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Consumer Reports

Here's what I think ... regulars on consumer review sites can't help but give their opinions | (KRT) After four years of telling the world what he thinks about beer, Mexico vacation spots and Latin music, Mark Stevens of Houston recently experienced an epiphany.

"I'm rethinking things," says the prolific 43-year-old free-lance writer. "I've written 664 reviews. It's a book, and I didn't really get paid for producing it. I should really be getting royalties for all that work."

But Stevens and thousands of other Net denizens seem addicted to sharing their thoughts with the world.

Whether it is a $20 toaster or a $10,000 plasma television monitor, thousands of people like Stevens spew their views on Web sites such as,,, and for little or no compensation.

"It's part of my life now, absolutely," says Dallasite Chidi Eriken, 27, who has written more than 300 reviews of hip-hop and other music for since 2001. "When I listen to a CD these days, it's hard to listen just for enjoyment. I'm always thinking, 'What do I say here? What am I going to write about this?' "

Both Stevens ( and Eriken ( are among the top contributors in their specialties. The two Texans typify the Internet opinion writers in several ways.

First, they are driven.

"A lot of them started for the money, but we don't pay them enough anymore to be in it alone for the money," said Alexis Johnson, community product manager. "When you get to the high class, the very prolific, they pick areas that they know the most about. They are all very passionate about those things."

In most cases, the stars of review sites are the people you'd seek out for consumer advice if you could find them at an office, party or bar.

In the case of Stevens, his co-workers and family knew he could ferret out a good price on travel.

"For a while, I was really intensely interested in always scarfing the absolute rock-bottom cheapest deal," said the Houstonian, who by day is a writer of technical documents.

Go to, and you'll find dozens of amateur experts conversing about digital cameras. Hit, and you'll encounter thousands of TiVo users with an almost religious devotion to understanding the personal video recorder's innards.

But the opinionfest isn't limited to pricey electronic purchases. People such as Sara Ascalon of Bayside, N.Y., dash off dozens of reviews.

Her first Epinions submission blasted faulty service from AT&T for her cellphone. Later, she waxed eloquent on her Bissell Powersteamer carpet cleaner. She followed that with a vicious diatribe on her Proctor Silex toaster.

"Prior to the Internet, if you wanted to get consumer information, you generally turned to people that you knew — your friends or your co-workers," said Andrew Gershoff, associate professor of marketing at Columbia Business School. "Now that available network has expanded all over the world and across the country."

And that leads to the second common component among habitual consumer reviewers: They revel in the two-way communication their reviews generate. Most review sites allow comments to be tagged onto an author's work.

"I'm continuously shocked by the friendships that form online," says Johnson. "We host these meet-and-greet sessions for our best reviewers. They'll walk in and see a name on a nametag and just go nuts. It's almost as if it was a longtime friend from high school they'd lost track of for years."

"You meet the people who leave comments on your reviews, and it's addictive like that," said Eriken. "It's just an online community to me now. It's not about profit."

Gershoff warns that consumer reviewers are most likely to write about a product or service they really like or dislike. "It doesn't represent a true sampling of all toasters out there," he said. Stevens calls review sites another tool in an expanding consumer arsenal.

"I think it's one more information source ... ," he said. "I don't think that a consumer review is necessarily as good as a critical review by somebody who does it professionally. You need a critical perspective."

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© 2003, The Dallas Morning News Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services