There’s a new argument on the internet about free speech and hate, but this time it’s not so much about why or how such things coexist, but where they happen.
A new tool from the Gowanus-based Genius and a new chief for its News Genius vertical, ex-Gawker editor Leah Finnegan, have people asking where there should be safe spaces online and where the line ought to be drawn between criticism and bullying.
The new tool is Genius’s Web Annotator, a piece of technology which allows Genius users to effectively copy any article on the internet, highlight sections of it and offer context/opinions/reactions/whatever right in the text itself.
This has proved controversial.
— Vijith Assar (@vijithassar) March 28, 2016
Genius is known mostly for offering explanations of the lyrics of rap songs. Recently it decided that it need not limit itself to rap, that a lot of kinds of content online could be explained with its annotating tool. To that end, it hired an editorial team, led by Finnegan.
Two weeks ago, Ella Dawson, a blogger who writes about living with herpes, wrote a post titled I am not “suffering” from herpes. One woman, who seems to have a history with the author, annotated the article critically.
That made the author, Dawson, feel not good.
On Friday, she published another piece on her blog, How Genius Silences Writers. In it Dawson wrote:
No one likes being questioned, and no one likes having their wording pulled apart by strangers. … I can live with having my writing mocked, even by women, even by feminists, even by journalists. What I cannot accept is how News Genius works. Although the coverage of News Genius praises it as a feature hosts can code into their site, anyone can lay comments on anything by adding some language to a URL address.
— Ella Dawson (@brosandprose) March 29, 2016
Yesterday, Dawson’s complaints grew to Internet Controversy levels when a developer made a WordPress plugin blocking Genius annotations and Slate published a story critical of the annotation tool, Misguided Genius, which Finnegan herself then annotated.
@samfbiddle slate needs to apologize to me for existing
— Leah Finnegan (@leahfinnegan) March 28, 2016
Finnegan started as the site’s managing news editor three weeks ago. Ultimately, Finnegan’s goal at Genius is to make the media a better place by holding it responsible, she said in an interview before all this went down.
“I’d like it to become the place for media watchdogs to go,” she said in an interview last week. “To tell the media that it is bad and that it needs to do better.” Like this.
So how did the former features editor at Gawker and the interim executive editor at Cosmopolitan come to write mini-takedowns for a website that, despite its ambitions to annotate everything on the web, is still mostly known for explaining rap lyrics?
“It was the most exciting thing that came up when I was looking for jobs,” Finnegan said. “Do I want to keep editing formulaic essays or do something completely different that’s a new way of thinking and interacting with text. It was time to zag, if you will.”
Finnegan is fiercely brilliant. But a lot of people on the internet aren’t. Some are not smart and some are even bad. How does the Genius become not just a Reddit that gets to go inside articles instead of being relegated to shit-talk them elsewhere?
The Genius commenter community had a public discussion of this yesterday, in light of the Dawson complaints. On this topic Finnegan directed me to her post in the discussion (emphasis ours):
I think the question of annotation ultimately comes down to worth: Is this text worth being annotated? The web annotator is powerful in that it can be used on anything, but of course that doesn’t mean it should be; annotating an article published on a national magazine’s website is different from annotating someone’s personal blog. Both are public, yes, and technically fair game, but one is backed up by a well of resources while the other is not. What do we want to criticize, question, examine, expand upon, and why?
In our interview last week Finnegan said that News Genius was still figuring out how to make the annotations not be bad. This week has put that under the microscope.
“The idea is we monitor the community very closely and foster a community of people who annotate,” she said last week. “And we’ve gotten some people whose work isn’t maybe as good, and we need to figure out a specific framework for handling that.”
The degree to which Genius can do that may be the difference between News Genius becoming a popular, powerful new tool on the internet — something that can contextualize, provoke and enhance existing words — or a piece of hate-enabling technology that gets shamed into the spam folder of history.