With venture capital behind it, the Brooklyn-based web annotation startup Genius recently hired its first chief revenue offer and announced plans to build an advertising business. Ronen Shapiro, a veteran of Vice Media, Complex and Pandora, will oversee sales through advertising, publishing deals and events.
But Genius, which was originally conceived as the crowdsourced lyrics annotation site Rap Genius, has also attracted controversy. Its ambitions to “annotate the Internet” have drawn scrutiny to the often blurry distinctions between free speech and online harassment, which may inhibit its potential for revenue.
Tricky ad prospects
Its Web Annotator tool, enabled by a browser plug-in or or by typing “genius.it” before a web address, offers an alternative to traditional online comments. It creates a mirror version of the website in which users can comment, a sort of “digital version of margin notes,” as Slate’s Chelsea Hassler put it. The annotations are publicly available, but only users with the proper plug-in or website code can actually see these comments.
How much Genius might earn from advertising is tricky. It says it plans to create custom content and data products — enabled by its technology — for marketers. “We’re looking at our assets of traffic, community, artist relationships, live experiences, and bringing brands into that,” Genius co-founder Ilan Zechory told the Wall Street Journal. Genius also announced a partnership with Spotify to bring lyric annotations directly onto the Spotify app, although the financial aspects of the deal weren’t disclosed.
But as Digiday’s Jordan Valinsky wrote, the visitors at lyrics websites have never been valued highly by advertisers, meaning they get rock bottom CPMs. That, coupled with brewing sensitivity of what annotating signifies in the modern Internet, means Genius will likely have to work much harder than other startups to grow its audience and community. The site says it attracts 40 million global visitors, but according to comScore, its U.S. audience, at least, is less than 12 million.
Critics of the Genius tool argue that it opens the potential for increased online harassment that effectively “silences writers.” Ella Dawson, who handles social media for the TED conference, for example, called out the annotations made on her personal blog, in which she detailed her struggles with a herpes infection. She pointed out that people aren’t notified that their work has been annotated, and they must log in with a Genius account if they want to engage with the annotations. “Annotations display more like passive-aggressive Post-It notes, but for someone who has been gaslit by partners, diminished by journalists, and harassed by mobs online, Genius annotations are an invasive violation,” she wrote.
Congresswoman Katherine M. Clark, a leader on the issue of online harassment, also wrote a letter to Genius Media Group CEO Tom Lehman which she shared on social media, calling out the likelihood of the tool’s misuse. Although Clark mischaracterized the technology at one point in her letter, others have pointed out that Genius “hews to a double standard because it will disable annotations on certain articles from publishers but not for individuals, according to Re/code’s Noah Kulwin. The annotator works differently on the New York Times website, for instance, which Zechory acknowledged was a deliberate choice.
“We’re talking about how we can work with them and so they’re a really big and important publisher to do cool stuff with,” he told Capital New York earlier this year.
In response, Genius has added a “report abuse” button and repeatedly said it’s not trying to become a platform for trolls. The backlash too has prompted its own backlash, with Gawker’s Sam Biddle, for one, arguing Genius does nothing different than most other pieces of online criticism. “How is criticism on Slate an act of legitimate commentary, while criticism on News Genius is inherently an act of abuse?” he wrote. “In fact, the ability to view public information and publicly respond to it is a basic underpinning of the internet and without this principle the internet would cease to function.”
Part of the problem with this “pseudo-controversy,” according to Biddle, is that Genius is positioning itself as a revolutionary technology company when its premise of annotating the Internet is actually very simple. It’s not like users can change what they are seeing. New York Magazine’s Brian Feldman also underscored that having to “opt out” of annotations doesn’t really matter when people must “opt-in” via the browser extension for the experience anyway.
After all the failed web annotation tools before it (ThirdVoice, Sidewiki, Fleck), Genius might just be a solution in search of a problem. Or a startup in search of a business model.