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  • Genius lets you scribble in the margins of the internet
  • Genius lets you scribble in the margins of the internet
    Leo Hidalgo, Creative Commons (2015) ©
CASE STUDY

Genius Web Annotator: comment on the entire internet

With the launch of its Web Annotator tool, Genius is now giving people the opportunity to comment on every webpage in existence. It boasts the potential to change the way we read the news on the internet, but could it also expose digital creators to anonymous trolls and bullies?

Location Global

Scope
Genius’ new Web Annotator service means that online feedback is no longer confined to below-the-line comment sections and off-site forums. It allows anyone to discuss content on any page – even those with comments deliberately disabled – via a URL prefix or dedicated Chrome extension.

Co-founder Ilan Zechory says the tool is intended to provide a “social experience” of “collaboratively reading the whole internet together.” [1] Yet while advocates argue that publishing content online intrinsically invites readers to discuss and share it, can authors really claim ownership if comments aren’t made on their own website, but on a copy instead?

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Genius (formerly known as Rap Exegesis and Rap Genius) began in 2009 as a blog explaining the lyrics to rap songs. Following heavy investment in 2012 and 2013, it went on to launch News Genius, Poetry Genius and Rock Genius, helping it to hit 4.9 million unique visitors per month. In 2014, it launched the Genius app and further expanded its remit to include anything available to view on the internet, from the US Constitution to the Bible. [2] Today, it has partnerships with the likes of the Washington Post and Spotify, and has even been used by the White House. [3][4]

With its latest tool, users can type ‘genius.it/’ in front of any URL on the internet and Genius will overlay comments from contributors on top of that page. Equally, users are welcome to highlight any words or paragraphs within articles and leave their own thoughts, which will be visible to others using the URL prefix. “At an infrastructural level, we’re trying to change the way reading and writing takes place on the internet,” says Zechory. “There’s been a big sea change from the printed page to the screen. We can make any flat text more interesting, more interactive, and more fun.” [1] To kick-start the process, Genius hired ex-Gawker editor Leah Finnegan, who said: “I'm going to be using it as a tool for, essentially, media criticism and pulling back the curtain on how news is made.” [5]

Despite the potential positives of Web Annotator, its launch fuelled heated debate on Twitter, centring on whether the tool represents freedom of speech or an open invite to online abuse. US Congresswoman Katherine Clark got involved by writing to Genius’ co-founder Tom Lehman regarding its “lack of safeguards against internet harassment and abuse.” [6] The company has since made it easier for users to report abuse, but Clarke’s letter has been criticised for making false accusations against the company and the way comments are made. “Like every platform that enables commentary, it has the potential to be misused. However, we want to be clear that Genius does not enable abuse,” Lehman wrote in a statement. “This is a false narrative that has taken hold on Twitter and other outlets.” [7]

Genius lets anyone give their two cents on any article Genius lets anyone give their two cents on any article
Yelp Inc, Creative Commons (2014) ©

Context
Annotating the internet isn’t a new concept – it’s just that predecessors like Third Voice, WOT (Web Of Trust) and even a Google prototype called SideWiki have not been as successful as Genius. And they were not launched at a time of such epidemic levels of online abuse; 70% of adults in the US have experienced online harassment or trolling. [8]

A ten-year study of comments on the Guardian’s website found that eight of its ten most abused regular contributors were women. [9] As such, female-focused publications like Lenny and Broadly are opting out of below-the-line commenting. [10] “It's so easy for a commenter to go on to a site and just totally take a dump on this really well-reported story that someone has done,” says Tracie Egan Morrissey, editor-in-chief of Broadly. “People are totally within their right to say that stuff, but they are not going to say it on my property, on my time.” [11]

There’s been a sea change from the printed page to the screen. We can make any flat text more interesting, more interactive, and more fun

