IRONICALLY, GENIUS — the buzzy, Brooklyn-based annotation platform that hopes to rival Wikipedia as a crowd-sourced compendium of knowledge—sprang from a misunderstanding. In 2009, Ilan Zechory, Tom Lehman and Mahbod Moghadam, the three founders of Genius and all recent graduates of Yale at the time, were sitting around listening to the Cam’ron song “Family Ties.” Lehman, the least hip-hop literate of the three, asked his friends to explain the line: “80 holes in your shirt, there: your own Jamaican clothes.” Moghadam said that it referred to the fact that poor Jamaicans wear tattered clothes. In fact, Moghadam got it wrong: As a Genius user would later point out, the more sensible interpretation of 80 holes is as a reference to the mesh shirts commonly worn in Jamaica. The exchange nonetheless provoked a game-changing idea: The hip-hop lexicon contains subtle references, inside jokes and elusive subtexts. What if a website could annotate the canon of rap by appealing to the wisdom of the crowd, allowing anyone with a browser to help decode popular hip-hop lyrics?
Within 24 hours, Lehman (adapting code he’d written while at Yale) had built the rudimentary structure of Rap Genius, the venture’s original incarnation, which soon generated tremendous interest, going on to become one of the fastest-growing companies ever backed by the influential start-up seed fund Y Combinator. Today, the site receives over 40 million unique visitors per month and has grown far beyond the confines of music, allowing visitors to peruse and annotate texts from various disciplines, whether it’s Jay Z’s “99 Problems,” Fed chair Janet Yellen’s semiannual monetary policy report or the poems of Emily Dickinson. Over a million annotators—from fanboys and armchair academics to “Verified Artists” such as Eminem, producer Rick Rubin, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and novelist Junot Díaz — explicate these texts through a simple interface (clicking on a word or phrase highlighted in yellow causes an annotation to pop up alongside it). With the help of this international cohort of data enthusiasts, Genius’s aim — one worthy of Age of Enlightenment sages like Diderot and Voltaire — is to annotate the entire Internet.
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