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article imageDigital Journal Mavericks: The Shopper's Best Defender

By David Silverberg     May 28, 2008 in Internet
Consumer rights are alive and well on the Consumerist, an online home for customer service complaints and advice. They're scaring the life out of companies that scam shoppers and they're teaching consumers how to fight back against corporate giants.
Digital Journal's Mavericks of 2008 series will profile 10 trailblazers in various industries, allowing readers to learn more about the innovators and risk-takers who are making an impact in 2008.
Digital Journal — “We teach consumers how to get what they deserve.” That’s the mission statement behind one of the most powerful consumer-advocacy blogs on the Web. The Consumerist allows shoppers to rail against the companies that blatantly scam, cheat or screw over the public. The Brooklyn-based site treasures customer service and spits on corporate greed. Picture Consumer Reports doused with hipster edge and humour.
The blog is a mix of advice column, consumer rants, retail news aggregation and tech how-to’s. Consumerist staff (six altogether, some full-time, some part-time) receive 100-plus reader tips a day, which make up 90 per cent of the posts. For instance, one reader may alert the blog to the grocery store Safeway selling meat substitute that expired 37 days ago. Another reader claimed he was charged more than $1,000 for a Windows Vista Ultimate upgrade license. Other articles offer tips on avoiding direct mail deluges and how to see through retail sales lies.
Consumerist writers aren’t afraid of bluntly attacking corporations (On Wal-Mart: “What crime hasn’t this mega-corporate Spectre-wannabe been accused of?”). They warn readers about nefarious rip-offs, such as the post headed with Check Your Time Warner Cable Bill For An Extra $5 Charge. In the latter post, 23 comments backed up the writer’s argument, with several customer service debacles peppered in the thread.
In an effort to get customers up in arms, Consumerist (part of the Gawker Media blog network) also publishes a free corporate executive directory, allowing anyone to access the contact info for big-wigs at companies such as AT&T, Apple, Verizon and United Airlines. Along the same lines, they also publish success stories of consumers who had “the tenacity, confidence, and good fortune to keep pushing until things are fixed.”
Consumerist’s dedication to helping out the lil’ guy has given it a surge in popularity since it began in December 2005: it garners 2 million unique visitors monthly, and staffers write 30-plus posts daily. It was featured in’s Annual Blog Index and PC World named the blog as one of the top 100 best products of 2008.
There’s good reason for Consumerist’s success. They cut through the PR hype to give consumers what they want – simple and accessible news on how they’re being screwed. The blog just doesn’t post alerts and warnings; with snappy writing, the posts also offer tips and make recommendations to shoppers who want to fight back against the companies they love to hate. spoke to Consumerist editor Ben Popken, 26, to peek behind the curtain of the blog in order to get the goods on its fan base, its least favourite scams and where it plans to go in the future.
The Consumerist
The Consumerist is a blog attracting 2 million unique visitors per month. The site warns customers of company scams.
Screen grab Consumerist is a mix of hard news, anecdotal blog stories and service pieces. Was that the original intention? Did you ever want to get all SmokingGun and try to provide evidence from an investigative team?
Ben Popken: I don’t think we ever had a plan with regards to how to do the content mix, because it’s always just been a matter of finding relevant stories, wherever they came from. A lot of our stories come from readers, who feel part of our community whether they’re sending in tips or making comments.
And if we had more resources or if I was less lazy, I would love to do Smoking Gun-style investigations. Why do you think the blog world needs a site like Consumerist? What void does it fill?
Popken: It’s good for there to be an open forum where people can congregate and share their experiences and insights as consumers. The balance of power is often tipped too far in the favor of corporations, and I would like to think that we’re helping return that to the people who are paying for goods and services with their hard-earned money. On that note, the review of your site wrote, “it’s almost as if the American consumer is getting screwed every single day of his life.” Do you agree?
Popken: I think people are getting screwed a lot more than they realize. Consumerist just wants to help out and inform people about the little scams all around them. Some people feel helpless or they don’t want to be perceived as whiners when they’re scammed, which brings down their abilities to get what they deserve. A blog like yours must attract more than its share of lawsuits, right?
Popken: Actually, no. Since we began, we've never been slapped with a lawsuit. And I can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of times we've been contacted by a corporate lawyer. It's just something we don't have to deal with, luckily There’s a lot of sharp writing on your blog. Do you think that’s part of the appeal?
Popken: Part of that is just us amusing ourselves, but it’s also a Machiavellian calculation to get people to pay attention. On the Internet, funny is first. When people write about corporations, it’s usually dry stuff, which is why no one pays attention. We like to follow the old saying, “If they’re laughing, they’re with me.” What’s one of the most despicable things you’ve seen a company commit against a consumer?
Popken: At the beginning of the tainted Chinese product crisis, there was news about a children’s cough medicine that was made with antifreeze because it was cheaper to make than diethylene glycol. It killed at least 100 people, mainly children, in Panama. So kids died because a company wanted to shave off a few cents. It bothered me because it’s hard for these people to get medicine in the first place. Also, the perpetrators are protected by intricate hard-to-unravel supply chains, and that’s always frustrating to see. What's in the works for The Consumerist in 2008?
: We want to do undercover ops with the spy-cam we just bought. One issue that we’re concerned about is consumers being lied to by sales reps about needing to upgrade to an HDTV in order to watch TV after the digital conversion crossover.

Mavericks Series

This is the fifth profile in a 10-part series on Mavericks of 2008, focusing on trailblazers in various fields, from Internet to photography to music. Every day, read about a new industry maverick. Tomorrow, we look at a magazine publisher's courageous decision to celebrate an oft-misaligned demographic.
Other Mavericks:
- Ron Deibert, creator of Psiphon software: Psiphon is a censorship-fighting tool, allowing those in oppressive regimes to access any website.
- Jayant Agarwalla, the inventor of the Scrabulous game: Scrabulous riffs off the classic Scrabble board game, and it's become the center of a controversial lawsuit launched by Hasbro and Mattel.
- Nikki Yanofsky, a 14-year-old jazz singer: Yanofsky is a teenage jazz prodigy who's already played Carnegie Hall and jazz festivals, giving audiences a taste of the talent brewing in her golden voice.
- Phil Borges, a photographer capturing the forgotten cultures of indigenous tribes: Passionate about foreign ways of life, Seattle-based Phil Borges wants to let the West know about endangered tribes and villages through his impacting photographs.
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