Remember Rap Genius? The lyric annotation website that got itself into hot water more than a few times – it was hit with takedown notices from the NMPA, punished by Google for spammy SEO tactics, and the company fired one of its three co-founders after he posted some less-than-genius comments online. But today the company made a major announcement: it’s dropped the “Rap” and launched its new site, Genius.com, where all kinds of subjects get the annotation treatment. The company’s iOS app, which launched early this year, seems to have been the first portion of the company to be rebranded, and now the rest of the company’s services has followed suit. Even more interesting is its new “embeddable annotation” service that sites can launch and give their readers the power to leave notes and annotations.
Sections on Genius include Rap, of course, as well as Rock, Lit, News, Pop, History, Sports, Screen, and “X,” which seems to be everything else not covered under those other categories. Each one has topics ranging from songs to news stories to chapters from novels, along with annotations created by users. Users can leave annotations wherever they want, containing whatever they want, though, like on Wikipedia, these annotations seem to be subject to approval by Genius’s editors. Genius has hosted these different works and annotations for a while now, but the site relaunch has put these various sections front-and-center, with Rap no longer getting top billing.
From a quick look of sample annotations, however, it would seem that Genius might have an uphill battle to live up to its name. The first annotation on Chapter 3 of George Orwell’s Animal Farm is linked to the lines reading, “How they toiled and sweated to get the hay in! But their efforts were
rewarded, for the harvest was an even bigger success than they had hoped.” Here’s what the “Genius” had to say about those two sentences:
“The success of people/companies is never an easy process. People put in months and months of work and effort to make their idea a success.
Oprah Winfrey- She was a poor child. Didn’t have a dollar to her name. Now, after a lot of work… She is a Millionaire.”
All of that’s true – she is a millionaire! – but it also raises questions about whether or not that annotation is worth the time it took to read it. That “Genius” seems to be a high school student, and while I’m happy for him to try and flex his rhetorical muscles, an annotation website is no good if the annotations can’t manage anything deeper than comparing a successful harvest to Oprah Winfrey.
Of course, the utility of its annotations isn’t really the most important part of Genius, but rather giving users a place to discuss whatever they’re looking at – a place that will, presumably, come packed with advertisements. Unlike Wikipedia, which is a non-profit that’s free of ads and values veracity above clicks, Genius is a decidedly for-profit enterprise. According to a post on TechCrunch about the relaunch, Genius has pulled in $40 million in Series B funding, with help from Cleveland Cavaliers owner and Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert. I’m hopeful that Genius’s editors will step up their game going forward and bring users more pertinent information and annotations, but I’m not holding my breath.
Meanwhile, the embeddable annotation tool – demonstrated on Business Insider’s feature on the company – might have a bit more potential. With readers of various sites able to comment on what they’re reading as they’re reading it, discussion and conversation could elevate to the levels of each site’s target demographic. On the other hand, there seems to be no site invented that’s immune to the idiot commenter, and all embeddable annotations will do is bring those comments up higher.
Maybe Genius will prove me wrong, and we’ll have another go-to destination on the web of the same caliber of Wikipedia before it. But from what I can see in its initial offerings, I’m not sure this was the Genius move the company’s investors hope it’ll be.