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Annotate the what now?


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Genius, formerly RapGenius, was much talked about last year for broadening its purview from annotating just lyrics to, as they say, annotating “the world,” as well as raising a lot of money in venture capital and hiring big names such as Sasha Frere Jones. Jones has since moved on, and the hype surrounding the venture has quelled. The idea of annotating everything text still seems a good idea to many, but it remains to be seen whether the practice will catch on. Personally, I find popularly highlighted sections of books on my Kindle to be distracting, and have very rarely used Genius or any other annotating tool.

Below is Evan Kindley on the rise of literary annotation, the full version here.

In recent years, more and more of us are reading annotated editions of our favorite books—The Annotated Wuthering Heights, The Annotated Lolita, The Annotated Anne of Green Gables—as well as posting on sites like Genius.com, which claims to host more than a million annotated texts, and sharing notes and highlights on Kindle. Never before has there been so much activity in the margins of culture.

What makes a good annotator? It’s some combination, apparently, of excess and restraint: an instinct for when to tell us more than we need to know (or more than we knew there was to know) balanced with a refusal to bore us. The obvious is, obviously, out: Most readers of Carroll probably won’t need to be told what croquet is, for instance. More difficult is distinguishing between an alluring obscurity and a total waste of time. Not all rabbit holes are worth going down.

This is a question that Genius, whose slightly megalomaniacal slogan is “Annotate the world,” is still grappling with. The site launched in 2009 as Rap Genius, devoted to the explication of rap lyrics. These origins have been the occasion for a lot of dismissive jokes, but it makes perfect sense that an annotation web site would orient itself toward such a dense, allusive art form. Rap, like Carroll’s writing, is full of mysteries that cry out for explanation: Think of the Wu-Tang Clan’s mix of Five Percenter lingo, references to kung fu films, and drug trade slang, for instance, or Kendrick Lamar’s brash collages of personal confession and black history. It’s also, as with children’s literature, an often disrespected genre that inspires a passionate devotion in highly intelligent people who are ready to sound the depths of their pleasures in order to prove the skeptics wrong.

Rap remains Genius’s bread and butter, but last year, after receiving $40 million in venture capital funding from Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, the company shortened its name and impressed the media world by hiring cultural critic Sasha Frere-Jones away from The New Yorker to be its executive editor. (Frere-Jones has since departed to work at the Los Angeles Times.) Recently, Genius has been making an ambitious effort to expand into areas beyond music: There is Lit Genius, News Genius, History Genius, Law Genius, and so on. The company has supported “Genius Teaching Fellowships” for academics and brought in such authors as Junot Díaz, Sheila Heti, and Jeff VanderMeer, alongside Eminem, Nas, and A$AP Rocky, as “verified artists.” Most recently, it has entered the political arena, collaborating with Hillary Clinton’s staff to offer an annotated version of her campaign kickoff speech.

Genius, like Wikipedia, is crowd-sourced: It lets anyone contribute “tates” (short for annotations), which can then be rated by other users. “Texts on Genius are living documents,” the site’s About page reads. “Over time, they transform into definitive guides as people just like you from around the world add bits of knowledge to them.” Below this grandiloquent ad copy, an animated GIF shows the steady evolution of the page for Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” as users layer on multiple annotations. It’s an impressive display. But the claim that it reflects Genius’s “accretive magic in action” is a little weak, given that, last I checked, 13 out of the 27 annotations on the “Jabberwocky” page include direct quotations from a single source: Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice.

*Image of Genius founders above via Mashable