Proxy Culture

From SI410
Jump to: navigation, search
Wikipedia is a classic example of proxy culture in practice.

Proxy culture refers to the reliance on documented experiences, the signifiers, which stand in place for first-hand experiences, the signified. Proxy culture has roots in the intersection of philosophy and technology and may manifest in many ways, including through the use of Yelp business reviews, Amazon product reviews, and Google Maps to understand businesses, services, products, and more.[1] Proxies in themselves allow individuals to have experiences and interactions that would be otherwise difficult or impossible, although accuracy of these representations through signifiers can be disputed. [1] Proxy culture is interacting with the internet for advice that in the past, one could only get from fellow humans.


Luciano Floridi


Proxy culture is a relatively new and modern term coined by Luciano Floridi in his paper titled "A Proxy Culture"[1] in 2015 to describe the phenomena where people are increasingly more likely to depend on the infosphere to make decisions. Floridi approaches the information philosophy from a multifaceted point of view that takes into account logic, epistemology, computer science, information technology, and humanities computing. Common examples of proxy culture are friending someone on Facebook you have never met, trusting other TripAdvisor strangers for recommendations, and using an electronic map to get to your destination.

Definition and Etymology

Proxy is defined as "the agency, function, or office of a deputy who acts as a substitute for another."[2] The first known use of the term was in the 15th century rooted in Latin cultures. According to Floridi, the concept and idea of a proxy are not the same, as the concept is rooted religiously, while the idea is more political. Today, a proxy instead is most related to technology. The technical term relates to systems where different signals and requests are used, such as a website interacting with the internet.[1] Proxy culture investigates the human component of how people interact with signifiers to better understand the signified.

Proxy Culture in Popular Culture

The increased connectivity of the 21st century has allowed proxy culture to highlight digital reputations that wouldn't have existed prior to the modern digital age. Influencers are individuals who have a large following on social media and other internet platforms. People often form parasocial relationships with these influencers, where they come to see these public figures as personal friends. In order to exploit these relationships for monetary value, companies often offer social media influencers special deals, partnerships or sponsorships in order to gain favor with their audience. An influencer may for example reportedly earn 5,000 for one Instagram post. [3]. A study found that factors of influence of a peer are trustworthiness, expertise, similarity and attractiveness. [4] Though there is growing regulation about transparency with sponsored content on social media platforms, companies still utilize proxy culture for advertisements through sponsored content. College Confidential is a website where people ask advice about their academic records in regards to applying to college and graduate schools, among others. Users trust strangers with personal information in order to seek advice on qualification for or fit of a school. Many students and parents turn to College Confidential, and more recently college-admission specific subreddits, for information instead of college guidance counselors or official college websites.

The idea of a "follow ratio" has also been spread, where users are intrigued by the numbers of followers they have compared to those they are following. A good "follow ratio" means that the user has around the same amount of followers as they have following. These numbers are proxies as they easily symbolize to users that they are both followers and following accounts. These numbers suggest their use, popularity, connectedness, and level of expertise as the followers and following count can be tracked as progress as the numbers grow. [1] This culture of users being fascinated with "follow ratios" rather than the enjoyment of the platforms such as Twitter and Instagram is an example of the rise of proxy culture.

Examples of Proxy Culture


Amazon provides us with an online shopping outlet that offers anything imaginable at the click of a button. The product is then delivered to your doorstep often as soon as the next day. This convenient way to shop cuts out the time and effort it takes to drive to the mall or grocery store, and offers items from multiple carriers which are all rated and reviewed by users so consumers can make the right purchase decision. The quality of products and pace at which they are delivered are reflected through star ratings on a scale from zero to five as well as written reviews and images from previous buyers. Browsing for a new purchase has never been so easy, as users rely on the reviews of strangers to determine which product is best. It doesn't matter if any of their friends or family own the product because society nowadays is accustomed to allowing random online reviews to convince consumers of what to buy and what to experience.

