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COLUMN ONE

Everyone Is a Critic in Cyberspace

The Internet has given consumers a formidable platform to post reviews on everything from movies to cars. Experts question their objectivity, but some firms hope to capitalize on self-styled pundits' appeal.

December 03, 1999|CHARLES PILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For example, the second most trusted Epinions reviewer is Brent Celmins, a movie buff who goes by the handle "Scorsesian." His thoughtfulness and clarity in 87 reviews seems to rival that of many professional critics. Surprisingly, Celmins is a 19-year-old USC film school undergrad.

Online auction leader EBay uses a similar process to track the integrity of buyers and sellers; auction participants rate each other on every transaction and aggregated ratings are posted on the site.

Whether such approaches ultimately will engender the trust enjoyed by, say, Consumer Reports, remains to be seen.

For these new consumer-generated review Web sites there is also the longer-term task of actually turning a profit. At present these businesses generate revenues by selling advertising and research on consumer habits, earning commissions on shoppers who click through to a merchant site, or licensing their services or technologies to other companies, including Web giants America Online, Microsoft Network, and Lycos. Like other Web-based businesses, most are burning money rather than earning it, said Lisa Allen of Forrester. She doubts that many will end up profitable.

Still, even if amateur reviews are relegated to the status of a loss leader as part of more lucrative Web ventures, their growing popularity suggests that technology is shifting the balance of power in our consumer culture, said Giga's Telleen.

As user-to-user communications reach a critical mass, he added, "we're going to see our notion of bringing buyers and sellers together turned on its head."

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