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Annotating Service Genius Wants To Mark Up The Entire Internet

The Andreessen Horowitz-backed company is testing a tool that will let you annotate any page on the web.

Annotating Service Genius Wants To Mark Up The Entire Internet
[Photo: Flickr user photosteve101]

When Marc Andreessen launched the Netscape web browser back in 1994, he inadvertently laid the foundation for what would later become the lyric annotation platform Rap Genius, and eventually, Genius. “Only a handful of people know that the big missing feature from the web browser–the feature that was supposed to be in from the start but didn’t make it–is the ability to annotate any page on the Internet with commentary and additional information,” he wrote in a blog post back in 2012, when Andreessen Horowitz first invested in Genius. Now, Genius is making Andreessen’s vision a reality by allowing users to annotate any page on the Internet.

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Currently in beta, the new tool is incredibly easy to use: Tack on the prefix “genius.it/” to any URL, and you can annotate away to your heart’s content without taking a detour to the Genius website. “For texts that do have a natural home elsewhere on the Internet, we don’t want to force people to come to our website to read the annotations,” cofounder Tom Lehman said in a Q&A on Product Hunt today. “Instead we want to bring Genius annotations to wherever people are experiencing media and culture, and this new beta is one of our first baby steps in that direction.” Genius also unveiled a Chrome extension, bookmarklet, and an updated edition of its iOS app.


Founded in 2009, Rap Genius was the brainchild of three rap aficionados–including Mahbod Moghadam, who was ousted from the company last year–who wanted to create a space for lyric explainers. Users could directly upload song lyrics to the site and annotate them with links and context. In 2012, Andreessen Horowitz invested $15 million in Genius, which helped dismiss its brotastic roots. Rap Genius soon expanded its repertoire to include the King James Bible, along with verticals for news, poetry, and rock. The company pared its name down to just Genius last July, a few months after it added an embed feature that allows people to insert annotated texts into other websites.

The Genius beta essentially builds upon the power of hyperlinks and the Wikipedia rabbit hole. The idea, as Lehman noted on Product Hunt, is to have people “read articles by jumping from annotation to annotation.” Genius’s annotations bring hyperlinks to life, adding running commentary and background. For publications, this could be yet another way to promote content and increase engagement, giving readers the ability to comment and critique every line of an article while providing context in a non-disruptive way. This might come in handy with narrative journalism in particular, for reporters and editors who may not want to interrupt the flow of a piece to add detailed attribution.

The flip side, of course, is that Genius’s universal annotations will invite yet another layer of Internet trolling and spam–one that will go undetected by those who don’t use Genius. The company may also face copyright issues, as it did when it published unlicensed song lyrics back in its Rap Genius days. What might it mean for cyberbullying, for example, if a high school student can annotate a classmate’s Facebook page? According to Product Hunt, Genius is working on a way to keep spam under control by showing only the annotations relevant to any given user–a feature that may be invaluable if Genius truly hopes to annotate all of the Internet.

Update:

A Genius spokesperson has responded with the following statement regarding how the service will moderate annotations and avoid potential copyright issues:

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“Genius is a collaborative project, and the conversations around annotations can be just as interesting as the annotations themselves. An annotation is a form of insight—it’s not necessarily an explanation. The beauty of Genius is that if you see something you disagree with, you can create an account and annotate that line of text yourself!

We are building a fairly complex editorial and communication infrastructure that helps to ensure quality. Users can vote an annotation up or down. Ultimately, quality is driven by the passionate and intelligent users who find value in the product.

When a user visits a Genius-powered page–i.e., genius.it/[some article]–our servers visit the page requested by the user, enable annotation functionality by injecting our JavaScript, and send that page on to the user’s browser. The annotatable page is generated “dynamically” or “on the fly.” There is no copyright infringement, nor is there content-storing at play.”

[via Product Hunt]

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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