P111: The Genius and The Damage Done

Genius, the occasionally noxious, always useful, frequently brilliant platform for annotations might be wishing for a couple more highlights this week, after an article by Chelsea Hassler called out the company’s News Genius product as being a potential tool for abuse and bullying. Recently reinvigorated by the hiring of Leah Finnegan, News Genius builds on the power of the Genius Web Annotator to aggregate annotated articles from across the web. By simply prepending “genius.it/” to a valid URL (like this one), a Genius user can annotate the content without the publisher’s permission or even knowledge of the annotation. Hassler believes this becomes especially problematic when paired with the frequently misogynistic nature of so many online interactions:

“There’s a lot of truth to that. Female bloggers have a long, sordid history of harassment on the Web — Gamergate is just the tip of the iceberg — and while Genius-enabled annotations could theoretically bring a larger audience to unknown writers, some denizens of the Internet are not seeking to broaden their page views; they actively wish to stay in their own circles, avoiding potential readers who are likely to be unfriendly.”

Hassler’s article and the (annotated) discussion around it eventually made it to Congresswoman Katherine Clark who reached out to Genius for comment via her social channels. Genius responded and they have added a “report abuse” button to each annotation – a good and necessary move but one that has been known to telegraph a lack of thoughtfulness about issues of abuse. And since that last link brought Anil Dash into this, I’m obligated to link to his seminal article about building online communities titled “If your website’s full of a-holes, it’s your fault.

If you read Dash’s recommendations, it seems like Genius is following that playbook fairly closely: paid moderators, posted policies, accountable identity. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as if these authors are asking Genius to annotate their content. The good and honorable thing to do here is for Genius to provide an opt-out so those who don’t want to participate aren’t compelled to. That said, it’s more than a little bit interesting that after extensive annotation, Slate published three corrections to the original piece.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron