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How a blog post about herpes led to a fierce debate about annotations, harassment, and free speech on the internet

Angry woman threatens to hit laptop with hammer
Have website annotations gone too far?
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Earlier this week, after a complicated debate involving feminism, internet culture, harassment, and herpes, a new website script appeared. The goal of Genius Defender is to allow certain website owners to block the annotation website Genius from being able to access and annotate their content.

The idea of annotating the internet by leaving notes and comments around the web for yourself or others to find has been around for years — since the dawn of the web browser, in fact. But a recent argument against Genius has left many people challenging the idea that annotations are useful for anything except online harassment.

More specifically: In March, sexual health blogger Ella Dawson sparked a debate over the Genius subsite News Genius, when she argued that the site promotes harassment. Dawson became embroiled in the question of annotation use after a journalist responded to a blog post Dawson had authored by annotating the post on News Genius. The conflict raised questions about the nature of content ownership and crowdsourced harassment in an open web culture, highlighting a tricky problem for which there are no easy answers.

What is Genius?

You may not have heard of News Genius, but you might recall its hip-hop-infused predecessor, Rap Genius, an annotation platform that allowed users to communally comment on, explain, and expand upon song lyrics and other texts. Rap Genius was founded in 2009 by a trio of male Yale grads who viewed rap as a poetic movement that deserved to be treated as serious literature — with all the critique and expansion that implies.

Genius dropped the "rap" part of its name two years ago, when it branched out and began more aggressively pursuing its stated goal of "[doing] for everything what Rap Genius did for rap." In 2015, Genius launched a bevy of tools that allow you to annotate any page on the web.

Genius annotations are often excellent. For instance, the Genius community for Hamilton has generated more than 200,000 words of meticulously researched and sourced annotations for the complex rap musical. The Hamilton annotation project clearly demonstrates the kind of potential Genius has as a forum for crowdsourced knowledge: Used wisely, it could essentially function as a kind of Wikipedia composed of marginalia.

The problem is that, in addition to scrawling comments, notes, and background information in the margins of a given text, plenty of people also like to snark. And although Genius employs a team of moderators, unlike Wikipedia — where editors throw themselves into the daily grind of removing vandalism, opinions, and extraneous clutter — the Genius community often seems to welcome the irreverence. The result is that Genius annotations sound a lot better in theory than they appear in practice.

For instance, the Genius annotations for the Wikipedia page explaining what annotations are consists of inane meme-ified comments like these:

Other pages on Genius serve up more of this type of reaction and commentary, ranging from memes to incorrect statements presented as factual to sexism:

Genius annotation for the Nicki Minaj verse of 'Monster' in which the line 'I think big' is expanded on with a sexualized picture of Minaj and a comment about her 'large features.'
A Genius annotation for the Nicki Minaj verse of the Kanye West song "Monster" accompanies the line "I think big" with a sexualized picture of Minaj and a comment about her "large features." This annotation appeared for four years on the Genius website but was replaced within the last year.

The Genius Community Policy is firmly against "abuse and harassment," but also notes "we believe in freedom of expression" and will "allow controversial texts to be posted" as long as they generate thoughtful discussion. Yet despite the site's reticent approach to crowd control and several controversies along the way, Genius has mostly accomplished its goals: It built a community of lyrics annotators and attracted millions in investor funding by exploring the potential it held to do more.

The idea of annotating the internet isn’t new

The idea of annotation has long been a part of discussions about how to build a better internet. In the '90s, when internet pioneer Marc Andreessen was developing the first incarnation of Netscape, he originally planned to include a simple annotation tool. Andreessen was still so interested in the possibilities for an annotated internet that two decades later, in 2012, he helped Genius raise $40 million in funding.

Genius isn’t the only tool that allows you to annotate what you read online. Other websites and browser extensions, like Scrible and Annotate It, allow users to write notes for themselves about what they find on the web. Some apps, like iAnnotate, allow users to annotate specific articles, while some allow users who are logged in to read what others are saying about a specific website.

