New York startup Genius is expanding its scope and now intends to enable Internet users to enrich any and every web page or explain content by adding annotations. Their plans have raised a few unanswered questions.

Genius looking to turn the Web into a vast Wiki

The stated ambition to “annotate the world” would appear to sum up the intentions of the company now known as Genius. However, the NYC-based startup began with more limited aims under the name Rap Genius. The primary mission of its three founders, all graduates of Yale University in the United States, was to enable Internet users to annotate and decrypt the words from rap songs. Having now diversified to cover all types of music, the founders clearly do not intend to stop there but are looking to provide a collaborative tool to allow users to add annotations to any and all pages on the Web, and have moreover raised $40 million to support its development. Basically, you just need to add ‘’ in front of any URL and you can then annotate the page. The New York Times website serves as an example. The creators insist that their system does not infringe copyright law. However, aside from such legal issues, there are other questions marks over their new venture.

Curating annotations for universal consumption

The first problem posed by having a completely annotatable Internet is how to curate the process of annotation. Genius claims to be a means of drawing on users’ knowledge to decode/explain posted content. However it is not hard to imagine the basic issues facing any Wiki-type system looking to expand through crowdsourced information. Genius has already implemented a number of solutions for curating/editing user comments. First of all there are thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons which can help to propel the most useful comments up the list. Secondly, Genius has set up a points system called ‘Genius IQ’, which allocates positive points each time a user posts an annotation, receives a positive vote for his/her comment from peers, or reports erroneous information. On reaching a certain number of points, Genius users qualify to become Editors, Moderators or Regulators, who are entitled to take different levels of action in line with their acquired status. A second way to obtain verified annotations is to confer a special status on the original authors of pages, articles, songs, etc. for which annotations have been posted, so that their comments are pushed higher up the list. Genius users can then follow these trusted accounts the same way Twitter users do.

A new era for the Web ?

All these options are intended to popularise a brand new approach to using the Web. If this approach really catches on with lots of people it could well radically change the way we use the Internet. As a business proposition, it looks a risky bet for the Genius investors, although some recent trends on sharing platforms do seem to support the idea. YouTube and Flickr already offer an annotation system for video and images and as long ago as 2011 people were already arguing the need to establish a standard for annotation tools. A somewhat similar system called Annotea – an open-source initiative sponsored by the non-profit World Wide Web Consortium – set up in 2001 never really got off the ground but perhaps the time is now right for the Genius model, which mirrors what is happening today on the social networks, to take off. There is however one crucial issue that could really put the brakes on this new type of web consumption: trust. Trust has come under severe pressure on various crowdsourcing platforms, and if the unsupervised expansion of the Genius system were to lead to a further crumbling of online information credibility, this might even end up bringing all Internet content into discredit.

By Guillaume Scifo