Call it the Zagatization of the Web. Tim and Nina Zagat built a phenomenally successful line of restaurant guides by simply asking readers to rate the grub they ate and the competence of the hands that put it on the table. That basic idea -- let your audience do your reviewing -- is now taking the Web by storm.
The first site to jump at the concept was Deja.com, which asks users to assign ratings for anything -- from politicians to poultry -- for which relative quality can be expressed by a number from 1 (worst) to 5 (best).
Last week, Epinions, the latest contender, quietly launched its Web site. Epinions asks its users to write up their opinions of anything that one could spend money on, from movies to cameras to vacations in Antarctica. But there's a twist: It also asks them to rate each other's reviews.
If you're a professional writer, than the idea of the hoi polloi ranking your comments is bound to create some trepidation. MSNBC has long let readers rate articles, and I for one sure wouldn't want to lose that kind of public popularity contest. But then again, for both the professional trend-monger and the amateur grouser, turnabout is fair play. And to sweeten the pot, Epinions promises that when it gets out of its test phase, it will pay those users whose reviews are judged to be the most useful. Think of it as a very literal-minded interpretation of "the marketplace of ideas."
Epinions creates what the technically minded call a "feedback loop." Rating the ratings can encourage more accurate reviews -- if, that is, the people who rate the reviews also have some knowledge of the product involved. If they don't, then the feedback loop serves only to foster the creation of more entertaining, but not necessarily more useful, reviews.
In either case, the Epinions experiment is well worth trying. Dyspeptic commentators might complain about the Web's all too fecund cultivation of ill-considered opinion, but the truth is that our appetite for knowing what our fellow Americans think is boundless. If the site actually winds up making our lives faster, cheaper and more fun, so much the better. If it does not, then, without doubt, there will soon be a Web site that will let me register my displeasure.