On Monday, we learned that Sasha Frere-Jones, the New Yorker's pop-music critic, was leaving the magazine to become executive editor of Genius. The start-up company currently runs a site — previously known as Rap Genius — where fans can annotate rap lyrics and other text.
This seemed odd at first. Genius is best known for feuding with people like Mark Zuckerberg, not for serious journalism. Recruiting a writer from a respected publication like the New Yorker will help to burnish Genius' public image. But a lot of people are wondering what makes the company so appealing.
Recently, Genius has been trying to convince people that it's more than just a lyrics site. The company has an ambitious plan — supported by more than $50 million in venture capital — to convince sites across the web to use Genius's annotation technology on their own sites. In theory, that could let users mark up news articles, suggest improvements to recipe sites, and help each other understand great works of literature. If the plan succeeds, it could have a big effect on the web. But that's still a big if.
Genius began as a lyrics site
Genius is a company with a mission to "annotate the world." Previously known as Rap Genius and before that Rap Exegesis, it began as a site that allowed fans of rap music to attach explanatory comments to lines in their favorite songs. In the last couple of years, the site has expanded, first to other genres of music, then to texts of all kinds. Today it looks like this:
On the left, you see the lyrics of a song — though any other kind of text could appear there. On the right are annotations of the text, supplied by users. These annotations can contain text, images, or videos.
The company raised $15 million in 2012, and another $40 million last year.
The idea behind Genius can be traced back to the web's early days
Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, whose firm Andreessen Horowitz provided the 2012 funding round, made the case for the company in a 2012 post. Andreessen believes Genius is an opportunity to build one of the web's great missing features: the ability for anyone to annotate information.
This has been a longtime passion for Andreessen, who co-created Mosaic, one of the first successful web browsers, in 1993. "It seemed obvious to us that users would want to annotate all text on the web. Our idea was that each web page would be a launchpad for insight and debate about its own contents," he wrote in 2012.
Back at the dawn of the web, Andreessen and his colleagues actually built a technology called "group annotations" to support this kind of spontaneous collaboration. However, supporting the technology across the entire web would have required powerful servers, and Andreessen says they didn't have time to build the required infrastructure. So the feature got dropped.
Now, two decades later, Andreessen wants to bring it back. And he sees Genius as a way to do it. When Genius raised a new $40 million round of funding in 2014, led by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, Andreessen Horowitz was among the investors.
But Genius is still best-known for its founders' outlandish behavior
Supporters of Genius insist that the site is building a technology that will revolutionize how we experience the web. Yet the site is still better-known for the outlandish antics of its three founders — Tom Lehman, Ilan Zechory, and Mahbod Moghadam — who have thrown famously lavish parties, done a lot of drugs, and picked fights with some of the world's most prominent business leaders.
For example, two years ago Genius co-founder Mahbod Moghadam was at a dinner with Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and the rapper Nas. He pulled out his smartphone and snapped a picture of the pair. Then, as Moghadam tells the story, he "went paparazzi and Instagrammed it" — over the objections of the intensely private Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg demanded an apology. In an interview, Moghadam said that "Zuck can suck my dick." A couple of weeks later he posted a similarly vulgar comment about Warren Buffet from the Rap Genius twitter account.
Last May, Moghadam went a step too far when he posted the manifesto of Elliot Rodger, whose shooting spree left 6 dead near the UC-Santa Barbara campus. Moghadam annotated the document with approving and misogynistic comments, generating so much controversy that his co-founders and investors forced him to resign.
Lehman and Zechory insist that the bad-boy image was trumped up to help generate interest in the site. They say they now recognize that they're running a serious site, and starting beefs with random billionaires isn't good for business.
And Genius isn't generating any revenue yet
Currently, Genius has no revenues and no specific plans to generate revenue. Indeed, New York magazine reports that when an engineer was interviewing for a job at Genius, he asked Zechory how the company planned to make money. Zechory laughed.
By itself, that's not a big deal. Some of the web's most successful startups, including Google and Facebook, focused on growing their audiences for years before trying to generate revenue.
But the strategy worked for Google and Facebook because they were building huge audiences. For Genius to succeed, it needs to convince people that there's value in annotating more than just song lyrics.
So far, there isn't much sign that Genius has the potential to reach vast audiences. Comscore estimates that the site's US audience was 4.3 million unique visitors in November. That's a sizeable audience, but it's hard to see how it could justify valuing the company at hundreds of millions of dollars. According to New York magazine, lyrics still account for the majority of the site's traffic.
It won't be easy to convince other websites to adopt Genius' technology
The key to the Genius strategy is getting other sites to adopt its annotation technology. They envision a future where every site on the web — maybe even Vox.com — will let users add Genius-style annotations to their content.
The site sees YouTube's early growth as a model. One of the key things that distinguished the early YouTube from many other video-sharing sites was the ability to easily embed a YouTube video directly onto any web page.
But there are a couple of big obstacles. First, it's not obvious that this is a feature that users actually want. After all, lots of websites have comment sections, and the quality of those comments tends to be depressingly low. Will readers like it if comments start appearing in the middle of articles? It doesn't seem very likely.
Indeed, this idea of user annotations isn't totally new. Gawker, for example, provides users with the ability to add annotations to images on the site. It's an interesting feature, but it doesn't seem to add a lot of value.
Even if annotation is a feature that users and website operators want, Genius will face a second challenge: convincing sites to use Genius' own technology instead of building their own. Even if many sites become persuaded about the value of user-annotated content, they're likely to have varying design and user experience requirements. Many sites might decide to create their own annotation systems. Open source alternatives will inevitably spring up.
In short, there's a lot of uncertainty about Genius' ability to deliver on its lofty goals. The company has a proven knack for generating press attention. But it has yet to demonstrate a capacity to create a broadly useful technology platform.
Update: Moghadam responded by email. The email address matches the one he lists on his Twitter page.
In the past, Moghadam has blamed a brain tumor, which was removed in 2013, for his erratic behavior.