GeniusGenius, the popular service best known for its community-sourced explanations of song lyrics, launched in October of 2009. They are powered by user-generated content (UGC), where anyone can simply highlight a passage of text and add an annotation. They have raised at least $56.9 million in funding.

It took them 6 and a half years to add a report abuse button. On March 31, they did so. But only after a member of congress asked them if they would.

For a reputable community-driven site of this scale, that’s unheard of and hard to believe. It casts the service in a bad light and speaks to priorities that run counter to community.

Genius’ Prior Abuse Reporting Process

Up until March 31, according to Genius CEO Tom Lehman, Genius asked those reporting abuse to post a comment, in public, on the objectionable content, tagging @genius-moderation in the comment. Unfortunately, this type of system actually discourages people from reporting abuse to you.

You don’t ask people to report abuse in public because it subjects the person reporting the content to scrutiny simply for reporting it. Even if they do it anonymously, a public comment is a matter of record and invites discussion of the report itself. The only people who should be discussing an abuse report are staff members tasked with handling those reports. You don’t put every report of abuse up for a public vote because that’s not leadership, and it scares vulnerable parties away.

Genius should be standing up to abuse themselves. When people submit an abuse report to me, and I have to intervene, no one ever knows that it was reported at all, because it doesn’t matter. The behavior is appropriate or it isn’t. I don’t need to pass the buck to the person who reported it. But that’s what Genius was doing.

Just as bad is forcing people to have some sort of insider knowledge of a specific tag to get the attention of moderators. Who knows that the @genius-moderation tag even exists? Some of their community members, certainly. But many of their members, let alone random people who might report abuse, do not. Hopefully, Genius has also been taking abuse reports via their generic contact us page. Lehman’s letter doesn’t reference this, but at this stage, I’m not sure that it matters.

It’s worth pointing out that it does not appear that a report abuse button has yet made it to posts in Genius’ large and very active forums or comments posted on Genius pages or associated annotations. Having an easy, anonymous way of reporting abuse is just as important in these venues because the intimidation factor is just as real.

Note: abuse has multiple meanings, so I want to be clear about my usage. In this piece, I am speaking of abuse of an online community, which is more than just harassment and threats, but misuse of the platform in general. Hateful remarks, intolerance, personal attacks, spam and any behavior that is inappropriate on Genius would fall under the type of content one might report.

This section has been updated to reflect that @genius-moderation is not a specific account that then alerts moderators, but a tag that does so.

Why Did a Member of Congress Send Genius a Letter Now?

The timing of this discussion stems from an experience had by Ella Dawson, social media manager for TED, the conference series.

On her personal blog, Dawson regularly writes about sexual health, sharing personal stories about sensitive topics. As she admitted, in her post about this issue, these subjects attract abusive, inappropriate comments, and she accepts that. But the reason she publishes these stories on her personal blog is so that she can have control over what appears next to her writing, and the influence it has on readers, who may be depressed or even suicidal.

Genius Web Annotator is a Chrome extension that allows Genius users to annotate any web page from within their browser. People can then share links to the content, with annotations laid over it, by adding “” to the start of a link. The first example currently provided by News Genius, the company’s effort to annotate current events, is a story on Jennifer Garner.

After Dawson blocked someone on Twitter, she found that the blocked person turned to Genius, using the Web Annotator tool to comment on her blog post in a way she had no authority over. This opens a door, Dawson says, to anyone who would like to post abusive comments toward her on her blog, and she can’t do anything about it. She has asked Genius for a way to opt-out of on-page annotations. The company has refused, but of course, unaffiliated developers have stepped up to provide workarounds.

Dawson’s post has received a range of responses. Some agree, some don’t. Those that don’t feel as though this is how the internet works and that she can choose to not look at Genius or the annotations. Her post is in public. It’s fair game. They say that asking for a Genius Web Annotator opt-out is akin to asking Facebook to stop talking about you.

I am sympathetic to Dawson, even if I don’t necessarily agree with all of her points around this issue. Frankly, that doesn’t matter. This article is not about agreeing with her or not. Instead, I want to talk about this issue from a community angle.

A Startling Lack of Empathy

Before Dawson ever wrote a blog post, she sent a series of tweets. It was how the News Genius Twitter account responded that first caught my attention. These three tweets represent how News Genius chose to respond to her concerns in public.

Even if News Genius, and whoever was answering from the Twitter account, totally disagrees with everything that Dawson says, these knee-jerk responses did a great deal of harm to how many see News Genius. You don’t have to agree with someone to show empathy, and the lack of empathy displayed here is striking. The responses are patronizing. Does the person responding to Dawson actually think she doesn’t know that people can comment on Facebook and Twitter? Do they believe she actually requested them to “stop the conversation about [her] content” on the internet as a whole? Because that isn’t what she asked for.

If someone says they don’t want to use your service, telling them that your service helps them, and they have no choice, isn’t a response that will resonate with them. No one cares if your platform is meant to save them, if they don’t want to be saved by you.

This isn’t to say that this perspective represents the community as a whole. There is more empathetic commentary on this issue coming from the community itself. Numerous members, including volunteer moderators, have expressed concerns and thoughtful feedback about this issue and how Genius has approached it.

