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Previously in Web Citations:

Heard It Through the Grapevine

Forget Windows, or even Linux. The defining artifact of the Information Age may be the chain e-mail. A testimonial by Nicholas Confessore.

The Addiction Addiction

The perennial hoo-ha over "Internet addiction." By Howard Rheingold

Mirror, Mirror

The Blair Witch Project and the Net's latest exercise in self-flattery. By Josh Ozersky

The Net's Next Vice

Online gambling is set to take off. Enter (who else?) the United States government. By Katie Bacon

The Great Divide

The Silicon Valley rich are very different from you and me. By Wen Stephenson

Sim City

The virtual partition of Jerusalem is a fait accompli. By Eric Manch

Politics Made Simple

A new political site aims for the GenX mind -- and shows us what the world does not need now. By Nicholas Confessore

Front Runners

Presidential campaigns are starting earlier and earlier. Here's how the field is shaping up for 2024. By Toby Lester

Menace to Society

The hype isn't the most annoying thing about the new Star Wars release. By Gina Hahn

See the complete Web Citations Index.

A Penny for Your 'pinion
October 21, 1999

epinions On the first day there was http://info.cern.ch, and that was it. On the second day appeared the What's New page -- the only place to find out if someone had posted a new Web site. On the third day came the personal links page, where people pointed to the pages they visited frequently -- mostly restaurant menus and pictures of their friends' cats.

With only a single What's New page, everyone visited the same sites and shared a common frame of Net reference. But by the fifth or sixth day such a list of links became essentially useless; with the proliferation of search engines and directories you could find as many cat pictures as you pleased. The explosion of Web sites (growth became exponential when services like Geocities and AOL offered Web space to their users) has made it easy to find something new to visit, but the Web has come to resemble a huge, understaffed newsstand -- inconsistent, unruly, yet full of deeply buried treasures.

Enter the Weblog. Better than a static links list (because it's a living resource) and more useful than a What's Cool page (because coolness stopped meaning much when everyone became a Photoshop pro), the Weblog is in Net terms a relatively recent development ("Weblog" was coined by Jorn Barger on his Robot Wisdom site in late 1997). With the notable exception of Slashdot, Weblogs are almost always the work of one person. And though it may not appear to be much more than a regularly updated, annotated list of links, the blog (a contraction coined by information-design Weblogger Peter Merholz) has become a new kind of Internet filter: what really makes one valuable is the combination of frequency, timeliness, and editorializing that coalesces around the blogger's voice. I visit several sites almost daily because I've come to trust the insight and value the persistence of the blogger in finding the most interesting things out there. The notion that a "regular person" is separating the truffles from the rest of the fungus is a powerful one, and it's the real reason for the Weblog's success as an identifiable Web phenomenon.

Significantly, one of the first "real" Weblogs was called "Filtered for Purity," a part of Michael Sippey's site, Stating the Obvious. Sippey's focus was on the Net economy, and he provided links to and short commentary about both major news stories (usually eschewing print media by linking to Wired News or C|Net) and oddities that he came across. Chiefly, though, Sippey provided a consistent voice, and "Filtered" became an electronic version of a trusted friend's recommendations.

memepool Sippey's model was adopted by countless others -- though Sippey himself abandoned it. Today's blogs run from the straightforward to the oblique, from the general to the focused. Not only is there a Weblog of Weblogs, there are so many that someone has made a Weblog of Weblogs of Weblogs. For neophytes, and those without their own site, there's even a build-your-own-blog tool. Predictably, a small backlash has manifested itself here and there, with critics dismissing the blog as nothing more than a links list and finding fault with the media's next-big-thing bandwagon-jumping.

Given that the key possessions of any good Weblogger are a pile of opinions and the critical arsenal to express them well, is it any wonder that they've been flocking to Epinions.com, a new e-commerce-cum-opinion site launched recently by a group of Silicon Valley millionaires? Starting from the idea that a "Consumers' Report" may be the Web's true killer app, Epinions' creators came up with a simple concept (one which follows on the heels of Amazon.com's customer-comment feature): a site that collects, organizes, and makes publicly available consumers' reactions to a wide variety of products and services. Naturally, if visitors elect to buy one of the products or services through a link on an Epinions page, no one's going to stop them, and Epinions will most certainly get a cut. With areas for books, cars, ISPs, moving services, and just about anything else that's easily categorizable, the site is a kind of word-of-mouth amalgamator, asking you to add people to your "Web of trust" when you agree with -- or at least can make sense of -- their reviews and ratings.

Essentially, then, Epinions could be called a "productlog" -- a focused, for-profit version of what blogs have been doing for a couple years now. Many bloggers have embraced Epinions whole-heartedly -- several, like Cameron Barrett, have devoted parts of their sites to their "epinions," listing each new review as it is written. Merholz, an early proponent of Epinions, recently announced he'd become the site's creative director. (See his blog entry of October 12th for details.) Jason Kottke, general-interest blogger, explains the natural Epinions-Weblog attraction this way: "Many Weblogs revolve around commenting on items that the authors come into contact with as a part of their day. Moving that content off of the Weblog and getting paid for it -- look Ma, I'm a professional writer! -- is almost a no-brainer."

That's right: getting paid. Epinions's success will depend in no small part on its members' frequent and consistent contributions. Working on the assumption that the adoration of one's peers isn't enough of a motivating factor for most of us, Epinions pays each member a very small amount of money, equaling pennies per pageview, every time his "epinion" is read by another member.

Webloggers learned some time ago that opinions are currency -- that's half of their success. And yet it's strange to think of these independent watchdogs of the Net community, which has traditionally been so hostile to the Net's commercialization, diving into Epinions with such gusto. Could it be, contradicting the old Net slogan, that information (or at least opinion) doesn't want to be free after all? Or maybe bloggers just know a good idea when one finally comes around.

--Ben Auburn

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Ben Auburn, the special projects editor at The Atlantic Monthly, has a defunct blog and very few people in his "Web of trust" on Epinions. He writes regularly for The Boston Phoenix, SonicNet, Smug, and Plank.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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