Tripadvisor and Yelp

Tripadvisor and Yelp are similar to Amazon except that users can read reviews and ratings on experiences and places rather than products to decide what vacations to plan and what restaurants to dine at. These companies can be considered modern examples of travel brochures that once directed out-of-town consumers to certain establishments. Restaurants, hotels, and excursion companies alike all have their business success contingent on positive reviews on Yelp and Tripadvisor. This is because potential clients read the reviews to decide where to go and spend their money.

Google Maps and Waze

Due to the real-time location services of Google Maps,[5] no one has to use physically drawn maps or print out directions prior to departure on a drive. Google Maps utilizes turn-by-turn updated navigational services for 2D and 3D directions equipped with a voice reading the driver instructions for a hands-free and therefore safer experience. Drivers depend on Google Maps to get to and from destinations they are unfamiliar with. Waze, previously an alternative to Google Maps, now owned by Google, has added features such as traffic, road work, and cop sighting updates by other users. Again, Waze is an app that operates based on input from users, but instead of reviews it is real-time road updates. Drivers often use Waze to navigate them even to destinations they know how to reach on their own so that they can benefit from short cuts based on the current condition of roads. These drivers may take other user's word for the best way to reach a location even if this means trusting the app's directions over their own intuition.

Awards and Ratings

When various works are awarded a "best seller" label, this encourages more people to buy the item, only fulfilling the label further. Society is conditioned to trust what the majority of people believe is successful work, whether or not the content coincides with their own personal interests. For this reason, books and movies that are given awards for popularity only become more sought after - the label acting as a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is the same with reviews. A movie awarded a high score by Rotten Tomatoes (a trusted movie critic site) might convince movie-goers to choose the film with a higher score when deciding which movies to see in the theater.

Degenerate Proxies

Degenerate proxies are epistemologically separate from proxies because the interactions with a proxy is similar to interacting with the signified. Degenerate proxies fulfill some, but not all, definitions of a full proxy. These degenerate proxies can be categorized in three forms: icons, indexes, and symbols. They are not full proxies because they are merely a standby.[1]

Icons: Icons aesthetically resemble what they represent. For example, a photograph of a dog is an icon for a dog. This is not a full proxy because what happens to the photograph of the dog doesn't directly affect the dog.

Indexes: Indexes are correlational, meaning a given index is often associated with what they represent. An example of this is how dark clouds are an index for rain because those often follow.

Symbols: Symbols represent a category of which the symbol is typically associated with. A drop of water is a symbol for liquids, for example.

Ethical Issues


Powerful entities in charge of information dissemination have indirect control over proxy culture through content curation. These entities can unfairly demote or promote products that benefit themselves. For example, Microsoft was prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department of creating a monopoly for internet browsers by not allowing its operating system users to download competing internet browsers Netscape and Opera.[6] After courts ruled that Microsoft was breaking antitrust law, the company was broken up into separate software and hardware units. Recently there has been controversy over whether Amazon is a monopoly and whether similar action should be taken against them.

Monopolies in proxy culture are ethically concerning because they do not promote healthy competition, innovation, and fairness. In the case of a single entity in control of an entire market, having no competitors allows the entity to raise their prices and lower the quality of their products without any threat of replacement. The producer has no incentive to innovate and this forces consumers who rely on the product to pay more for subpar products. Without a monopoly, the consumer would have more choice to pick the best product among healthy competition.

Despite how monopolies may utilize proxy culture to damage rivals, studies have shown it to be difficult in practice due to the collective action nature of proxy culture. Any user may contribute to proxy culture, yet more credible and frequent editors often reduce potential damage caused by negative competition. [7]


People who have particularly negative or positive experiences are inherently more inclined to review a product, meaning a product that is otherwise fine may be skewed to be seen too negatively or positively due to proxy culture contributions. Feedback is also skewed by the demographic offering it. This creates barriers for alternative opinions or information to contribute to proxy culture's representations. For example, there is an extreme gender bias in Wikipedia, with only about 10-15% of Wikipedia contributions coming from women.[8] Despite men and women having approximately the same number of articles on Wikipedia, typically either men write about women or a small group of women overstretch themselves to compensate for their lack of representation. This means that female-representative information is more likely to carry men's imposed perspectives. The bias takes place in a positive feedback cycle, as the lack of gender representation on Wikipedia may deter gender minorities who would otherwise edit on the site from offering their unbiased perspectives.


