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Is Genius Smarter Than Past Attempts to Annotate the Web?

A site that began as place to annotate hip-hop lyrics thinks it’s figured out how to spread annotation to the wider Web.
January 19, 2015

Tom Lehman has a vision of the near future. Everything you see online, whether Taylor Swift lyrics or government press releases, will come with crowdsourced annotations that provide expert commentary. Think of it as an extra layer of knowledge spread by the masses over the entire Web.

“Wherever you’re experiencing culture, you will have access to this layer of context and expert criticism,” says Lehman, a cofounder and CEO of the startup Genius. “All forms of text and of culture benefit from this.”

The collaborative annotation tools offered on the Genius website have been used to enhance documents including works by Kanye West, Jane Austen, and the U.S. Supreme Court. The company and its big idea have attracted $57 million in investment and a recent flurry of media interest after it hired the New Yorker’s music critic to help annotate song lyrics. Yet in some ways Lehman’s vision for the future is also ancient history.

From the earliest days of the Web and through the dot-com and Web 2.0 years, a string of companies tried and failed to make annotating online content a popular activity (see “A Standard for E-Comments”). Genius’s pitch isn’t much different.

The startup was founded in 2009 as Rap Genius, a place for people to annotate hip-hop lyrics. The company expanded its vision and shortened its name after significant numbers of the site’s millions of users began trying to use it for more than lyrics, says Lehman. “People wanted to add other types of text, music, and poetry,” he says.

Lehman says annotations were always a good idea but that Web technology and culture weren’t previously ready for it. “For me a big analogy is the hyperlink,” he says. “It used to be this exotic scary thing and now it’s just part of what text is. It’s the same thing for annotations.”

John Borthwick, CEO of Betaworks, which made one of the first outside investments in Rap Genius in 2011, says people already are annotating online content—but they’re doing it on social sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. Genius has come up with a way to direct that activity onto an online document itself, instead of scattering it to the winds of the Web, he says.

Even if Lehman and Borthwick are right, making that activity popular, useful, and profitable won’t be easy.

One challenge is that online discussions open to all often produce juvenile, banal, or vicious content. To produce high-quality annotations on everything, Genius needs to attract a large number of contributors and ensure they work together productively. The company’s technology allows people to edit other people’s contributions, and it has a voting system that makes the best edits and annotations more visible. That can produce high-quality results on lyrics that many people have gone over—explaining, for example, literary or musical allusions in a song. But so far, Genius annotations on other types of documents are often thin.

Wikipedia is the only blockbuster site to have managed this kind of problem before. It enforces quality control with a system of complex rules and a multilayer bureaucracy of editors with different powers. Despite the success of that approach, Wikipedia still produces dubious or badly written content (see “The Decline of Wikipedia”).

Genius so far has only a single, short page of contributor guidelines and a relatively simple system of giving some people power to moderate the contributions of others. It also lets people rack up “IQ points” to reward contributions appreciated by others. But unlike Wikipedia, it doesn’t require people to back up their claims with references.

Aaron Halfaker, a researcher at Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that operates Wikipedia, says Genius’s expansion beyond lyrics could put that system to the test. Getting people to do good work without fighting over, say, President Obama’s speeches, is more difficult than getting them to annotate rap, he says. Still, Halfaker is broadly optimistic about Genius’s design. “I’m not worried about Genius getting users so much as them pulling users away from Wikipedia,” he says.

Joshua Schachter, an angel investor who founded the social bookmarking site, is less sure. News organizations and nonprofits sometimes stage collaborative annotation projects, he points out, for example on the Wikileaks cables, but they are not wildly popular. “It’s important but there aren’t that many people scrambling to annotate and index them,” he says. “It’s not traditionally big-money venture capital stuff.”

Lehman’s long-term plan also involves publishers and other companies integrating Genius into their own sites. That’s the way most people will see Genius annotations, he says.

Some news organizations have experimented with that—mostly on articles about Genius. But convincing many publishers to embrace something that could distract from or devalue their own content may be tough.

That was a problem for previous efforts to introduce Web annotations. Third Voice, which received $15 million in funding before folding in 2001, and Google Sidewiki, launched in 2009 and shuttered in 2011, both met opposition from some publishers (see “Taking Back the Web”).

Today, some news publishers, such as Medium, Quartz, and Gawker, have built annotation systems of their own. Others have turned off their commenting systems altogether.

On top of all that, Genius has no firm plan for how to turn a profit. “Broadly speaking, I’d say everything is on the table,” says Lehman. Advertising has more appeal than charging for services or content, he adds, but the company is not actively working toward bringing in revenue. Lehman says his current priority is expanding Genius’s small team of eight coders to build the technology needed to deliver on his big dream.

One part of that is making the Genius annotation system integrate smoothly into any publisher’s website, no matter how it is built. Another is building a system that will tune the annotations that different Genius users see based on their interests or social connections. Further ahead, Lehman wants to create a way for people to add annotations to video. “This is a company thinking critically about culture,” says Lehman.

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