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Can Rap Genius Annotate the World? -- NYMag

Stashed in: User Generated Content, Founders, Marc Andreessen, @bhorowitz, Awesome, @a16z, Rap Genius, Rap Genius

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I can't be the only one who cringes when he hears the words "rap genius".

Genius proudly claims “the highest shower-to-employee ratio in the universe.”

"One of the most important things they've ever funded."

A year after Y Combinator, Andreessen Horowitz, Silicon Valley’s kingmakers, announced it was investing $15 million in Rap Genius. The internet was stunned. “This was $15 million for a site nobody had heard of, that seems like a bunch of clowns,” said one New York start-up founder who admires the site. Even the founders admit the payout depended on several remarkable synergies. Not only was Ben Horowitz a hip-hop head who uses rap lyrics as epigraphs in his management-advice blog posts, but Marc Andreessen, his partner, had created Mosaic, the first web browser, with the intention of including a feature called “group annotations.” (It didn’t work, for technical reasons.) The founders recognized their site’s applications beyond rap lyrics early on: Emily Dickinson’s poem “I’m Nobody. Who are you?” was among the first texts on the site. Andreessen saw the potential to create a way for people to build layers of knowledge on top of other layers—a replacement for the ecosystem of comments and status updates that enables trolling, outrage-stoking, “tl;dr,” and the other tautological sins rampant on the internet. When Andreesen Horowitz announced the addition of Rap Genius to its portfolio, which included Skype and ­Airbnb, Horowitz called it “one of the most important things we’ve ever funded.”

The founders’ grand vision, however, is that Genius, the platform, will eventually make, the website, more or less redundant.

“This is the future,” Lehman told me one day in the office, pulling up an article on Lehman had embedded Genius’s annotation platform into a story announcing the trade of Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Several phrases in the story were highlighted, as they would be in a song on Genius, and clicking on them produced comments from the team’s owner, several ESPN analysts, and a prominent sports doctor. In various iterations, there might also be annotations from the community of noncelebrity Genius users or from a reader’s Facebook friends.

Articles powered by the Genius system have already appeared on the websites of the Washington Post; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; and Forbes (the site provides an embed code, much like the kind used to post a YouTube video), and the company plans to direct its war chest toward subsidizing magazine freelance budgets in exchange for utilizing the Genius platform. After reading one such article, on Business Insider, I told Lehman and Zechory that I found the experience nerve-racking: What would I miss if I didn’t click on every single annotation? “The stress is real,” Lehman said, comparing it to his frustration with the footnotes in a book on constitutional law. “Some you flip back and it’s this little treasure, and some you flip back and it’s ‘ibid. 400.’ ” He pointed to the hyperlink as a now-ubiquitous feature that initially produced similar anxiety, and another Genius employee noted that, when it comes to new ways of digital ­communication—status updates, 140-­character bursts, disappearing photographs—“everyone thinks everything is going to be annoying” at first.

Genius is, as start-up argot goes, “pre-revenue.” The company does not sell ads, a business model that would hardly justify a $40 million investment. Though there are a number of potential revenue streams—premium accounts, licensing deals, brand collaborations—the company’s overall plan is to simply become so integral to the functioning of online life that someone will pay something for it. In an interview on CNBC last year, during which Zechory wore a mesh Denver Nuggets jersey, he declared that Genius would be “bigger than Facebook, bigger than Google”—companies with billions in annual revenue. Doing so would require a user base in the hundreds of millions, who all decide that annotating texts on the internet—the founders hope, at some point, to create a system for annotating images, audio, and video, too—is preferable, or at least complementary, to tweeting or commenting or status updating, a goal that remains distant.

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