Technology

The open source website Genius has expanded to take in annotations on any text, from poetry to presidential addresses. By Gillian Terzis.

The Genius of explaining the meaning of any text

When he’s on his A-game, Lil Wayne is hip-hop’s Lorrie Moore. He has a singular talent for wordplay that, for the non-diehards, can border on tiresome; his pun-toting is relentless, indiscriminate and self-consciously clever. Upon the release of his seminal single “6 Foot 7 Foot”, one particular line (“Real G’s move in silence like lasagne”) sparked bemusement from some (rap’s elder statesman Questlove tweeted the hashtag: #AmIGettinOld?) and fierce debate among others, notably amateur linguists (Is the ‘g’ in lasagne really silent?).

Genius – a website that aims to “annotate the world”, like a Wikipedia of marginalia to explain the meaning of any text – seems primed to settle such scores. On the lyric in question it proffers this analysis, which has been upvoted 278 times by the site’s users: “When you pronounce ‘lasagna’, the G is silent (in English. In Italian the ‘GN’ sound is similar to the ‘ñ’ in Spanish). Real gangsters (Gs) move in silence too – they keep their hustles on the low, and they can literally creep up on you real quiet if the situation calls for it.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Genius, founded by three Yale graduates, started out as Rap Genius (a site for decoding rap lyrics), before branching out into a number of music genres, current affairs, history, poetry, technology and law. There are apparently plans to create Art Genius, which will allow users to annotate a digital canvas. 

The start-up’s scope is ambitious but ostensibly logical: wherever there are words there are multiple meanings, whether in song lyrics, journalism, philosophy, science or legislation. Genius wants to help us make sense of this ambiguity from the ground up: by crowdsourcing interpretations and critiques on all sorts of topics from users all around the world. However, unlike Wikipedia, even vague references are not required to substantiate critiques of a text. 

Ezra Glenn, who works on content partnerships and marketing at Genius, says that more than 1000 teachers in secondary schools and universities across the United States are using the website to discuss poetry and classical literature. Some professors are among the annotators, adding their notes to scientific, philosophical and legal texts. Notably prolix critical theorist Judith Butler has provided annotations on the extramorality of gender, based on a speech she delivered at the European Graduate School in 2008. 

The idea is not new, but monetising marginalia might be. Venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz gave Genius $US15 million in seed money. Annotation already exists in some form on the internet, most visibly through what the prime minister ungenerously dubbed “electronic graffiti”, such as social media and comment threads. But line-by-line mark-up is also present on sites such as Medium, Quartz and Gawker. Website comments, Twitter, Facebook’s recursive liking and commenting system and Tumblr are probably the most prominent, allowing readers to directly chime in with commentary of their own. Ignoring the comments, however, has become something of a cardinal rule: the defunct Twitter account @AvoidComments once tweeted that “you wouldn’t listen to someone named Bonerman26 in real life”. It’s a sound observation. 

But in a collaborative project such as Genius, the dynamic is a little different. The tone is generally playful and passionate, rather than vitriolic and mind-numbing. And unlike a dispiriting comment thread on any given news site, Glenn says “the conversations around annotations can be just as interesting as the annotations themselves”. He says the earliest experimental web browsers had annotation tools built in, “but the computing power wasn’t there to make it work quite right”. Since then, the technology has become sophisticated and can now feed what Glenn describes as an “appetite for an added layer of meaning on top of the content we are digesting every day”.

Genius is “an experiment in meaning and commentary,” Glenn says. “An internet Talmud.” Which sounds lofty, but not once you recall how quickly Wikipedia cast off its critics to become this era’s foundational text. In a recent coup, Genius partnered with The Guardian and MSNBC to annotate President Obama’s State of the Union address. 

Is it a tech start-up with journalistic ambitions, or something else? Glenn is somewhat vague, saying that the site sees itself as “part of journalism and culture, but it’s not exclusive to those worlds”. Fair enough: the economics of online media are hardly an encouraging value proposition for prospective financial backers. 

Still, ensuring a level of quality control remains the bugbear of user-generated content, and Genius is no exception. One annotation of a lyric in Sia’s pop hit “Chandelier” reads: “She wants to keep drinking because drinking is a night activity, and she doesn’t want the next day to come.” (Sia, who is one of the site’s verified users, has subsequently added her two cents on the lyric: “pure sadness, yes, very sad”.) Compare this to the contribution of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, who has this to say about a line in rapper Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry”: “Kendrick Lamar reveals the nature of the enigmatic hypocrisy that the speaker has previously confessed to three times in the song without elaborating: that he grieved over the murder of Trayvon Martin when he himself has been responsible for the death of a young black man.”

There’s nothing wrong with lyrical or textual exegesis per se. Oxford University senior research fellow and associate professor Mark Graham says that “these augmentations and annotations have very real effects – they shape how people understand texts and the world they represent”. But there are other considerations: who’s making the annotations? Who decides which annotations are relevant or meaningful? The site has already attracted a legion of contributors, who have been accused of racism, elitism and “slumming”. The public image of this unseemly coalescence of the worst stereotypes of “brogrammers” and Ivy League graduates hasn’t helped: one co-founder resigned after he annotated mass shooter Elliot Rodger’s manifesto on the site’s news channel with some insensitive and misogynistic “jokes”. 

A more important question, perhaps, is whether the manifesto should have been uploaded to the site so soon after the tragedy, if at all. Genius co-founder and CEO Tom Lehman admits to his former colleague’s “gleeful insensitivity” and misogyny but also said in a public statement on the website: “We decided that it was worthy of close reading – understanding the psychology of people who do horrible things can help us to better understand our society and ourselves … Almost all the annotations were at least attempting a close reading – they were genuinely, though imperfectly, trying to add context to the text and make it easier to understand.”

Graham says we need to scrutinise not only “just who participates and who doesn’t, but also what design features and algorithms do to make some visible and some invisible”. Currently, Genius uses a voting system that enables users to vote an annotation up or down according to its perceived quality. It also has verified users, such as the artists and authors of particular works, including Junot Diaz, Michael Chabon, Nas, Rick Rubin, Sheryl Sandberg. Former New Yorker pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones is an executive editor. 

But I wonder if Genius’s emphasis on the line-by-line deconstruction of texts is the best way to understand them. Close reading is beneficial, but only when it deepens understanding of a work or an event – and its context – as a whole. It’s early days (Genius is still in beta mode), but it’s increasingly clear that many of the annotations across the subject channels get hung up on analysing a particular phrase or sentence, rather than comprehension of the bigger picture. This method, which suggests cultural interpretation is simply a feat of reverse engineering, might make sense to a programmer. But for artists or lawmakers, language is not always definitive, nor is it necessarily logical. Ambiguity is an end in itself; it too serves a purpose.

Putting “genius.com/” before any URL allows you to mark up any website with annotations of your own (which, depending on the website, can feel like a charitable act). But online publishers may not feel the same way: user-generated annotation could be seen to detract from or diminish the content’s value. Still, Genius may be onto something. After years of “content curation” and the proliferation of Silicon Valley’s empty kōans, annotation could be just the tonic: a way to create meaning where it has since been eroded. 

But this is the internet, and a degree of preternatural wariness is par for the course. The alternate scenario – that annotation could add more detritus to the internet’s crap heap – is at least an equally likely and ever-present risk.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 14, 2015 as "Clicks notes". Subscribe here.

Gillian Terzis
is a San Francisco-based writer.

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