Rap Genius: Annotating the World? Part I

The modern Web is built on user-generated content. From social sites like Facebook and reddit to curated knowledge aggregators like Wikipedia, unpaid volunteers are the backbone for most of today’s popular Web sites. One of the fastest growing online communities of committed, unpaid contributors can be found at an unlikely place: Rap Genius. A Web site focused on decoding rap lyrics may not sound interesting to some, but despite the name it’s much more than that. A platform that hosts and seeks to explain all sorts of knowledge from scientific research to complicated legal documents and literature through user created and verified annotation, Rap Genius just might change the way we understand information throughout the Internet.

Rap Genius Home Page

Rap Genius Home Page

While those ambitions might sound overblown, the fast-growing site has gained a lot of attention beyond the world of hip-hop. Dr. Jeremy Dean, the Education Czar at Rap Genius, participated in the inaugural “FutureOf” series of collaborative lectures at Georgetown University this fall. As his interesting job title implies, Dr. Dean’s role is to encourage the use of Rap Genius’ powerful annotation platform as an education tool both in and out of the classroom. In front of a diverse audience of faculty, students, alumni and professionals, Dr. Dean told his company’s story and explained how Rap Genius might help shape the future of literacy.

Founded in 2009, RapGenius.com started as a site where hip-hop heads congregated and discussed the meaning of various rap lyrics. Users upload content and, using the site’s dynamic and easy to use annotation platform, add context and explanations where needed—including links, pictures, videos and more. Like other Web sites that rely on users to create and moderate content, an ever growing community of volunteer users (“scholars” in Rap Genius parlance) and editors do the heavy lifting that makes the site so compelling. Artists or other public figures can have their accounts verified, which allows them to take part in the vibrant conversation. Today, Dr. Dean said, Rap Genius boasts the largest online hip-hop community. According to Web traffic tracker Alexa.com, Rap Genius recieves over 1.3 million daily unique visitors and more than 71 million monthly pageviews.1

Rap Genius Annotation Example

One example of an annotation on Rap Genius, in this case for the song “Mistadobalina” by Del tha Funkee Homosapien. Annotations can include hyperlinks, text, pictures and video, and can range in tone from playful to purely factual and insightful.

With substantial buzz growing around the site, Rap Genius secured a $15 million round of financing from influential venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz in October 2012.2 In a blog post on Rap Genius announcing the investment, Marc Andreessen (who knows a thing or two about innovation on the Web) explained the reasoning behind his firm’s enthusiasm for Rap Genius:

First, there is the undeniable, irrepressible phenomenon that Rap Genius already is …But that’s just the start. It turns out that Rap Genius has a much bigger idea and a much broader mission than that. Which is: Generalize out to many other categories of text…annotate the world…be the knowledge about the knowledge…create the Internet Talmud.3

The site is using its new financing and growing popularity to move into other areas—with interesting implications for the future of literacy and public discourse (a topic that I’ll explore in greater detail in the next blog post about Rap Genius). New sections have opened on the site to help organize different categories of information—including Rock Genius, Poetry Genius and News Genius for current events, legal documents and many historical documents that have been uploaded to the site and await annotation.

Rap Genius annotation process

Annotating is easy on Rap Genius: simply highlight the text you wish to annotate, and then follow the instructions in the annotation box.

During his presentation, Dr. Dean pointed to the diverse and ever expanding universe of information currently hosted on the site. Nestled next to the rap lyrics and poetry is a scientific research paper published in the journal Plos One and a copy of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act with verified annotations by Stanford Law Professor Mark Lemley. Users have also annotated transcripts of important political events like the first debate of the 2012 presidential election and Supreme Court decisions like the controversial case that overturned key components of the Voting Rights Act this summer. In other words, if the community deems it worthy of a post, there’s a place for it on Rap Genius.

DCMA annotation on Rap Genius

One example of a verified annotation helping to explain an extremely complicated document (in this case the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) shows how useful Rap Genius can be.

Rap Genius is still a very young company with a briskly growing community of users and contributors. In the next post, I’ll explore the potential for future growth of the site and its annotation tools. Can Rap Genius leverage its growing popularity and financing to expand beyond the world of hip-hop and gain credibility as a crowd sourced producer of knowledge on par with Wikipedia? How can this still-developing platform affect knowledge creation and curation across the Internet and what impact might it have on literacy in the 21st century? Are the lofty ambitions of its founders and investors truly warranted or mere hyperbole? Will you, kind reader, one day be a Rap Genius scholar too? Check back for answers to these questions and more.

  1. Alexa.com: Rapgenius.com Site Info. Alexa Internet Inc., Web. 23 Oct. 2013.
    <http://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/rapgenius.com>.
  2. Mitroff, Sarah. “These Guys Might Actually Be Rap’s Geniuses.” Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 02 Oct. 2012. Web. 01 Sept. 2013.
  3. Andreessen, Marc. “Marc Andreessen – Why Andreessen Horowitz Is Investing in Rap Genius.” News Genius. Web. 01 Sept. 2013. <http://news.rapgenius.com/Marc-andreessen-why-andreessen-horowitz-is-investing-in-rap-genius-lyrics>.
Zach Schalk

Zach Schalk is a former Master’s candidate in Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture & Technology program and the Editor-in-Chief for gnovis. His interests include communication mediums, data visualizations and ICT policy.

  • Lauren Barnett

    Looking forward to more implications of these types of products and services in Part II. Great background on the topic and company! I’ve been impressed with Flocabularly and their products for quite some time, and think you may find it interesting to comment or include in Part II? (http://www.flocabulary.com/what-is-flocabulary/)