Laura Sweet may be the Internet's Oprah Winfrey -- for objects shaped like guns, that is.
Just as millions look to the billionaire talk show host for tips on books, health and beauty, hundreds turn to Sweet's "gun-shaped stuff" page on www.thisnext.com for hair dryers, television remotes and vases with the contours of firearms.
Sweet, who trolls the Internet every day for cool and wacky things that might be worth acquiring, has recommended 1,590 products on the Los Angeles-based website. "It has kind of pointed me out as a design maven," the 42-year-old Beverly Hills resident said as the holiday gift-buying season entered its final days.
So-called social shopping websites like ThisNext are uniting people the world over through their love of conspicuous consumption. By mentioning a product, a self-appointed authority can convert it from unknown junk to a must-have in moments. That's made superstars like Sweet popular with manufacturers trying to spread the word about their products.
So far, ThisNext has recorded more than 155,000 clicks on items based on Sweet's recommendations alone.
On Kaboodle, another social shopping site, members can check out recommendations from "featured Kaboodlers," who have lists of things they want, including "things for my cat" and "accessories and jewelry." The site had 4 million unique visitors in November, up from 1 million in June, and has sold ad space to major brands such as Crest and Visa.
"We're drawing on the wisdom of the crowds," said Manish Chandra, Kaboodle's founder and chief executive.
The crowds have eclectic tastes. Among the products made popular by online advocates: Walkie Bits, which are little turtles that move across tabletops; a faucet that changes colors based on the temperature of the water coming out of it; and a $50 watch that says NOW on its face instead of giving the time.
Morgan Bennett, creator of the watch, said sales spiked after the public relations director of ThisNext persuaded him to post the watch on the site. It hadn't been advertised anywhere else.
"One guy picked it, and then boom, some guy from Norway was looking at it," Bennett said. "Now they're pretty much sold out."
Although the sites provide links to places online where shoppers can buy the products listed, many members use them for getting ideas rather than shopping. When they intend to buy something, nearly 70% of U.S. consumers start their online shopping at a specific merchant's website, and only 0.08% start at Kaboodle, according to research firm EMarketer Inc.
For those who post on such sites, the lure of being known by peers as a person of impeccable taste is irresistible. Emily Boss, a member of ThisNext, said it's an ego boost when people e-mail you to compliment you on your fashion sense or mark your review as funny. She's part of the new ThisNext Maven program, selected by the company's staff as one of the site's more prominent tastemakers.
"There's definitely a feeling of being influential in a community that has a celebrity aspect to it," she said.
The sites have even made shopping celebrities out of fictional characters. Lizzie Nichols, a character in a series of novels by Meg Cabot, has a ThisNext fashion-and-beauty-favorites list, which includes underwear and fake eyelashes. (Fake shoppers, apparently, need fake eyelashes.)
Cabot's own list doesn't tell people to buy her book, but she is one of many people on the sites who have products for sale. Boss, the ThisNext Maven, works for an e-commerce company and sometimes recommends things her company sells.
Indeed, it can be difficult to tell whether an expert who suggests a purchase has a special interest in promoting it. Most of the websites try to block companies from posting -- rather than advertising -- their products.
But such companies as L.A.-based Marketingworks, which sells word-of-mouth marketing services, sends its "brand ambassadors" to various websites, including social shopping sites, where they set up profiles and talk about products the company is promoting.
Brand ambassadors "don't just go in there and converse," said Marketingworks Chief Executive Chas Salmore, "they have a loose, structured script to use to talk about the value of a particular promotion."
For Classic Media's "The Original Christmas Classics DVD Box Set," for instance, brand ambassadors were told it might be effective to say something along the lines of: "What's your favorite Christmas Classic? A lot of people really love 'The Little Drummer Boy.' 7 Christmas Classics are together in one DVD Set called 'The Original Christmas Classics.' I have the inside scoop because I work for them."
Salmore said the company wasn't spamming, but rather providing useful tips and inside information about things like upcoming sales and sweepstakes.
Many members and recommenders on social shopping sites say they don't care if someone has a vested interest in a product as long as he or she is honest about ties with the company.