In 2014, while still recovering from a very public spat with Google over SEO marketing techniques that resulted in a brief suspension from Google’s search results and an 80 percent drop in traffic to the site, the lyrics and annotation site Rap Genius rebranded itself as Genius. In what at the time seemed like a bold move, rather than tightening the operation, the company instead broadened its purview not just to cover music but also literature, current events, and the Web in general.
Two years later, the annotation platform is home to a music-and-lyrics partnership with Spotify and is a destination for commentary on presidential debates, the transcripts of which were annotated by the Washington Post’s political bloggers. It has even partnered with the White House, which released the transcript of President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address through Genius, featuring commentary by former staffers.
Genius also released its Web Annotator tool, which acts as the digital version of margin notes and enables anyone with access to the Internet to share their thoughts about the contents of a website at the click of a button. A clear alternative to traditional comment sections, which are increasingly being eliminated or strongly moderated, the tool allows users to create a secondary view of a website where they can provide their own commentary. Typing “Genius.it/” before a URL enables anyone with a Genius account to highlight a passage and post their thoughts on it for other users to see and respond to.
The company’s latest undertaking, which moved out of beta four months ago, is News Genius, which seeks to bridge the gap between journalism and commentary by showcasing the annotations made to the biggest news stories of the day.* Heading up the project is former Gawker editor Leah Finnegan, who is tasked with helping users “see news as an ongoing and evolving discussion between many parties” and, through her own annotations, inspire the community of Genius users to open up a dialogue with content creators across the Web.
But it’s clear that there’s one thing News Genius hasn’t taken into consideration while evolving its business model: a very real potential for abuse.
The Web Annotator tool could be a great facilitator for creating dialogue about stories in the press that may contain bias or misinformation. But the tool also works with the personal blogosphere, so it doesn’t matter if you’re affiliated with a mainstream publication—as long as you are posting content publicly, your work is subject to the tool. To be sure, anyone who puts information about themselves on the Web is consenting to a certain amount of scrutiny. But that consent becomes less cut and dry when content providers explicitly place limits on that scrutiny—for example, by disabling comments—and News Genius and the Web Annotator essentially override those restrictions.
Take, for example, Ella Dawson, a blogger whose work “frequently covers topics like past emotionally abusive relationships and being slut-shamed for having a sexually transmitted infection.” After Finnegan and freelance writer Sara Morrison annotated one of her pieces, Dawson took to Twitter to ask how to disable the Genius annotation feature on her personal blog, which runs on a free WordPress site.* She received the following response from the @newsgenius account: “But your blog is public! People can comment on Twitter, Fb etc; Genius is in its simplest form a more efficient tool for this.”
The response is factually accurate: Bloggers have chosen to post their work in a public forum. And, of course, there will always be people who comment or tweet “this is terrible” or “delete your account” as their response to everything—but that sort of commentary stings less when it appears on a third-party social platform. What the response from Genius ignores is that posting comments on Facebook or Twitter can lead to a discussion about the validity of those comments, a debate that takes place in a forum that is separate from the writer’s work. Regardless of how thick a writer’s skin may be, once the psychological barriers between the writing and the defense of that writing have been removed—which is effectively what happens when commentary is superimposed on someone’s work—it can feel ultra-personal and invasive.
“I welcome constructive criticism,” Dawson told me, “especially if I have veered off the mark or said something unintentionally problematic. But the design and structure of News Genius is not built with work like mine in mind—it seems intended to speak truth to power and thoughtfully interrogate high-profile publications.” She added, “It seems far more likely to intimidate marginalized voices who already face so much scrutiny and harassment when they share their stories.”
There’s a lot of truth to that. Female bloggers have a long, sordid history of harassment on the Web—Gamergate is just the tip of the iceberg—and while Genius-enabled annotations could theoretically bring a larger audience to unknown writers, some denizens of the Internet are not seeking to broaden their page views; they actively wish to stay in their own circles, avoiding potential readers who are likely to be unfriendly.
The commentary that News Genius enables has the potential to provide a useful corrective service—pointing out clumsy or inaccurate writing in the mainstream media, and thereby challenging sloppy writers to improve their work. But to be effective, a certain level of sensitivity is needed, and that doesn’t seem to exist at present. In many cases, the work being tackled isn’t factually incorrect or particularly high-profile, and there’s a lot of empty criticism: The first annotation on one BuzzFeed piece is just “lol”; in another, one of the annotations is simply a link to a Google search for a phrase that’s been used.
“The annotations I have seen are often more snark than substance,” Dawson told me, “veering on personal attacks on the author. I do not want someone annotating my account of being gaslit by my ex-boyfriend, as the lines between annotating and questioning, questioning and invalidating, invalidating and silencing are unclear in the best of circumstances.”
After annotating Ella Dawson’s blog post, one Genius user declared in a tweet: “constructive criticism is not abuse. public blogs are not private diaries. a 23-year-old is not a child.” Again, that’s true—people who publish on the Internet should always be aware that they are opening themselves up to criticism. But bloggers like Dawson, whose posts are deeply personal, should be allowed to opt out of the Web Annotator platform.*
There’s a substantive difference between critiquing the work of a professional journalist or blogger and critiquing the writing of an individual who is using her blog as an outlet to communicate with other likeminded people. Members of the Genius community are now grappling with the implications of this distinction when it comes to their mission to “annotate the world.” “In general, we should avoid annotating these pieces in the first place,” DoyleOwl, a Genius user, wrote in a Web Annotator discussion forum. “Our commentary may be important on political pieces, but it’s a bit of a low blow to attack blogs.”
There’s no question that News Genius can provide a useful service in the media world, and annotations will surely play a role in the future of journalism. As one Slate staffer noted, the tool would be a phenomenal way for writers to revisit their work. But until there’s more clarity around what News Genius gains by denying the ability to opt out of the annotation process, it’ll continue to leave bloggers like Ella Dawson asking themselves, “Do I have the ability to block my abusive ex-boyfriend from annotating blog posts about our relationship? That question hasn’t been answered by Genius.” The people of the Internet deserve better.
*Correction, March 28, 2016: This piece originally misstated how long the New Genius tool has been out of beta. It is four months, not one week. (Return.)
*Corrections, March 29, 2016: This piece originally misstated that “several News Genius moderators” had annotated an Ella Dawson post—it was a News Genius staffer and a freelance writer. (Return.) It also misstated that Dawson’s blog has no editor. (Return.)