Stupid Genius

Glenn Fleishman recently wrote a couple of extremely interesting articles about web annotation on his site, Glenn Fleishman writes words about things. He covers a little bit about the history of commenting and annotating services in general, and the case of News Genius, a recent purveyor of this technology, more specifically.

Citation, appropriation, and fair use: News Genius picks up again where failures left off

Web annotation addenda

I’m not going to get into why News Genius is being talked about so much at the moment, because that’s well covered by Glenn, as well as by an article posted on Recode. Suffice it to say that there are some significant downsides to how News Genius works and their apparent business philosophy that should be clear after reading his posts.

One problem I have with News Genius is that it seems to be trying to position itself as a tool for people to heroically overcome all the lazy, selfish, incompetent gatekeepers of information.

This gives those who annotate the potential to do great and interesting things. Is a gasbag columnist writing silly things? Annotate him. Has a news article misrepresented your neighborhood? Annotate it. Is something just dead wrong? Annotate. I am excited to use News Genius to tell you every day what I think about what is published.

I have to wonder why the approach here is to just assume everything is bad and needs tearing down. Seems like a strange way to represent the service if you want people to see you as a welcome addition to the news cycle and not as a hostile takeover artist. Or could it be that the people at News Genius simply know from experience that it’s the negative and trollish commenters who are going to be the most active, and the most willing to scribble all over other people’s websites?

Either way, forgive me if I’m skeptical that News Genius plays an incredibly important role in truth dissemination.

News Genius proposes a view of journalists as “connectors”, “responsible for part of the story” (emphasis mine), and “working with the public”, which seems off base to me. The journalist is the person doing all the work.

Implying that the commentary thrown atop the page by the internet peanut gallery is somehow equal to or as valuable as the work of the journalist is laughable to anyone who’s ever looked at the comments on any even moderately popular website. And News Genius doesn’t appear to do much to make their product rise above the level of “the comments” in reality. Same old garbage, different garbage bag. Even if they erase the worst of the nonsense, that doesn’t magically make the remaining input vital and relevant.

Most importantly, there is a worse problem with this type of annotation system that Glenn capably points out, the power to much more easily harass or badger a writer.

Any web page can be annotated and viewed with that annotation at the News Genius site. In an era full of sites that allow grievers and trolls to flourish and plan coordinate attacks—sections of reddit, 4chan, and many lesser-known sites—why anyone would want to resuscitate this notion of arbitrary annotation, I don’t know.

Glenn continues in his Web Annotation Addenda:

It’s also not responding to the primary criticism, which isn’t about criticism itself, but context and the use of the complete Web page as it appears on someone else’s site. That’s distinct from nearly every other form of enduring commentary on the Net.

The main problem in my mind isn’t that people want to have opinions about things, it’s that they want to have them by, in essence, spraying graffiti all over someone else’s web page instead of responding to them on their own blogs or on social media.

Allowing people to co-opt the writing of journalists (and anyone else, technically speaking) and paste their own drivel all over it removes the ability of website owners to determine how commenting will work on their own sites. To me, this is just pretentious site hijacking. For proof of the arrogance behind it, look no further than what’s posted on News Genius by way of explaining the incredible importance of their mission:

Where does this leave the reader? Where does one go if one wants a dose of the truth these days? Where does one go to consume actual information that matters?

Because we all know how much truth is in web comments, and how much they generally matter. Brilliant! Or, dare I say, genius?

News Genius seems to be confusing web comments with valuable annotation, and that’s craziness on a crack pipe level. Obviously this mistake is intentional, because that’s the framing that fits their business model. That doesn’t make it any less of a mistake.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” — Upton Sinclair