Anonymous reviews allow participants to feel less of an obligation to filter their opinions. Behind an alias, the review is strictly about the product rather than the user's gender, race, or income level.[7] This makes potential customers view reviews in a more objective light.[9] It may also facilitate more vulnerability and honesty since participants would be difficult to track and thus can worry less about repercussions.

This can be detrimental when anonymity is abused to harass others or feign credibility. Because participants' identities are difficult to discover, there is less fear of repercussions when verbally abusing or threatening others. This can create apathy within a community and scare or hurt other users. The quality of the content they contribute to proxy culture doesn't have large stakes, so they may give inaccurate representations that do not represent their experiences.


Competitors may often sabotage others in order to gain an upper hand. For example, mobile developers post falsified negative ratings on rival apps to damage competitor reputation. This works the opposite way as well, with many committing fraud by inflating app sales or posting falsified app ratings for themselves.[10] To try to pin blame on competitors, a group may post several positive reviews on a competitor's product to get them flagged for fraudulent behavior.

Reddit often employs bots to moderate their forums, and users can develop their own for other purposes.

The scope of this behavior isn't limited to apps, as Amazon has come under fire for allowing false reviews and shady brands to be present on their website with little to no regulation. Likewise, Yelp is notorious for having review wars amongst competitors to drive down ratings of competing restaurants or services.[11] This has led to the rise of websites and tools such as, an artificial intelligence tool that utilizes linguistic analysis and comparisons of similar items to identify fake reviews on sites such as Amazon, Yelp, Walmart, and Steam, and offer consumers adjusted review grades that reflect those deemed as genuine.[12]

Companies can also pay people to write a good review for them. As the public has become aware of this trending issue, it is common to see "This is not a paid ad/review" following appraisal of a product or experience on Amazon and Yelp. Ethically, this poses the issue of competitors abusing review systems to gain unfair advantages in a market. Furthermore, having dishonest reviews in systems hinders consumer trust even if the majority are honest. This damages an otherwise effective way to use proxy culture to understand a given product.

Moreover falsehoods online have the potential to cause real harm. For example, the 2017 Fyre festival was infamous for being promoted by many highly followed social media influencers who promised a luxury experience. The event had insufficient medical services, water, food, and shelter. There is also widespread promotion of diet products, like detox teas which include laxatives, on social media platforms such as Instagram which may have an adverse effect on health. The influencers suggest the idea that one can achieve their beauty if one uses the products that they've been paid to promote. Additionally, influencers create a distortion of reality whereupon they create the idea of a fantasy lifestyle. Carefully staged photos can create an inaccurate proxy lifestyle. This distortion of reality can be damaging to those who compare their own lives to the perceived lives of those online. Passive Facebook usage (as opposed to active usage which includes the benefits of social interaction) has been shown to decrease subjective well-being over time.  [13] Again this effect can attributed to the proxies causing a decline in satisfaction with one's own life.


Proxy culture involves large-scale data vetting that proves difficult with only human labor. Open-source knowledge bases are often employed to combat an influx of malicious attacks using machine learning and artificial intelligence developed to monitor the quality of crowd-sourced content and remove questionable posts. Borderline harmful posts may bypass automated moderation, but still need to bypass human moderators to become published. These bots are often non-intrusive and serve other functions such as language translation as well.[14]. Overall, they reduce the burden on manual labor and improve efficiency for large-scale sites.

The bots can easily make mistakes if they aren't trained for a certain case. Proxy culture involves using a corpus of information to create representations, but machine learning may generate inaccurate models; this happens when representations are created from biased data and cause ethical issues. Amazon attempted to create a recruiting tool to rate employee applicants using prior employee data to create proxy culture representations of the workforce.[15] This tool unfairly flagged certain characteristics on resumes as less employable, such as enrollment at a female university or being involved in all-female activities, despite not having any correlation with job performance.

