The White House's Genius Plan to Treat the State of the Union Like Rap Lyrics

A startup known for annotated pop songs and bawdy executives enlists President Obama and Spotify in its vision for the Web.

State of the Union Technology: A 'Genius' Partnership

For much of its young life, the startup Genius didn’t seem to be headed in a direction leading to the White House. The website launched with a focus on annotated music lyrics, and its founders were pilloried for immature behavior, racial insensitivity, and a general aura of non-seriousness. When the Obama administration laid out its plans for this year’s State of the Union, however, it included an online presentation of past speech texts that were annotated, using Genius’s technology.

Genius originally focused on rap lyrics, with a platform that allowed users to explain or interpret each line in, say, Ten Crack Commandments by The Notorious B.I.G. Click on a highlighted line in the text and the annotations left by other users pop up. On Tuesday, in a move unrelated to the evening's big presidential speech, Genius announced a partnership with Spotify that turns user-submitted comments into something that feels very similar to VH1’s Behind the Music. That's exactly the sort of pact that fits with the musical legacy of the website.

But the company has also expanded to many other types of text as it tries to turn itself into a tool that can be used elsewhere, with online publishers and authors embracing the annotation tool. For the last several months Genius has focused particularly in politics. A partnership with the Washington Post last year produced annotations for political debates, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign used the service to promote her kickoff speech. Getting a small role in the State of the Union is a culmination of the startups push into politics.

Neither the White House nor Spotify are directing their audiences to Genius.com. Instead, Genius will help annotate texts hosted by the U.S. president and the popular streaming-music service. Genius supplies little more than the technology and in some cases, the people looking to post annotations. A post on Medium about the State of the Union by Jason Goldman, the White House’s chief digital officer, didn’t even mention Genius’s name.

The idea for Genius is a broader vision, both in terms of subject matter and the way it reaches people. Tom Lehman, one of the company’s co-founders and its chief executive, has been talking about a way to annotate anything on the Internet since its inception. Mark Andresseen, the co-founder of Netscape whose venture capital firm invested in Genius in 2012, wanted to include such a feature directly into his Web browser.

Genius has been slowly trying to divorce its service from a single website over the course of this year, but Lehman says that the plan is still in early stages. He would like the service to be a part of the Web’s infrastructure, just the way a Facebook “like” button shows up on pretty much any website you visit. “It doesn’t make sense to put the State of the Union on Genius.com,” he said. “Genius should follow you and live in the natural place for you to experience content.”

Getting a presidential endorsement is a good step in that direction, but ubiquity is pretty difficult to achieve. Lehman says dozens of publishers are making it possible for their users to annotate with Genius's tools.

Spotify, which use apps rather than websites, makes the the technical challenge even harder. For now, Spotify users can’t annotate songs as they listen to them; instead, the two companies are selecting a few songs and hand-crafting a way to read comments that have been left on Genius.com in advance. 

Presumably the way to turn such a service into a business will involve advertising. But Genius hasn’t firmed up how it plans to make money off either its website or its distributed annotation service. Lehman’s plan, for now, is to find as many publications as he can that are willing to use Genius as a way to annotate their sites. It’s not the only place to come up with this idea; Medium.com allows in-text commenting, and the New York Times has experimented with it as well.

Opening up content to annotations from the public will probably make some websites nervous, especially if it means working with an outside company. But Lehman thinks Genius can persuade publishers that they’ll have to loosen their grip. “They want editorial control,” he said. “But they they don’t want to do the work.”

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