When Marc Andreessen was building the first Web browser, Mosaic, in 1993, he planned to include an annotation function. “It was a very simple implementation,” says Andreessen. “I think that all I did was have the annotations show up at the end of the page.” His hope was to ultimately make it possible for people to add endless layers of argument and interpretation all over the Web, but he had to abandon the project. “We ran out of time,” he says. “I was barely sleeping as it was.”
Twenty years later, Andreessen believes his old idea has new life in the form of Rap Genius, a website where users post explanations of hip-hop lyrics. On Oct. 3 he said Andreessen Horowitz, the venture capital firm he co-founded in 2009, would invest $15 million in the site. (Bloomberg LP is an Andreessen Horowitz investor.)
Rap Genius is the brainchild of three friends—Mahbod Moghadam, 29, Tom Lehman, 28, and Ilan Zechory, 28—who met at Yale University. They launched the site in 2009 as a place where the founders and their friends could help each other figure out rap references and show off their knowledge. It now draws about 850,000 unique visitors monthly in the U.S., according to Compete (WPPGY), a company that tracks Web traffic. Hundreds of thousands of people have contributed lyrical exegeses. Scroll over highlighted lines from a song, and explanations, references, photos, and other context added by readers appear in a pop-up box.
Andreessen announced his investment with an annotated statement on Rap Genius. The site, he wrote, was already “the definitive online community of rap aficionados.” By expanding into other categories of online text, he added, it could become “the Internet Talmud.” Andreessen says he’d been waiting 20 years to see where his idea might resurface. Rap Genius “wasn’t at all what I thought would be the leading edge for this kind of thing,” he says. “But it makes so much sense because rap is at the leading edge of culture.”
Rap Genius has already begun expanding beyond hip-hop and now features annotations for indie rock songs, presidential debates, Biblical verses, and The Great Gatsby. When the partners started the site, Lehman says, they had no plan to create an annotation platform for the entire Web, so they’re still working out how to organize information.
As it goes about that process, Rap Genius can call upon two decades of learning about what works and doesn’t in online communities. Explaining, commenting on, arguing about, and cross-referencing text are, after all, not exactly new activities on the Web. There’s Wikipedia, one of the 10 largest sites, plus hundreds of thousands of blogs, message boards, and news sites, most with reader comments running underneath entries. The Web can be seen as a near-infinite exercise in textual analysis—as well as a vast repository for spam, invective, hate speech, vulgarity, and other noise. “YouTube (GOOG) comments are like the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Andreessen says.
“What we learned is that if you want to explain the whole Internet, you have to focus on the community rather than the platform,” says Rap Genius co-founder Lehman. To that end, the site has been cultivating its contributors through an informal economy of favors (“I’ve written countless letters of recommendation for college or grad school,” says Moghadam) and an automated point system called Rap IQ. Users of the site boost others’ Rap IQs by “up-voting” their work; consistently good contributors are made editors with extra privileges to shape the site’s content. That, says Lehman, is how Rap Genius will keep from degenerating to the level of YouTube comments—and stay more fun than Wikipedia. “You go to Wikipedia, and it’s like, ‘Where are my points?’ ” he says.
Going forward, Lehman and his partners may simply add to their roster of sites, complementing Rap Genius with, say, Country & Western or Heavy Metal Genius. They also may try to make it possible to add Rap Genius content to other sites, so, for example, contributors could share their annotations on their Tumblr pages. Eventually, Lehman says, they could even build plug-in software that would allow users to annotate any page on the Web—just the way Andreessen imagined.