Virtual Reality

Inside of his most popular work, "The Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics", Phillip Brey dedicates an entire chapter to a number of emerging ethical issues that have accompanied rising virtual reality technologies. [16] The definition that Brey sets aside for virtual reality has numerous overlaps with the characteristics found in proxy culture, including artificial representations, detachment, and disinvestment in real-world events. Brey uses altered digital media such as photos and videos as an example of the ways in which technology can be used to fabricate nearly indistinguishable representations of reality. These representations as a substitute for reality may lead people to over-engage in virtual environments and consequently disengage in real life interactions. The ability to garner control over virtual reality representations may win users over in place of real-world interactions.[16]


Proxy culture has given the ability for others to start using others' experiences as their own. By reading what others' have done, people are able to take that information and pawn it off on their to influence others or to inflate what others think about them. A prominent instance of this came in 2003 when NBC News reporter Brian Williams reporter on a helicopter attack that occurred during the Iraq War. During his reporting of the event, Williams told the story from a firsthand point of view stating that he was aboard one of the several helicopters that were attacked while he was traveling in Iraq. This story was refuted by engineers and soldiers that were aboard the helicopters that were actually attacked, and that Williams was, in reality, traveling on a helicopter that did not get attacked but instead emergency landed due to a sandstorm[17]. This reporting by WIlliams is the type of plagiarism that can occur within a proxy culture. Hearing and seeing what happened to other people and with greater resources such as video, audio recordings, and more allows people to fully consume what others experienced and makes plagiarism more realistic and easier. As proxy culture continues to grow in scope, and detail it is important that people continue to realize the severity of plagiarism and the effect it can have on others with false information being spread. It is also important to realize the influence a proxy culture has on today's society, with all the information and detail we can get on people's experiences it makes it increasingly difficult for people to form their own opinions and more often are taking the opinions of others.

See Also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Floridi, Luciano. “A Proxy Culture.” SpringerLink, Springer Netherlands, 21 Oct. 2015,
  2. “Proxy.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster,
  4. Juha Munnukka (2014) Journal of Consumer Marketing "Credibility of a peer endorser and advertising effectiveness"
  5. Google App store, Google Maps,
  6. “Digital wars: Apple, Google, Microsoft and the battle for the Internet..” Arthur, Charles. Kogan Page Publishers, 2014.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Priedhorsky, Reid, et al. 2007. "Creating, Destroying, and Restoring Value in Wikipedia." Group’07 November 4-7, Sanibel Island, Florida.
  8. Torres, Nicole. "Why Do So Few Women Edit Wikipedia". 02 Jun 2016. Harvard Business Review.
  9. Stanley, Damian A., et al. "Race and reputation: perceived racial group trustworthiness influences the neural correlates of trust decisions." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 367.1589 (2012): 744-753.
  10. Zhu, Hengshu, et al. "Discovery of ranking fraud for mobile apps." IEEE Transactions on knowledge and data engineering 27.1 (2015): 74-87.
  11. Penaflorida, Rexly. "Everything You Need to Know About Fake Yelp Reviews." ReviewTrackers. 10 January 2019.
  12. "Fakespot | Analyze and identify fake reviews."
  13. Philippe Verduyn & Ethan Kross (2015) Journal of Experimental Psychology "Passive Facebook Usage Undermines Affective Well-Being: Experimental and Longitudinal Evidence"
  14. Nasaw, Daniel. [ “Meet the 'Bots' That Edit Wikipedia.”] BBC News, BBC, 25 July 2012,
  15. Dastin, Jeffrey. "Amazon scraps AI recruiting tool that showed bias against women". 09 Oct 2018. Reuters.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Brey, Philip. “Disclosive Computer Ethics.” ACM SIGCAS Computers and Society, vol. 30, no. 4, 2000, p. 10., doi:10.1145/572260.572264.
  17. Taub, Amanda. “The Brian Williams Helicopter Scandal: a Clear Timeline.” Vox, 9 Feb. 2015,