Ilan Zechory, co-founder of Genius

In this light, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many of Genius’ harshest critics are female. “Genius is officially worse than Twitter,” writes blogger Ella Dawson. “I can block a user on Twitter, and they can then go and scribble whatever they want on my website using Genius. Opening my post using Genius was like discovering graffiti over some of my most personal work.” [12]

In response to the criticism that Genius facilitates online abuse and bullying is the argument that no-one can expect full control over anything they post online; “News Genius couldn’t destroy this fairytale vision of the web,” writes Sam Biddle for Gawker. “Because it never existed.” [13] Biddle also stresses that the comments are only viewable when using the Chrome extension or by adding the URL prefix, meaning that most readers wouldn’t see them.

Controlling the online conversation is a seemingly impossible task Controlling the online conversation is a seemingly impossible task
Yelp Inc, Creative Commons (2012) ©

Insights and opportunities
The format of Genius is a particularly suitable framework for Gen Yers who tend to reject authoritative opinions. “Millennials often wish to gauge the opinions of their peers and are less likely than Gen Xers to trust the opinion of experts,” says Mark Organ, CEO of marketing firm Influitive[14] Studies also suggest that this cohort trust user-generated content 50% more than any other media. [15] This behaviour may be explained by Gen Y’s familiarity with social media, and being more used to producing UGC than previous generations. [16]

Exactly how Genius creates revenue is still a bit vague. But one thing that it now has is a huge database of how its users interact not just on its own websites but the internet as a whole. Zechory explains how this information may be used by marketers; “We’re looking at our assets of traffic, community, artist relationships, live experiences, and bringing brands into that,” he says. [17] Zechory also confirmed in February 2016 that Genius was in talks with the New York Times about possible collaborations: “We're talking about how we can work with them and so they're a really big and important publisher to do cool stuff with.” [5]

It’s clear that not everyone on the internet is convinced by Genius’ new tool, but perhaps it is not the actual format that’s at fault, but rather its users. Web Annotator offers an exciting way for people to interact with online text on a broad scale together; restricting its use would undeniably limit the appeal and perhaps even interfere with the freedom of speech.

genius.com/web-annotator

Louise Andersson is a London-based Swede about to complete a Masters degree in Sociocultural Linguistics from Goldsmiths University. Particularly interested in language and gender, she is currently working on her final thesis about how men and women are targeted differently in advertising.

Sources
1. 'Genius now lets you annotate any web page, not just rap', TechCrunch (April 2015)
2. 'The history of Rap Genius: from rap lyrics blog to annotation powerhouse', VentureBeat (July 2014)
3. 'Misguided Genius', Slate (March 2016)
4. 'The company formerly known as Rap Genius is once again enmeshed in controversy', Recode (March 2016)
5. 'Genius hires former Gawker editor to spearhead news division', Politico (February 2016)
6. 'News Genius controversy around harassing female writers now includes a letter from Congress', Genius.it/Mashable (March 2016)
7. 'Genius wants to let readers annotate any news article. What could possibly go wrong?', ThinkProgress (March 2016)
8. 'Online library is curated to increase users’ empathy', Canvas8 (July 2016)
9. 'The dark side of Guardian comments', The Guardian (April 2016)
10. 'Lena Dunham's newsletter is a victory for the letter-writing renaissance', The Guardian (July 2015)
11. 'Broadly: Vice's new women-centric site nixes the comment section to avoid trolls', Southern California Public Radio (August 2015)
12. 'How News Genius silences writers', Ella Dawson (March 2016)
13. 'The outrage over people potentially being mean on News Genius isn't news', Gawker (March 2016)
14. 'GENERATION Y: In control, content, and community-minded', CRM (February 2016)
15. 'Millennials love user-generated content [Infographic]', Business 2 Community (March 2016)
16. 'Marketing to Millennials: Why user-generated content works best', ReferralCandy (April 2015)
17. 'Annotation startup Genius to launch advertising business', The Wall Street Journal (March 2016)

Author
Louise Andersson