In 2013, the lyric-explanation website Rap Genius rebranded simply as “Genius,” and announced that it would try to annotate not only songs, but poems, essays, and news articles. Three years later, the startup has become a flash point in the panicked and disingenuous hustle to scrub the internet of unkindness, which has since gotten confused with “abuse.”
A basic premise of the internet is that if you put something onto the internet, other people on the internet can see it. If you publish a piece of writing on a web page, it’s entirely possible that someone will read it—and they might like it, or dislike it. It’s even possible that they will publish something about what you published elsewhere.
This situation has been in effect for a long time now. Yet somehow, in March 2016, a pseudo-controversy over mean internet comments on Genius has become a real controversy, galvanizing the ranks of Precious Sensitivity Twitter and against all-fucking-odds prompting a response from a member of Congress:
Rep. Clark is right that “even platforms developed with the best of intentions can be, and are, misused to target marginalized groups, traumatize victims of violence, or intimidate certain voices into silence.” But she presents no evidence that Genius “has been shown to enable abusive behavior.”
Part of the problem here, other than deliberate misreading, is that the company presents itself as a revolutionary technology startup, but the basic concept is actually very simple: By using a browser plug-in or by appending “genius.it” before any web address (e.g. genius.it/google.com), you can “mark up” a website. You can’t edit or in any way change the words you see, but you can highlight the text and add your own comments on those highlights in the margin.
It’s unclear exactly why News Genius (edited by former Gawker editor Leah Finnegan) has been treated like A) the first website in history that’s allowed people to chime in on the writing of others and B) some sort of skeleton key that allows anyone to make changes directly to the website of anyone else. It’s one more overlay, like the ones that replace Donald Trump’s name with something comical.
The scandal began with Ella Dawson (a blogger who writes extensively about having herpes) whose essay about why the phrase “suffering from herpes” is an “insult” received critical News Genius annotations earlier this month. The dissenting annotations would only be visible if you used a specific URL (https://genius.it/8822019/ellacy…) or had the Genius plugin installed—otherwise, no one would ever know these comments existed, nor would you ever run into them.
But to Dawson, the act was tantamount to vandalism:
You want to discuss and criticize something I've written? That's fine. But seeing your thoughts pasted over my words feels like a violation.— Ella Dawson (@brosandprose) March 23, 2016
This is a serious question—I moderate my blog's comments harshly and I don't want people to annotate my posts w/out my control.— Ella Dawson (@brosandprose) March 23, 2016
.@newsgenius Creating sharable content by writing graffiti over someone else's content is a new low for the Internet.— Ella Dawson (@brosandprose) March 23, 2016
I'm heartbroken that my safest space, a space that was mine alone, is now accessible to be annotated by strangers.— Ella Dawson (@brosandprose) March 24, 2016
Dawson’s protestations about the sanctity of her herpes memoirs quickly turned into a rallying cry for anyone who thinks that you ought not say anything if you have nothing nice to say. The goalposts moved at lightning speed. Dawson found an ally in Alana Massey, a New York magazine columnist who wrote about her crisis of undereating and oversleeping, prompting News Genius to comment on whether she might be glorying in harmful behavior. The argument was no longer about criticizing small, personal blogs, but about criticizing the content of a personal essay in a major national magazine.
As is the case with most scandals about nothing, it was hard for anyone to really nail down what it was they were objecting to. Chelsea Hassler at Slate fell into the drift as well, hammering News Genius as a threat to the internet itself. “A new tool wants to annotate everything on the Internet. But at what cost?” her piece asked. Her answer (“it’s clear that there’s one thing News Genius hasn’t taken into consideration while evolving its business model: a very real potential for abuse”) was never substantiated. After complaining that Genius targeted work that wasn’t “high-profile,” she cited rude annotations to a pair of widely circulated BuzzFeed articles. (What Hassler didn’t mention was the Genius legacy of three guys from Yale whose VC cash-rich startup began as a means of clumsily and at times mockingly trying to explain black lyrics to other white people—it’s worth noting that it wasn’t until two white women cried foul here that Congress intervened)
Hassler conceded that the internet is a public space, but was unwilling to think that through:
Posting comments on Facebook or Twitter can lead to a discussion about the validity of those comments, a debate that takes place in a forum that is separate from the writer’s work. Regardless of how thick a writer’s skin may be, once the psychological barriers between the writing and the defense of that writing have been removed—which is effectively what happens when commentary is superimposed on someone’s work—it can feel ultra-personal and invasive.
A ticker tape parade of false equivalences follows:
Missing from Hassler’s article was even an iota of self-awareness: How can she say that her commentary (or annotations, if you will) are any more valid than those that appear on News Genius? How is criticism on Slate an act of legitimate commentary, while criticism on News Genius is inherently an act of abuse? How can Slate, a website whose existence has been built partly atop commentary on the writing of others, come down against this activity? If Hassler had published these words as annotations on, say, the Genius.com mission statement page, would they have been transmogrified into abuses?
There are two big, dumb starting premises of this line of anti-speech, safe space reasoning. The first is that News Genius represents any new threat for abuse or misuse. To “annotate” a website is nothing new. Look, I can do it without Genius:
Or, as has been happening on sites like Slate and Gawker and others for many, many years (and decades!) I could write a reply to a blog post on my own blog, leave a comment, tweet, praise it on Facebook, critique it on a message board, slam it in an email, rip it to shreds on MySpace, or any number of other very easy ways to react to someone else’s writing. In fact, the ability to view public information and publicly respond to it is a basic underpinning of the internet and without this principle the internet would cease to function.
So, no, News Genius does not facilitate “pasting misinformation and guesses directly onto [Dawson’s] content.” Or anyone’s. It is not in any way comparable to “writing graffiti over someone else’s content.” When you put graffiti in the restroom stall, no one can use the toilet without having to see it. But if you visit Ella Dawson’s restroom stall, the walls are still clean.
If Genius were allowing anyone to alter the form and content of any website in the world, that would be a tool with an profound potential for abuse and disaster. But Genius doesn’t do that—it creates a voluntary, opt-in overlay and nothing more. If you want to pretend it doesn’t exist, you are free to never see it so long as you live.
The second false premise is the conflation of dissent or criticism—even glib or crass criticism, or outright meanness—with “abuse.” Abuse is extremely real on the internet. Ask women whose lives are threatened with anonymous descriptions of impending rape, or anyone whose address has been posted on Twitter. Abuse implies a violation of some kind. A sarcastic or mean comment might be unnecessary, but what is it violating? The Golden Rule? If the staff of News Genius hacks your website to paste its disagreements or floods you with alerts to make sure you don’t miss a single negative annotation, you can rightfully call abuse. If a News Genius user begins annotating your articles with messages about slitting your throat or spammed jokes about your weight, you can rightfully claim that you’ve been harassed by someone abusing the site, and the harasser ought to be punished. News Genius has always encouraged users to report abuse, and as of today has implemented a button.
But saying “this sucks” is not abuse, and to label it such cheapens the experience of every single person who’s ever been abused, harassed, stalked, or intimidated online.
It’s brave and noble of Dawson to publicly try to combat the stigma of STD infection. But when she writes “we need more voices to challenge the single narrative of herpes,” she’s already acknowledging her place in public—it’s right there in the “we.” If you want to advocate for a cause in front of an audience (and judging by the fact that her website has a “Press” section, I’m assuming she does), you have to take what comes with it. Dawson says she has a blog “to have total control of how I write and who interacts with me.” If only this were possible! Unfortunately, this is a fantasy, and will always be so. News Genius couldn’t destroy this fairytale vision of the web, because it never existed.