But Genius goes slightly further. You can read other Genius annotations that people have added to lyrics, texts, and other websites without logging in to Genius, and you can even contribute annotations yourself without signing up for an account. By allowing a relative degree of anonymity for those who are writing annotations and making it extremely easy to annotate any website on the internet, Genius has combined the concept of annotations with the concept of crowdsourcing in a fundamental way.

The result is that Genius has gained unprecedented access to significant cultural and news events. The aforementioned Hamilton project, for example, collaborated with production itself to import its annotations of the Hamilton soundtrack to the musical's official lyrics website. The Washington Post used its official Genius account to annotate Apple's recent open letter regarding its dispute with the FBI. And in January, the White House partnered with Genius to annotate President Obama's final State of the Union address.

So where does News Genius fit in?

News Genius launched in 2013 with the intention of emphasizing Genius’s expanded focus, inviting the Genius community to do for journalism what they'd previously been doing for lyrics. News Genius purports to be an energized forum for debate about the issues of the day. The front page of the subsite notes, "We see news as an ongoing and evolving discussion between many parties." The site heralds a perceived new era of journalism in which the "gatekeepers" of news — the media — are hypothetically balanced with crowdsourced commentary and additional information:

News Genius explains its philosophy with graphic depicting two ways of looking at journalism. First way is traditional journalism. Genius prefers 'public powered journalists' who work 'with public' rather than for them. News Genius

But just as with the larger Genius project, News Genius often falls short of its ostensible goal. The lead editor of News Genius is Leah Finnegan, formerly of the New York Times and Gawker. Finnegan, who served as Gawker's features editor from mid-2014 to mid-2015, is known for snark; when Gawker hired her, she was touted internally as "hat[ing] the right people."

As a paid employee of the site (as opposed to an unpaid user), Finnegan often leads the way on News Genius contributions, which, like all Genius texts, are open to anyone with an email address. She tends to interlay her more serious commentary with sarcasm, a kind of jeering from the peanut gallery (or the margins). Sometimes her criticisms are well-placed — like when a man writes an essay about misogyny without quoting a single woman.

Leah Finnegan calls out David Brooks' essay about Trump voters and misogyny by noting, 'only David Brooks could write a column about misogyny without quoting a single woman.' Genius

Other times, the snark can obscure more nuanced discussion. For instance, in a response to one woman's personal essay about loneliness, Finnegan nitpicks writing style and word usage, implies repeatedly that the writer is mentally ill, and responds to one sentence with "This is … quite a succession of words."

While News Genius implies that it's offering a discussion about the limits of the author's take on loneliness with respect to depression and other life experiences, the overall impact of the annotations is muddled by what seems to be the annotator's cavalier dismissal of the author's ownership of her own experiences.

This approach to "news" came to a head earlier this month when a reporter named Sara Morrison disagreed with, debated, and then used Genius to annotate a blog post that Ella Dawson wrote about herpes.

What does herpes have to do with this?

As a herpes-positive activist, Dawson frequently argues that the media and society at large stigmatize sexually transmitted diseases. Her recent blog post took aim at the word "suffer" and the way in which the media tends to describe those with herpes as "herpes sufferers," or people who "suffer from" herpes and other STDs.

Morrison, a freelance journalist, had a knee-jerk negative reaction to Dawson's blog post:

Dawson initially approached Morrison on Twitter and discussed the issue with her there, but ultimately wound up blocking her and updating her original blog post with excerpts from the exchange. Morrison then decided to respond to Dawson's piece by annotating it on News Genius, questioning many of Dawson's assumptions.

Editor Finnegan joined in with her usual mix of serious and snarky commentary, and the Genius annotation became a source of what Dawson claimed was a silencing effect:

Genius as a harassment tool

Genius had already been used as a tool for minimizing the experiences women face — by no less than one of the site’s co-founders. Mahbod Moghadam was forced to resign from Genius in 2014 after leaving a number of inappropriate and shallow annotations on the manifesto of Elliot Rodger, the Santa Barbara shooter whose actions were motivated partly by misogyny. Moghadam commented that several passages in the manifesto were "beautiful," and made dismissive remarks about women mentioned in the manifesto. In his eventual apology, Moghadam stated, "[T]hankfully the rap genius community edits out my poor judgement."

