definition of proxy users as a third category between users and non-users, developing a typology of proxy users based on motives of non-/use. We also provide the first steps towards filling this research gap on proxy users by focusing on the ramifications for the future or work: their significance for the limits of data-driven decision making, for labor allocation, and for trust and reputation mechanisms. Finally, we derive implications for future research on how to handle proxy users of sharing economy services.


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