Rap Genius: Annotating the World? Part II

In my previous post, “Rap Genius: Annotating the World? Part I”, I described Rap Genius as a crowdsourced knowledge creation platform allowing its users to seamlessly create in-line annotations with text, hyperlinks, video, images and other media for any content hosted on the site—from rap lyrics to peer-reviewed scientific papers and much more.  In this post, I describe the various ways in which Rap Genius is actively growing beyond its roots in hip-hop.  With the ultimate goal of building a platform that supports knowledge creation and curation across the Internet—like an in-line version of Wikipedia, providing context and explanation to accompany the original source—the objectives of the company’s founders and investors are undeniably ambitious. For the Genius platform to achieve these goals, they are going to need the help of an ever-expanding community of Scholars across the Web.

The most obvious use for a tool seeking to enhance reading comprehension and literacy is in the classroom.  Educators around the nation already use Rap Genius as a teaching tool and the young company is exploring various ways for its annotation platform to enhance reading comprehension and literacy at all levels of schooling.  In an email discussing his hopes for the future use of Rap Genius as an education tool, Dr. Dean, the Education Czar at Rap Genius, wrote:

My vision is that classrooms across the country will be using the Genius platform as a social annotation tool to close read and discuss close readings of difficult texts across the disciplines from an 8th grade history class to a biology lecture to a MOOC.

Dr. Dean is hard at work putting his money where his mouth is, visiting schools around the nation (including Georgetown University) to gather feedback from educators. The goal is to add new features that make the Genius platform more useful as a classroom tool.1  One such feature is called Genius Educators, which enables teachers to create special “Class Pages.” Class Pages are semi-walled gardens (similar to a YouTube video that can only be accessed with the direct URL) in which students can annotate content separate from the public posting.  This feature is extremely useful for a class seeking to annotate a famous text, Moby Dick for example, which likely already has a public version.  The teacher has special editing abilities and commenting features akin to the “Verified Artist” accounts described in my previous post.  A number of educators at the high school, university and post graduate levels are already taking advantage of this feature to bring Rap Genius directly into their classroom.  In another helpful addition for teachers, Rap Genius has started tagging all documents relevant to the Common Core standards that are being implemented around the country.  Dr. Dean and others are also actively recruiting more scholarly users to improve the quality of both annotations and hosted texts.

While the ambitions for Rap Genius extend beyond the classroom, the next steps for the company remain to be seen.  How will it continue to grow and mature?  Can it conceivably bring the deeper knowledge of dynamic annotation to all of the images, videos and sounds that comprise online content?  There are many avenues that might potentially be taken. One option that has inspired speculation is the possibility that the company could build an embedded button or browser extension that would allow its annotation tool and user community to travel to other sites around the Web.2

As the Internet community continues to mature, many Web sites are actively looking to replace the comment section, a remnant of the late 90’s, as the traditional way for users to engage with content.  Annotation has emerged as an interesting alternative to the comment paradigm.  However, Rap Genius is not alone in its annotation ambitions.   Researchers around the world are exploring this issue, analyzing the benefits and challenges posed by the ambitious idea of annotating everything on the Internet.3   Another Web site that offers in-line commenting is Medium, the latest venture of Twitter co-founder Evan Williams (though the site differs from Rap Genius in that it is a blogging platform, not a crowd-sourced knowledge project).  In his post explaining the $15 Million Rap Genius investment, Marc Andreessen revealed the depth of his interests in annotations.  Originally, Andreessen intended to include an annotation tool similar to the Rap Genius platform as a component of his groundbreaking Web browser Mosaic.  However, due to cost and technology limitations at the time, the idea was scrapped.

I often wonder how the Internet would have turned out differently if users had been able to annotate everything—to add new layers of knowledge to all knowledge, on and on, ad infinitum.  And so, 20 years later, Rap Genius finally gives us the opportunity to find out.4

There are several roadblocks that potentially stand in the way of the sites future growth.  Legal challenges stemming from copyright infringement may cause problems for the foreseeable future.5  However, the company has recently revealed that it is using some of the large investment from Andreessen Horowitz to secure licensing agreements with record labels.6  This strategy puts the company on sound legal footing for the song lyrics posted on the site and may be used to publish other content such as books or plays that are not in the public domain.  Some commentators have expressed concerns about the maturity and leadership of the founders of Rap Genius, though their guidance is not the most important aspect of the company’s future fortunes.7

As with every site reliant on user-generated content, the future of Rap Genius lies in the hands of its quickly expanding user community—its Scholars.  Ultimately, the fate of the site will be determined by the size, quality and engagement of its user base.  While Wikipedia remains the dominant home of crowd-sourced knowledge on the Internet, its user base has shrunk considerably since peaking in 2007, and many proponents worry about the future sustainability and content quality of a user-driven site that fails to attract new users.8  Rap Genius, on the other hand, has a young and rapidly expanding user base and is only beginning to scratch the surface of its potential.  If you want to take part in a large-scale experiment in 21st century literacy, become a Rap Genius scholar, find content that interests you and annotate away!

  1. Lewin, Tamar. “As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry.” The New York Times 30 Oct. 2013: NYtimes.com. 30 Oct. 2013. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.
  2. Greenburg, Zack O’Malley. “Inside Andreessen Horowitz’s $15 Million Investment In Rap Genius.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 03 Oct. 2012. Web. 01 Sept. 2013.
  3. Hunter, Jane; Gerber, Anna. 2012. “Towards Annotopia—Enabling the Semantic Interoperability of Web-Based Annotations.” Future Internet 4, no. 3: 788-806.
  4. Andreessen, Marc. “Marc Andreessen – Why Andreessen Horowitz Is Investing in Rap Genius.” News Genius. Web. 01 Sept. 2013.
  5. Harris, Aisha. “Is Rap Genius Illegal?” Slate Magazine. 13 Nov. 2013. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.
  6. Sisario, Ben. “Rap Genius Says It Will Seek Licenses for Lyrics.” The New York Times. N.p., 14 Nov. 2013. Web.
  7. Ludwig, Sean. “Are Rap Genius’s Founders Insane, or Is It Just a Gimmick?”VentureBeat 1 May 2013. Web. 01 Sept. 2013.
  8. Simonite, Tom. “The End of the Games Console?” MIT Technology Review. MIT, 22 Oct. 2013. Web. 22 Nov. 2013.
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.