The Genius of Genius: Welcome to the Annotated Age?

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There is a familiar, cosmopolitan, holier-than-thou snobbery at work in the recent run of pieces on the media company Genius, formerly known as Rap Genius. The question, asked in every article, is fine: can Genius succeed in annotating the entire internet? But the tone — which suggests a prima facie rejection of people who listen to rap music — is always the same. Even if I find this pose weird (and ethically compromised), I’m not surprised by it. What is surprising, though, is the technology that Genius is now beta testing. I’m still unsure if Genius will succeed in turning the internet into a gigantic wall of annotation, but I’ll admit that I’m now interested in how they might pull off such a thing.

Just add genius.com/ to (almost) any URL, and the given page is instantly annotatable. I’ve sent this “tool” to editors, brand analysts, novelists, the unemployed. Everyone reacts in the same way: with a flurry of ideas on how it could affect the internet. This skin, this overlay of annotations, could be used for fact-checking, analysis, criticism, whatever. It could add a messy, “democratic” layer of junk annotations to the internet; it could provide another outlet for bickering, elitist commentary. And what about intellectual property? Ads? I have no idea. The takeaway is that everyone should stop thinking of Genius as a site for rap lyrics. (Anyway, lyric sites are all dying.) Or worrying whether Genius will kill music criticism. There are bigger things going on here.

Yes, as the MIT Review points out, the annotation game has been played before, and (more or less) everyone lost. But it’s not just a question of impressive technology, which Genius now has. It’s also a question of timing and cultural logic. I would argue that the transformation of the entire internet into an annotatable text was bound to happen. And it makes a weird kind of sense that Genius would be the ones to do it.

“The monetization of classical hermeneutics,” writes the philosopher Boris Groys, “is one of the most interesting processes to emerge in recent decades.” By this Groys just means that the process of interpreting texts is constantly being monetized. The act of annotation and interpretation — once the domain of priests, later the luxury of the literate — is now automated and capitalized. Google “reads” your emails and offers you ads. Obscure data-mining companies are suddenly worth three billion dollars.

But there is a kind of human reaction to this trend. The process of interpretation is, obviously, uniquely tied to meaning. Unlike mere commentary (or commenting), it implies some level of consideration and concentration. Once upon a time, hermeneutic interpretation meant access to the mind and language of God. Now, instead of God, we have the Internet. I would even argue that recent developments in fiction, like Ben Lerner’s autofictional novel 10:04, could be understood as attempts to annotate one’s own life. The urge to annotate, and the urge to read others’ annotations, is another way of adding meaning to a Godless Internet where there seems to be none. Genius has simply built a portable technology that may (someday) capitalize on this urge.

Yet it’s not an entirely democratic process. Hermeneutics, monetized or not, is historically tied to a priestly class that dictates how interpretation is done (and often what texts mean). Genius, after all, is now called Genius. Its founders compare the project to an “internet Talmud,” and most of them come from Yale, a school that is no stranger to hermeneutic philosophy (or elitism). And it has already started hiring members of this class: Christopher Glazek, Sasha Frere-Jones, and others. Last night they partnered with journalists from MSNBC and the Guardian (and elsewhere) to annotate President Obama’s State of the Union address. (Even the administration’s release of the text of the speech prior to its delivery — an historical first — suggests a cultural shift toward the primacy of texts and interpretation.)

Whether Genius can succeed at getting “the smart kids [to] stop holding their noses up in the air,” as Frere-Jones told the New York Times, remains to be seen. But getting self-styled “smart kids” to do anything often just requires the paid participation of other self-styled smart kids. In any case, major players are tentatively involved. This doesn’t guarantee, of course, that hordes of users will follow suit. But in a godless, meaningless world, the urge to annotate might be stronger than we think.