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Sept. 16, 2021, 2:58 p.m.

True Genius: How to go from “the future of journalism” to a fire sale in a few short years

Genius (née Rap Genius) wanted to “annotate the world” and give your content a giant comment section you can’t control. Now it can’t pay back its investors.

Remember Genius? The startup that started out decoding rap lyrics (and named Rap Genius) but then wanted to create a new layer on top of the entire internet and “annotate the world”?

The one that The Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza, in 2015, said was “the future of journalism”?

Over the past few months, I’ve been experimenting with Genius, a tool that allows you to annotate any text on the Web. And I am here to tell you that I think Genius — and, more broadly, annotation of both original texts (transcripts, speeches, etc.) and of news stories — is the future of journalism.

Before I go any further, let me make an important note: I don’t think all journalism in the future will be annotation or footnoting. Obviously, we still need people out in the field (and in the office) reporting and writing on both breaking news and investigative stories. Journalism can’t ever lose that.

But in a world in which people are looking for context and commentary with their news and where primary source documents are becoming more and more the coin of the realm, annotation seems to me to hold almost limitless potential as a new avenue by which journalists can add value (and keep their jobs!).

Genius raised a ton of money from investors, but now it’s being sold for parts, as Bloomberg reported this morning.

Music-annotating startup Genius Media Group Inc., a site that drew attention in part for outsized funding from venture capitalists, has sold its assets to a Santa Monica, California-based media holding company for $80 million.

The buyer is MediaLab.Ai Inc., which will cut some jobs as part of the process. “We are restructuring the way in which original content is produced at Genius and as part of that some very talented individuals on the content and production teams were let go,” MediaLab said in a statement. The company will not make cuts to the teams handling sales, product or engineering, said a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified discussing private information. “The scale of the community platform is what attracted us to Genius and this is where we will be heavily investing going forward, with a renewed focus on emerging artists,” the company said.

[Translation: Previous management used to pay people to write or create things, but that’s stupid. We’ll just let our “community” do it.]

Its new owner, MediaLab.Ai, specializes in buying up past-their-hype-cycle internet brands, like Kik and Whisper and DatPiff. Bloomberg notes that the “price tag of $80 million represents less than what it raised over the years in venture capital” and that because “the company’s obligations to its preferred shareholders exceeded the sale price, investors won’t be paid out in full.”

(Rap) Genius was one of the most unlikable tech startups of the past decade-plus. On a purely aesthetic level, its founders dressed like this and wore sunglasses indoors. They were non-Black people making money off of an overwhelmingly Black art form. They went from Yale and Stanford to working at hedge funds and law firms to deciding their new corporate image should be “we’re not afraid to tell Warren Buffett to suck a dick.” They said their site wasn’t “just crowdsourced…it was homiesourced…then we decided we wanted it to be ballersourced.” One of them got fired for writing that the manifesto left behind by incel spree murderer Elliot Rodger was “beautifully written” and that he guessed that Rodger’s sister was “smokin hot.”

From a media point of view, Genius was offensive for its initial underlying claim: that it was okay to take anyone’s content for zero compensation, so long as it “added transformative value” by tacking on a comment box where people could say it sucked. The collective output of a generation of rappers could be rightfully lifted by these clowns because, before you could “annotate the world,” you apparently had to make a copy of it. (The music industry’s lawyers eventually convinced Genius to license all the lyrics they’d taken, but only five years after the site launched.)

When it decided to expand beyond rap, news stories were a prime target. It lured Sasha Frere-Jones away from The New Yorker. News Genius was going “to debunk the myth of scientific journalism…No one is going to be able to imagine a text online without annotations anymore.” They also foresaw a day when the site’s algorithmic evaluation of your Genius annotations — their “Genius IQ” — would be so widely accepted that it “could impact your grades in primary school and your ability to get a job in a certain field.” (“We’re going to have annotations on other sites, so every other site in the world like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are going be Genius-powered and they’re going to have our annotations on them. And then the Genius platform will take over the internet; everyone’s most important statistic that they have in life is their Genius IQ.”)

Along the way, they got blamed for “killing music journalism,” got banned from Google for gaming search results, and got slammed for being a vehicle for harassment online.

Every few years, there’s a little boomlet of interest in annotation on the web. For a certain kind of idealistic, small-d internet democrat — someone who loves the vision of the web as a forum to which everyone has equal access — it can be super appealing to think of a tool that could give everyone a voice, everywhere. (“We could annotate ExxonMobil’s site everywhere they talk about green power! That’ll teach The Man!”) On the flip side, for a certain kind of tech investor — the kind who regrets missing out on buying Google and Facebook on IPO day — the appeal of an annotation platform is obvious. You get to own this universal layer, on top of everything online! Like the platform giants, you can build a business doing something — indexing, sharing, whatever — to an entire universe of content you don’t have to create yourself. Rare is the tech idea that appeals to both sides of that spectrum!

But here’s the truth: Annotation is just a comment box you can put anywhere on a web page. Some annotations are great! If you have a coherent community with shared goals and common values, they can be amazing and create something on a Wikipedia scale. But they have all the flaws of the comment box, too — namely, they’re a great place to see people be assholes to one another, and most people don’t have much of unique value to add to the discussion.

I can’t say R.I.P. Genius, since they’re not going away. But R.I.P. to a vision of cultural commoditization, of tech-bro arrogance, and of anyone saying the word “homiesourced” ever again.

Photo of Genius’ three co-founders at TechCrunch Disrupt 2013 by TechCrunch used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 16, 2021, 2:58 p.m.
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