Why would you do or say anything for free when you can do it or say it and get paid? That's the ultimate question posed by Epinions.com. Of course, that's not how the company presents itself. Far too mercenary. No, Epinions.com calls itself "the ultimate online shopping guide."
At first glance, the idea at the core of the company is why-didn't-I-think-of-that simple. Anyone can sign up at the site and post a review of a product - from books and movies to cameras and computers to airlines and cars. Other members then rate the reviews, or "epinions", from "Very Useful" to "Not Useful". Highly rated reviews will naturally attract more readers, which is important to the reviewer because - here's the twist - reviewers get paid per page view.
That's the basic idea. You've seen elements of this set-up before. Deja.com, for example, encourages its users (essentially what's left of the Usenet user base) to rate any and everything on a scale of 1 to 5. Just for the fun of it, or at the very most, for the sake of the community. That's a notion that Epinions.com has now rendered rather quaint with its promise of "Eroyalities".
The "feedback loop" element of the Epinions.com model, what the company calls its "Web of Trust", is somewhat reminiscent of Pattie Maes's Firefly Network. Before it was bought by Microsoft in 1998, Firefly suggested music, movies and books users might like by matching their profiles. Again, these profiles consisted of numeric ratings of countless titles, 1 to 7. Reviewing reviews is a tad more unusual, although MSNBC asks its readers to rate its articles on a scale of 1 to 10. Still, there is no other incentive in these models to rate anything other than the satisfaction of expressing one's old-fashioned "opinion" with a click.
A second glance at Epinions.com directed towards its FAQs reveals the model to be a bit more complicated than it first seems. Of primary interest to most SPIEGEL ONLINE readers, for example, will be the discovery that you must be a US citizen or a legal resident to collect Eroyalties. So much for the global marketplace. The company says it's "looking into incentives for non-US Citizens."
If and when that's sorted out, it will still take a while before writing up a review of your latest purchase truly pays off. The database has yet to reach "critical mass." Professional writers used to making a dollar per word or more will balk at Eroyalties of one or three cents per page view, depending on the product category. A 100-word book review, for example, would need to attract 10,000 readers to measure up to the going rate. But the potential is undeniably there. As the site attracts more attention, anyone with a way with words and exceedingly popular tastes could conceivably turn writing epinions into a freelance career.
The FAQs and the "Terms of Service" combined betray the complexities of introducing the promise of cold, hard Ecash into what essentially amounts to a database of users' posts. There are rules. Lots of them. Reviews must be at least 75 words. You can't use those words anywhere else but on your own Web site although Epinions.com can. And so on. Net veterans are the kind of folk who look for loopholes or a way to pull a prank that tests the limits of any given system.
It's a grand Net tradition. Rageboy, aka Chris Locke, and Suck co-founder Carl Steadman once turned Sixdegrees.com into a World Wide Web popularity contest. "Customers" are still praising collections of "Family Circus", an inane US cartoon, as an "allegory of the history of the American Socialist movement" at Amazon.com. And online auction house eBay has served as the punchline of countless jokes at its own expense, from RU Sirius offering up his soul for sale to the highest bidder to the episode earlier this year that saw eBay's hijacked "Cool Site of the Year" award up for sale - at eBay.
Like hackers testing the security of a system by breaking into it, Net users dream up these pranks as a way of greeting a new site that intrigues them: "Hello and welcome aboard!" The greater the buzz around a new site, the greater the temptation. And Epinions.com has generated a lot of buzz, starting with the story of its founding as told by Po Bronson in the "New York Times Magazine". In "Instant Company," Bronson, who has written fiction and non-fiction on Wall Street and Silicon Valley, tells how a handful of daredevil geeks "walked away" from millions of dollars in options (which, granted, is a little different from millions of actual dollars) to launch the company based on Naval Ravikant's intriguingly simple idea. Within 12 weeks, they'd raised $8 million and Epinions.com, still technically in beta, launched in early September.
"I think I'm going to start writing reviews for everything under the sun," award-winning Web designer Jason Kottke announced to one mailing list where conversation had turned to new company. "It doesn't take too much time or effort to write 75 words about something unfamiliar to me. I did it in college all the time. 300 epinions, given the proper access to traffic would yield a nice chunk of change for very little effort, never mind the value of conducting the experiment."
It's the experiment that attracts Kottke. Moments later, he posted again: "Or, or... Get a machine to write the reviews for you. You have a program that goes through the reviewable items at Epinions, then goes out onto the Web, finds some information pertaining to those items, and then writes up the reviews based on what it finds. Hell, if Word can check my grammar..." Amazingly, the Epinions.com FAQ foresees and forbids precisely this option.
"I'm hoping we're pranked! It's great publicity!" says Peter Merholz, who started work at his new job as Creative Director of Epinions.com just this Monday. "This is where the 'Web of Trust' comes in - if people rate the prank as 'Not Useful,' it will essentially disappear from most people's view."
Merholz, formerly an independent consultant, is now responsible for "the site's design, from information architecture to look-and-feel to copy." He has to build a "kick-ass team of brilliant creative people," and in the Silicon Valley spirit, he's posted a call ("Want a job?") right on his home page. As for his own job, he says, "the main attraction was creating the human interface to an exceedingly complex database. What an information design problem to solve!"
Merholz admits that the prospect of earning Eroyalties "has a certain visceral 'point scoring' effect that gets pretty addictive." He points to a friend who has made tracking his Eroyalties - instead of stock prices - his new "Refresh-habit." For Merholz, Epinions.com is "a way for anyone to publish personally and make money incrementally. Before, the only way anyone considered doing this was micropayments, which require too much overhead. Epinions flips that on its head. Neither the reader nor the writer engages in
any additional effort, and the writer earns money from The System (not from specific readers) through page views. The System earns money through ad and relevant click-through revenue."
The System has already had an interesting effect on Merholz. A movie fanatic, he used to post reviews on his Web site. Not anymore. "Why simply give away the work of writing a review when I can maybe earn some cash, maybe even recoup the cost of the ticket or rental?" There are other reasons. "If I want my thoughts on movies to be read by as many people as possible, it makes more sense to put it in a place devoted to movie information, such as the Movies area of Epinions, than on my personal site." But for most potential reviewers, Eroyalties will be the primary incentive.
That's why Epinions.com fascinates Net veterans enough to consider pranking it. Computer mediated communication itself used to be its own reward. The thrill of the call and response on dinosaur systems like BBS's, the Well or Usenet is long gone. To log on in 1999 is to enter a virtual world in which one's every move is subject to profit or scam. For all the grandiose arguments about the gift economy versus raw capitalism, Open Source versus proprietary software and so on, the lines between the two philosophies are too cut and dried to reflect the already current reality.
With online stores like Amazon or CDNow offering affiliate programs that effectively turn a home page into retail outlets and companies offering frequent-flyer-like "Web miles" to foster brand loyalty, and now, with Epinions.com encouraging users to view their opinions as commodities, one side of those arguments, for better or worse, is clearly gaining ground - to use Merholz's word, "incrementally." Penny by penny.
David Hudson -- Mon, Wed, Friday