Amanda Holpuch – We're trying to make Rap Genius into Everything Genius'
So far, the biggest challenge for Rap Genius founder Mahbod Moghadam has been to secure a verified account for Geoffrey Chaucer to post his thoughts on the Canterbury Tales.
Moghadam is joking, as he and his co-founders Tom Lehman and Ilan Zechory tend to do, but the goal to give the Canterbury Tales the Rap Genius treatment is a real one, and part of a move to take the annotation website beyond simply explaining rap lyrics and towards annotating every text in the world.
"We're trying to make Rap Genius into Everything Genius," Moghadam told the Guardian. This goal became easier with a $15m investment in the site from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz in October 2012, an announcement which the investors posted and annotated on the site.
Rap Genius opened separate channels for poetry, rock and news – a category that includes Apple's iTunes Terms of Service and the introduction to Lean In, annotated by its author, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. This article is also annotated on the site.
The trio now have plans to use their site for uses they never foresaw when Rap Genius launched, including an education section that provides guides for students and teachers on how to use the site in the classroom.
"There's all this talk about participatory education to give students more of a role in their own learning and make them more involved, and this is a step there, where they can annotate the documents themselves and leave their marks on the walls of history," said Louis Lafair, 18, the site's education intern.
Lafair was introduced to the Rap Genius by his teacher Jeremy Dean, who left his job to direct Rap Genius' education efforts, which also include being a part of the Science Genius competition, where New York City students created rap tracks about science and were judged by Dean, a university professor and GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan.
Support from the rap community, even as the company expands efforts to other texts, has been an instrumental part of the sites success. Artists including Kendrick Lamar and Nas have verified accounts, which let them annotate the song to provide context for their lyrics.
Even with support from some of the biggest names in the game, Rap Genius has faced criticism from people who doubt the intentions of the site and accuse it of being racist. "The biggest misconception is that our mission is to explain or translate all of rap," said co-founder Ilan Zechory.
Critics allege the site is translating black culture for white people, and Zechory admits it is possible to find annotations that do that, though usually they haven't been reviewed by an editor or moderator. He said Rap Genius and its community discourage that behavior.
"The community is incredibly diverse, and I think sometimes that criticism is insulting, because it implies that the only people who would enjoy analysis of rap lyrics are white people – and that's offensive to all the non-white people who enjoy the analysis of rap lyrics," said Zechory. "I think it certainly trivializes how important and complex their lyrics are."
The site's traffic has not suffered from these criticisms. According to ComScore, Rap Genius had nearly 10m unique visitors worldwide in June, about three times more than it did a year ago.
"There's going to be chaos – that's the reality, and that's what's been part of the Rap Genius DNA since the beginning," said co-founder Tom Lehman. The "embrace the chaos" ethos is what informs the decisions, product development and the culture of the community, he said.
"The great thing about getting the $15m, barring anything crazy happening or us blowing it in some horrible way, is that we can now look in the future of three, four, five years and can commit to this in a long-term way," said Lehman.
Part of that long-term commitment means making money. While the early years were spent chasing venture funding and only casually exploring advertising, the site needs a scheme to sustain itself once the investments run out.
Lehman said they are considering creating their own ad platform like Facebook and Twitter have done. The founders are also looking to provide the annotation technology as a service to private companies and have offered brands including Pepsi and Fila verified accounts.
"Fundamentally, we are doing the same thing that many other start-ups have done before, which is trying to build a huge cultural phenomenon and trying to build sick technology and raising venture capital to hire people to do it and see what happens basically," said Lehman.
"We're shooting for an IPO three years away or two years away or whatever, we're shooting to be a part of human experience on the internet – that's another thing – it's an audacious goal."
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