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Many ordinary-folk consumers regard all of these cyberspace reviewers fraternally, as ordinary-folk consumer guides. The pros can seem too enthusiastic about mainstream product. Or maybe not enthusiastic enough--too removed from the workaday world of folks who pay for their own movie tickets or CDs. Browsers at Amazon or Epinions, who can vote on the usefulness of any review, have made minor celebrities of some regular reviewers, at least at those websites. Even JoeytheFilmGeek has registered more than 11,675 hits. "It's that community I like; you're sharing ideas with all kinds of people across the country and in other countries too, and then you get feedback through e-mail," says Casey Stewart, 50, a registered nurse living in Stockton, Calif., who has rated more than 700 books, records and other products for Epinions as "kcfoxy." "That's what it's about, sharing over the fence with neighbors."
In the early history of do-it-yourself criticism, a signal event was the rise of the paperback Zagat restaurant guides, which compile the opinions of actual customers who replied to questionnaires. Beginning in 1979 with a single volume devoted to New York City, the Zagat empire has expanded to 45 cities and, of course, a website. There is comfort in knowing that the Zagat reviewers are ordinary diners who paid for their meals and had the real experience of a place, not the special treatment accorded to food critics who might be known to the chef. "Some critics sniff, Well, what does the public know?" says Merrill Shindler, who edits the Los Angeles edition of the Zagat guide. "I reply, Well, what do the critics know?"
If website criticism is on the rise, one reason may be that so much professional reviewing has gone squishy. In film reviewing, for instance, a proliferation of review outlets--small-circulation newspapers, local radio stations, dubious entertainment news services--has provided studios with an army of compliant "reviewers" who can be counted on to provide glowing reviews, or at least quotable blurbs, after being wined and dined at studio junkets. When the news broke earlier this year that Sony Pictures was promoting some of its films by inventing quotes from "David Manning," a nonexistent critic, you had to wonder why they bothered to make up a slavish reviewer when there are so many real ones at work.
"A lot of people feel the major studios run the critics," says Lisa Dinsmore, a website designer who started Crazy4Cinema.com three years ago. "You read certain reviewers and say, 'I saw that movie and it was crap!'" But will the Internet emerge as the snarky and more reliable alternative? In recent weeks Dinsmore has been kinder than many full-time critics were toward America's Sweethearts and Cats & Dogs. ("For the most part, it's entertaining as hell," she wrote of the latter.) The review pages of Amazon and Epinions are pretty cheerful too. Cyberspace may be famous for its rough and tumble, but for a good many Internet reviewers, it's largely a four-star world.