You might have heard about the website RapGenius when it raised $15 million from Marc Andreessen’s venture firm and thought to yourself that this was a strange investment for the former Netscape founder: a site that allows music fans to annotate rap lyrics. And when the founders announced their intention to launch something called NewsGenius as a way of annotating the news, that probably sounded just as bizarre — especially since the three co-founders enjoy indulging in somewhat sophomoric antics more common to the world of rap.
With that kind of backdrop, seeing either the founders or their service as playing even a small role in the future of news may seem like a deranged Silicon Valley fantasy, but there is something interesting in what RapGenius is trying to do — and not just because Andreessen Horowitz invested so much money in it. And it’s also worth noting that at this point in the evolution of media, no idea is too bizarre or outlandish to be dismissed out of hand.
Crowdsourcing through annotation
The idea that crowdsourced annotation of some kind could be part of how news-gathering evolves isn’t entirely crazy. Felix Salmon of Reuters wrote a post recently about RapGenius in which he wondered whether annotation could take the place of comments, a format that is becoming less and less useful all the time. And other services are also experimenting with annotation in interesting ways — including former Twitter CEO Evan Williams’ Medium, which launched a similar feature that allows writers to collaborate with readers.
It’s easy to see how this could turn into a disaster, of course: just take the usual ad hominem attacks and trollish behavior that occurs in the comments on YouTube videos and multiply by the number of news articles. The Reddit thread where users tried to identify the Boston bombers seems to have soured many journalists on that site as a vehicle for crowdsourced journalism of any kind (although I have tried to argue that this is unfair and short-sighted).
Obviously, anyone experimenting with this approach would have to find a way of moderating these kinds of contributions — either via human editors, or through a reputation system like the one RapGenius uses, which is similar to the way communities such as Slashdot work. And this approach can clearly produce value: Wikipedia seemed like a bizarre idea to begin with too, and yet it has produced better-quality content than teams of experts who were paid for their work.
I will confess that when I first saw examples of RapGenius annotation, such as the posts that Marc Andreessen has contributed to or the letter to shareholders that Groupon founder Andrew Mason wrote, I thought it was a neat gimmick but nothing worth spending much time on. There have been other attempts at adding annotation layers to the web (including Andreessen’s own attempts at Netscape), and all of them have failed miserably. And of course it’s entirely possible that RapGenius will fail as well — in fact, it’s more likely than not.
New things often seem ridiculous
But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it might be worth exploring this idea, instead of writing it off as ridiculous. And part of what influenced me was a reminder from Dustin Curtis of how many new things seem to be underwhelming — or outright crazy — and yet go on to become substantial and interesting, and valuable. Certainly Twitter falls into that category for me: I thought it was an inconsequential amusement, and yet it has done more to change the world of journalism than any single invention since the telephone.
As venture investor Chris Dixon (who is now a partner at Andreessen Horowitz) has said, channelling disruption expert Clay Christensen, the next big thing always starts out looking like a toy.
What would happen if the New York Times or Washington Post implemented something like RapGenius, and allowed annotations on top of the text? They might start with approved commenters or loyal readers, or those with some expertise in the topic, rather than encouraging a free-for-all. But the principle at work is the same as that driving any pursuit of “networked” or “open” journalism: namely, the idea that there are people out there who know more than you do.
How we allow that to occur is the only real question, not whether it will occur — because it is happening, whether journalists like it or not. Is RapGenius one way of doing that, or is it a sideshow that will ultimately prove to be worthless? We have no way of knowing until we try it.
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / noporn