A Wide Web Of Advice

It's free, and there's tons of it. Who are these advice-givers, anyway?

The computer version of the perfect storm is raging in my home: My husband is trying to network our several PCs and printers, and I'm trying to make our digital camera download video properly. We have been adrift for weeks in a stormy sea of error messages. We grow testy, accusing each other of sabotage. The official rescue squads for the products involved have ditched us. Our only lifelines are the patient and tenacious enthusiasts on online message boards to whom we keep turning for help. Bless you Uconnzam, wherever/whoever you are, for getting me back on track.

More and more, I find myself turning to digital Good Samaritans and online reviewers to get out of jams and make better buying decisions. Free advice is spewing from every nook and cranny of the Web, from slick company-sponsored customer forums and from irreverent, renegade sites. I'm not talking about stock touters in chat rooms. I'm talking about help on modern life's daily hypertensive moments, involving gadgets, books, tools, cars, and hobbies, where a sucker purchase, poor directions, or an undisclosed glitch can be infuriating.

That said, I also must cop to a twisted little secret. Even though I appreciate all this help, I'm flabbergasted at the amount of time some people spend providing it. You may recall Groucho Marx questioning why he'd want to be a member of a club that would have him as a member. My version goes: "Should I trust advice from people who have this much time to spend giving free advice to people like me?"

A basic drive. The more I learn about the world of advice, the more I tend to think I can. For one thing, much of this advice-giving springs from frustration, too. Take David E. Weekly's new site. Weekly, a 22-year-old computer-science grad, has fallen hard for SSX, a snowboarding game for the Sony PlayStation 2. But

Weekly and his roommate grew exasperated with the Sony-supplied documentation. So they went on a 72-hour playing, note-taking, and coding binge. At 5:30 a.m. in mid-December they pushed the button and posted, a resource site of playing tips and other useful stuff. "I do this so no one else needs to," explains Weekly. He spends at least eight hours a week online helping people with tips on Napster Inc. and other subjects on which he's expert--for no pay. He says: "If I can't find what I want online, I [research it and] put it out there. This is my view of human progress."

Turns out, helping out may be a basic human drive. New York psychologist John Shuler, author of the Psychology of Cyberspace, says providing advice and feedback online taps into the desire many of us feel to share information about which we consider ourselves expert. Otherwise venue-less experts, Shuler proposes, get "a sense of power" helping others online.

Some commercial sites have tapped into the urge to share. New York media company Primedia Inc. in November agreed to pay $550 million for Inc. and its 700 online "guides," because the topical pages they develop get targeted advertising in front of passionate enthusiasts of fly-fishing or other subcultures. and similar sites motivate the advice-givers by paying them based on how popular their reviews are.

Unfortunately, when you put a few bucks on the table, intrigue comes close behind. One young San Francisco guy explained to me that while he was making $2 or $3 reviewing modestly popular products on the advice site, he noticed the electronic-products area reviewers attracted a lot more traffic--and money. So, he "summarized" a local newspaper review of a product he's never seen, posted it, and reaped a much larger check. He says suspicion of "bogus" reviews in the heavily traveled areas are common. Epinion users often smoke out such stunts, posting public notices about plagiarized reviews, says the company. Violators of copyright and other Epinions rules have their payments canceled and can be tossed off.

To me, the most interesting community of unpaid advice-givers is on Inc.'s site. Amazon lets customers provide bad as well as good reviews right on the page where the item is sold. This has attracted more than 2 million postings and has become addictive for some readers. Don Mitchell, a Boston author and management consultant, reads 50 to 100 books per month and has posted more than 900 reviews--all gratis. But there are rewards: Mitchell once reviewed a book on depression and later received an e-mail from a man who said he'd been contemplating suicide until he read Mitchell's review and followed the book's advice. But primarily, "it's a way to direct my reading and development as a writer," says the affable Mitchell.

Others, I think, just want to talk about stuff they love. You can practically hear the whine of the skillsaw in the background of Toolpig's dozens of heartfelt Amazon write-ups on products like the Makita 1050DWA 12 Volt Cordless Planer: "Have you ever been in the middle of a crucial cut and the stinking cord hangs up on you, creating a nice divot or burn mark on your piece? That problem is a thing of the past now," writes Toolpig. Sayonara divots.

Even when no compensation is involved, petty human fracases erupt in the online advice world, too. Amazon not only allows book reviews, but lets customers vote on the "helpfulness" of the reviews people post. No end of squabbling has followed's decision last spring to start ranking its reviewers, based on some secret formula hinging partly on those reviewer reviews. Clearly, a book's potential for a Pulitzer is not part of the magic formula. Amazon's No. 1-ranked reviewer, Harriet Klausner, is a self-described speed reader who zips through several books per day, many of them zesty romances: "In 1799, due to a scandal not caused by her but impacting her, Oriana flees London ending up at the Isle of Man. She meets Sir Darius Corlett, who writes her off as a fortune hunter. To Oriana's shock, she is attracted to Darius," Klausner writes about Improper Advances by Margaret Evans Porter.

Prose like that just about turns Mick McAllister purple. The 56-year-old Colorado writer and computer consultant made the top reviewer list, too, but resigned partly because of the weird ranking formula. Also, he says, once he made the top 100 list, negative dings on his reviews came streaming in like 18th century fortune hunters to the Isle of Man. "Amazon has become a mean street, with gangs of review bashers out there casting votes without reading the reviews, determined to `win' a higher ranking at another's expense," he says. Amazon's message boards are a hotbed of similar charges.

Take it all with a grain of salt. It's hard not to smirk when you read the bio of a top Epinions reviewer who lists one of her favorite hobbies as "Epinionating." Yet there's valuable expertise out there that you may very well need in a pinch.

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