Is News Genius “in Service of Journalism” or Just Another Comments Section?

News GeniusOne of the areas where some community members have been critical is in the quality of the annotations being made through Web Annotator and for News Genius, and how they compare to the normal standards of Genius.

If you read Genius’ about page, you’ll find the service referred to as an “interactive guide to human culture.” They say that “annotations are like miniature Wikipedia pages: constantly-improving distillations of the combined wisdom of potentially dozens of scholars.” Furthermore, they “are informative, first and foremost, but often also playful.”

“Please also respect the site’s mission, which is to promote human understanding by annotating the world,” says the site’s community policy. Similarly, News Genius’ homepage describes the service as providing “annotations in service of journalism.”

Whether or not News Genius can succeed in its aim depends on how people use it. Communities take behavioral and participatory cues from leaders within the community. In large part, in addition to societal norms already in place on Genius, this will be influenced by members of staff and the examples they choose to spotlight. While there is a working draft of content guidelines for News Genius, that seems perfectly reasonable, the document means nothing if not enforced and, especially, if Genius staff members do not follow it themselves.

While I have never annotated on Genius, I have spent a lot of time on the site over the years, reading through annotations made by other users. I have found Genius to be a useful provider of context, and believe that is really where it shines brightest.

As I wrote this piece, I read a large quantity of annotations promoted by News Genius’ homepage and Twitter account and the annotations made don’t seem, on average, to be as helpful in providing context as what I would normally expect from the music-side of the site. Sure, the lyrics annotations sometimes have low quality contributions, but with the news annotations, it seems much more frequent. Random comments and questions seem to occur more often, rather than answers.

Their Twitter account recently retweeted this message:

This tweet can be summed up as, “if a site doesn’t allow you to add public comments, just use News Genius.” But is that really what the service is? If that is the strategy, very well, but I don’t know that it fits within the goals stated above, which are really about cutting through noise, not increasing it. And if they are just a replacement comments section, will those who practice journalism really view that as being in service of their craft?

In the News Genius section of their forums, news community manager Stephen Pringle posted about an article that referenced this controversy, saying “[the author] takes what seems to be a very even-handed view here, so I think we should be very even-handed with him.” This makes attributions appear retributive in nature, as if an article that was more critical of Genius, should elicit a less even-handed approach. But doesn’t that defeat the purpose of the service? Should Genius deploy an army of advocates to markup every critical article, like a celebrity retweeting a supposed “hater”?

I don’t want to delve too deeply into the legal discussion of this issue, as it is beyond the scope of this piece. That said, Genius is pushing the limits of fair use. Publishers tend not to respond well to services that take their content and lay other things over it. While Genius may not be your typical content framer, when content framing cases go to court, they all get settled in favor of the publisher. There is a reason why Genius chooses to stand up to a personal blog in this way, while simultaneously securing deals with larger publishers to enable the use of Genius.

Abuse is a Day One Problem

To deal with abuse, you have to admit that it actually happens. Some who are defending Genius are saying that the service is being criticized for what people might do, not what they have actually done. But that’s not really a cogent argument, not if you’ve spent much time in content moderation or community management. We know they do it, because online community has existed for 30+ years and offline community has existed forever. Better yet, people have already done it on Genius, as Lehman said in his letter.

We’re not talking about if they do it. We’re talking about how you discourage and respond to it. A service like Genius, with its scope, scale and funding, must think very carefully about abuse of any new tool or feature it launches. With Web Annotator, we are really just seeing the tip of the iceberg. It is self-evident that people will use it as a means of getting their pound of flesh, when they have been blocked from commenting. Does Genius want to become a haven for those people? If not, what are they going to do about it?

For Genius, the report abuse button is a good step, even if it was shockingly late and released after a member of congress asked for it. Abuse reports must be read by people who understand what abuse looks like, within Genius, and can apply a consistent standard, no matter who makes the annotation.

They’ll likely find the next series of steps by listening to thoughtful, reasoned voices within their own community. Seeking input from online trust and safety experts probably wouldn’t hurt, either. They should take stands that reflect the community guidelines they already have and speak to the strengths of the service. Since News Genius is the “flagship project” of Web Annotator, both efforts will be judged by how the other is used. If that use is seen as detrimental by a substantial number of journalists, writers and other creators, plugins and code to block it will proliferate even further, and the relationship between Genius and writers will grow more adversarial.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t help that Genius has already run into ethical issues that were very relevant to creators and publishers. They put off licensing song lyrics for as long as they could, even after securing venture capital money, when their site would have been nothing without those lyrics. They were also found to be manipulating search engine results in a way that led to Google penalizing them. Both of these issues expose an approach of the ends justifying the means, which is also an approach that some startups take with abuse, driven by the pursuit of active users, pageviews and, in the end, dollars.

The luckiest startups survive these blows and, once they have already secured their funding rounds and acquired substantial traffic and influence, tend to take abuse more seriously. But many don’t survive. A negative side effect of this is that newer companies and communities believe that this is the path to success. That you don’t need to prioritize abuse handling, until some distant moment in the future, when you’ve already made it. But you may never have that chance.