Why People Are Freaking Out About Annotations Online

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This week, the website Genius caught flack for … something. Commentary? Abuse? Something in-between? Depends on whom you ask. Genius — which got its start as Rap Genius, a tool for annotating lyrics — recently unveiled a tool that lets users annotate, and view annotations on, any website. As you might imagine: Some people did not like that.

This particular minor controversy began last week, when blogger Ella Dawson wrote a post on her blog about using the word “suffering” in conjunction with herpes. A writer named Sara Morrison — apparently a social acquaintance of Dawson’s who’d been criticizing the post on Twitter — then used Genius’s tool to annotate it. Genius’s newly minted managing editor, Leah Finnegan, joined in with four annotations of her own.

The annotations are still visible, if you want to read them; it’s important to note that they’re critical, but not even Dawson has described them as “abusive.” Nevertheless, she wasn’t particularly pleased, and followed up the original post with another, called “How News Genius Silences Writers,” about how viewing her blog through the lens of the Genius tool felt “like discovering graffiti over some of my most personal work.” Genius, she argued, has the potential to “intimidate and silence marginalized voices … A tool that allows my abusive ex-boyfriend to interact with me and my content is a tool that should not exist.” (The ex-boyfriend’s annotations are hypothetical; Dawson is imagining a worst-case scenario for Genius’s use.) Genius users, of course, annotated this post as well; a few days later, Slate published a dramatically sub-headlined article (“A new tool wants to annotate everything on the Internet. But at what cost?”). And then, yesterday, a U.S. congresswoman got involved. More on that in a minute.

Two things might help contextualize this debate. The first is Genius’s particular place in the media-internet firmament: The company is attempting to transform itself from a slick lyrics site into a platform for annotating everything, news and essays included. Maybe more important, it’s also trying to shed an early, and deserved, reputation as “a company of brogrammers.” Finnegan, a former New York Times and Gawker editor known for her smart and caustic media criticism, was hired to help usher along this transformation; in the weeks that she’s been working at Genius, she’s mostly been annotating articles from the Times and other institutional media outlets. (A few days prior to the Dawson annotations, Finnegan had critically annotated an article on NYMag’s the Cut, causing another, smaller Twitter fuss.)

The second is the technical implementation of Genius’s annotations. Genius works when users insert its web address — genius.it — before any URL. This allows a person to highlight passages and attach notes to them. For instance, if you wanted to annotate this post, you could add “genius.it/” before the URL. So, and this is worth saying explicitly: Genius’s software does not change, update, or affect the website itself. The various files that make up the product you get when you visit that website at its given URL are left totally unaffected.

This is where the discussion of public space and control on the web gets a bit messy. Blog posts like Dawson’s are public, and are unquestionably subject to scrutiny and critique, as Dawson herself admits. At the same time, Dawson is under no obligation to provide a space for such a discussion to occur. Generally, these two concerns are easily reconcilable, as the post and response would be silo-ed off from one another: the blog post on WordPress, the ensuing discussion in a separate forum, like Twitter. (Comments sections are an exception, but, crucially, no one is obligated by law or custom to include a comments section on his or her site.)

Genius upholds the distinction between original post and reaction, most clearly on a technical level: Morrison’s annotations on Dawson’s post are hosted on Genius’s servers and Genius’s platform, not on Dawson’s. But Genius’s interface blurs that line by presenting itself as a discussion layered directly on top of the original creation, albeit one out of the creator’s control. Worse, it doesn’t provide an easy way for website owners to prevent Genius from operating on their pages. (It has offered certain “editorial tools” to publishers, including to Dawson, though the company hasn’t publicly said what those are or how much control they provide.) You can see why people might freak out, especially on a small personal blog: In a vague but understandable sense, Genius grafts a comments section onto a page that might not otherwise have one.

This might come across as a bit pushy, if not creepy, if you’ve never encountered it before. But there’s also really nothing wrong with it, except in the “this feels weird” sense: No one is under any obligation to use the Genius tool — and, in fact, until recently, not many people in this particular corner of the media internet have. Genius should make it easier for sites to opt out of its annotations, sure, but the entire experience is “opt-in” already: You have to install the Genius browser extension, or click on a different URL, to access annotations, effectively achieving the same kind of silo and control that has traditionally existed on personal sites.

(Creepier than Genius’s conceptual model — third-party annotations are, after all, as old as writing itself, and a long sought-after feature of the open web — is the idea that, as developer Vijith Assar puts it, “the content and mechanisms [of online annotations] could end up owned by a single for-profit tech startup.” Assar suggests an “open-source software project,” or something “handled by a standards body.”)

Still: Dawson’s follow-up blog post raised the specter of online harassment on the Genius platform. (Let’s pause to note, again, that no one has accused Morrison or Finnegan of harassment, merely of “empty criticism” and insensitivity, and the concern over abuse has stayed entirely in the hypothetical mode.) On Monday, U.S. representative Katherine Clark (D-MA) wrote a letter to Genius’s CEO, Tom Lehman, expressing concern over the service following the Slate article on the controversy. “Developers have a responsibility to consider how their platforms can be used to perpetrate abuse,” she wrote. (Clark wrote a similarly concerned letter about the now-defunct app Stolen, which let people “own” real social-media accounts.)

Clark’s letter, maybe unsurprisingly, seems to misunderstand the story (Genius hasn’t yet enabled abuse or harassment) and how Genius works — it doesn’t “inject […] comments directly into protected content.” Though, as noted above, the interface is easy to misinterpret if you’re not versed in its technical implementation.

Still, Clark’s letter got a sincere response. Genius quickly responded with a statement saying that every single annotation published by users is read by a mix of staff and volunteer moderators on the service, and that they have no tolerance for abusive behavior on the service. The company also today introduced an omnipresent Report Abuse button that sits underneath every annotation.

I’m glad Genius responded to public pressure and built a reporting feature for abusive annotations,” Ella Dawson said in an email. “But I also find it hard to believe that they take the potential for harassment and abuse on their platform as seriously as they say they do when they launched their product without a tool to report abuse at all, and only added one after a congresswoman wrote a letter.” (The feature’s introduction shortly after Clark’s letter is likely a coincidence; feature rollouts rarely happen in a matter of hours.)

Dawson added that one feature was still missing: “There is still no way for me to disable annotations on my own website, which is all I asked for. There are people actively writing code to break Genius’s product on their sites, and that should be a huge sign to Genius that their product is invasive and unwanted.”

The question at this point becomes one of scale: The News Genius annotator and its community, in its nascent state, is small enough that it can monitor all of its content easily. But as the service grows — it does, after all, want to be the de facto discussion forum for every page on the world wide web — it’s not clear how to scale up safety measures. Moreover, as Genius becomes more widely adopted, its separation from the articles it’s annotating will become less clear: If “everyone” uses Genius (as “everyone” uses Twitter), avoiding its annotations would become more difficult, and the threshold for seeing potentially abusive comments would be much lower.

Till then, it’s just another thing on the internet that you never need to look at.