But to Dawson, it’s the fact that annotations can be crowdsourced at all that’s at issue. The idea of not being able to control what is said about her own blog page is central to her concept of internet harassment and her feeling of being "silenced" as a writer.

In a second blog post, which she wrote in response to the annotation of the original blog post, Dawson explains that after having fought off numerous harassers and trolls on social media platforms, she implemented tight moderation on her own blog — moderation she feels News Genius violated:

My experience with comments has led me to make two choices: to write more often on my blog, where I have full editorial control, and to not allow comments to go live without my approval ... Except that’s not true anymore, thanks to News Genius, which allows readers to annotate pages anywhere on the web. News Genius puts comment sections in the margins, just as most publishers are taking them away to protect their writers.

Dawson believes Genius damages writers like her by removing their ability to control their own content:

Because my blog is currently a free WordPress website, anyone can use Genius to annotate my posts without my control. It is not opt-in for the creator, and if I want to engage with the annotations, I have to sign in using a Genius account. I see no way to report an annotation for abuse or harassment — perhaps that is only available for users? — and I see no way to block a user from annotating my content.

She also points out that the New York Times has the ability to limit the access Genius has to its content, and suggested that all she wanted was a similar opt-in ability for the average internet user. But others, including News Genius itself, suggested that this approach violates the fundamental open culture of the internet:

When does the free exchange of ideas cross the line into harassment?

In response to Dawson's post and the subsequent discussion about it that made the rounds on social media, the Genius community had a powwow about the issue and what they could have done better. A contributor named Doyle noted that Dawson's blog clearly stated her on-site comment policy, and argued extensively that Genius annotators need to pay attention when annotating such personal blog sites or posts — or, better yet, avoid annotating them altogether. The thread contained considerable debate about whether Genius had fostered a "mob mentality," whether Finnegan was taking the News Genius subsite in a negative direction, or whether Dawson was simply being overly sensitive.

The internal debate among Genius users is only part of a larger debate about the merits of repurposing content without asking permission from the original author. Many people who participate in social justice and activism conversations online view common social media practices like reblogging and retweeting as potentially abusive, depending on who's doing the retweeting and for what purpose. For instance, Gamergate supporters or trolls attached to the movement often retweet posts by anti-Gamergate feminists as a way of generating hostile debate about the issue.

When it comes to embedding Twitter and Tumblr posts on entirely separate websites, the ethical issues are even more complicated, and many Twitter users block embedders who fail to ask permission before embedding. Sure, the internet is a free and open space where anything public is fair game for being copied and pasted somewhere else, but social media users are increasingly calling for enhanced etiquette and reform around the issue of repurposing someone else's original content.

And News Genius and its community may have unwittingly demonstrated the potential for Genius as a brigading tool: After Dawson's original post and Morrison's response, both of which deviated from the site's emphasis on journalism, users began to stray from commenting on the news in order to follow Morrison's footsteps of annotating posts defensively.

Earlier this week on Slate, writer Chelsea Hassler argued that Genius's tools harbored "a very real potential for abuse." In response, Genius users annotated the Slate post, with many Genius editors passionately defending their site and its ability to host nuanced, dynamic, and vigorous discussion and debate. But many also noted that News Genius community editor Stephen Pringle kicked off the annotation by questioning Hassler's experience and ability to comment on the issue — a common minimizing tactic. Genius users have continued to annotate other media reports and reactions to the debate.

Still, given Genius's stated mission of expanding beyond rap and news to annotate the entire internet, the way the site functions as news commentary doesn't matter as much as the way it functions as a platform where crowds can interact with the world of the web. The best-case scenario of the way Genius is used — something like the Hamilton project or the officially sanctioned White House annotations — inevitably stands toe to toe with images of a horde of angry online citizens brigading a post in the Genius arena to express their disagreement with the author.

Perhaps the answer to this is simple: Don't like, don't read. After all, no one made Dawson visit Genius to find out what was being said in reaction to her post. But if Genius wants to truly annotate the internet, avoiding it is easier said than done.

Update: This article has been updated to clarify that the Genius annotation of Nicki Minaj's "Monster" verse cited in the article was originally posted to the website four years ago. The photo was replaced within the last year while the accompanying text was replaced within the last ten months.

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