Over the last 10 years, websites that rely on crowdsourcing have become some of the most effective information-based products of the Internet revolution. But one unlikely site with roots in New Haven, RapGenius.com, may be altering the future of crowdsourced sites. With an infusion of $15 million of Silicon Valley investment cash earlier this year, RapGenius is likely to get a lot more attention — good and bad — fast. They even hope to get President Obama on board.
The site was originally designed in late 2009 by Yale graduate Tom Lehman while working at a hedge fund. He and his friend, Mahbod Moghadam, envisioned the site earlier in the year, and enlisted college buddy Ilan Zechory to work on the project. They set out with the hope of creating a site where users could come together to annotate and explain rap lyrics in the same way that literary critics dissect influential poetry — line by line, word by word.
Crowdsourcing is the model by which certain websites utilize their large, and demographically diverse audience to produce content at little to no cost to their business or organization. Popular websites like Wikipedia and PoemHunter are two destinations whose readers are often contributors. Breaking away from traditional methods, these sites rely on a powerful base of contributing users to make up for their lack of staff writers, researchers, and fact checkers. Wikipedia itself boasts over 17 million registered contributors, none of whom are paid.
Crowd sites rarely offer incentives for contribution of content outside of attribution and publication. In most cases, according to Wikipedia's own crowdsourcing article, contributors choose to participate for their own enjoyment and a sense of community, rather than economic opportunities.
Until very recently, most crowdsourced sites depended on their audience to submit original academic content or crowd-compiled information about work that had been previously published — like song lyrics, books, articles, poems, and notable quotations.
This is where RapGenius deviates from the norm. Over 300,000 people have written explanations for the site; of those, the best 500 have been given editor powers, according to Moghadam, who spoke to the Advocate by phone. Some estimates put the total traffic at over 10 million hits per month for the site. Of those, daily traffic sometimes tops 500,000 hits. In terms of maximizing page views, the model is brilliant: searches for song lyrics are among the most popular online, and so creating a place that serves as both a hub for lyrics and a forum for their analysis will naturally prove popular in generating sought-after web traffic. And that $15 million of investor funding means the site will be hiring programmers and designers.
It goes without saying that any time you have a web site — started by three white dudes, incidentally — that purports to explain hip-hop culture to the masses, and make millions of dollars doing so, there will be charges of reckless cultural appropriation and worse. (One blogger called the writing on the site, taken to be the work of privileged college kids, a "ghetto safari" for some of the contributors.) Don't expect the users — privileged, authentic or otherwise — who volunteer their annotations to be seeing any of that cash.
Each member of the site is invited to provide comments analyzing verses and lines in famous songs, earning "Rap IQ" when other users endorse their analyses, said Moghadam. They are also encouraged to use web links and other informal references to cite their interpretations.
One of the site's contributors is Nicholas Rizner, a music blogger from Connecticut whose blog "Real Radio" showcases the "intellectual side of hip hop."
Rizner said he appreciates the site's ability to make rap music more accessible to the less knowledgeable listener. "Hip-hop is rife with metaphors," he said in a recent e-mail exchange. "The more you listen to rap, the more equipped you become at picking up on meanings, however no one knows everything. RapGenius provides a way for the more experienced listeners to give back to the less experienced."
The RapGenius model primarily provides its audience with intersecting forms of information compiled through crowdsourcing, and a forum to comment on those contributions.
One dimension of the information provided by RapGenius is basic — cut-and-paste versions of rap lyrics that can be found on a multitude of websites. The lyrics include highlighted portions, indicating an annotation for that bit of text, which can be selected and read by the user as he or she scrolls through the lyrics. Readers may then comment on whichever annotations they choose to read. In these annotations, which are as accessible as the lyrics themselves, users find historical references, pictures, posters and cultural contextualizations (like slang definitions) for the selected lines. They can also stream many tracks through Spotify without leaving the annotation page.
As the annotations get additional layers of interactions from RapGenius users, community editors are expected to judge their validity and either accept or deny them accordingly. Unlike comments found on a site like YouTube, each annotation is subject to review by an editing member deemed by administrators to be competent in hip-hop terminology, history and culture. There are still plenty of inaccurate or superficial annotations on the site, all awaiting approval or rejection.
A line from Kanye West's song "All Falls Down" — "We shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us / We trying to buy back our 40 acres / And for that paper, look how low we a'stoop / Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe" — becomes significantly more understandable to someone not steeped in hip-hop culture when annotated as it is on RapGenius:
"Though there is no actual evidence of anyone agreeing to this promise, the '40 Acres and A Mule Promise' was a term used by the U.S. government to give the freed slaves reimbursement after being enslaved for nearly 200 years... Kanye is implying that the African-American people are actually buying back the 40 acres that were supposedly promised to them. Basically, he is paying money for something that was said to be given to him.... [He is saying that African-Americans] will do anything for money and at the end of the day, even when he is a gentleman in a nice car they still see him as a ignorant person trying to show off..."
RapGenius contributors are not simply noting the meanings of a song's lyrics. They attempt to provide a broader intellectual view of rap music that is not often accessible, or promoted, in contemporary media.
A number of famous rap artists, including Nas, GZA, and Kendrick Lamar, operate "verified accounts" on the site. They provide interpretations of their own songs, as well as other artists' works. Nas was one of the first investors in the website, and GZA even annotates religious texts on the site, Moghadam said.
Earlier this year, the site caught the attention of the Silicon Valley investment firm Andreessen Horowitz, which invested $15 million dollars in the business. Marc Andreessen, co-founder of the firm, is best known as the designer of the Netscape Internet browser, and currently sits on the board of directors of Hewlett Packard and Facebook, among other companies.
An Internet business dedicated to the relatively slim market of rap music annotations may seem like an odd choice for a serious technology investment firm, but maybe not so odd after all, because RapGenius's users have already begun to shift focus away from their niche of rap interpretations. Annotated versions of U.S. Supreme Court cases, The Great Gatsby, famous speeches, and even Neil Young's "Old Man" already crowd the site.
A line from the Constitution on RapGenius — "To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes" — is annotated on the site as follows:
"This part of the 'Commerce Clause,' which gives Congress the authority to regulate foreign and interstate commerce, is the basis for most federal law regulating economic activity. Prior to the New Deal, this clause was often cited by courts that struck down state laws that favored local businesses over out-of-state competitors. But since the 1930s, the courts have relied on this clause primarily to uphold federal regulation of economic activity."
With help from their recent investment, Moghadam and his team hope to finish developing beta annotation sites for legal documents (LawGenius), and indie music (StereoIQ) in the near future. Even sites for bible verses and country music have been proposed. Two Stanford law professors, Lawrence Lessig and Mark Lemley, have recently signed on as the first two verified accounts for what will become LawGenius.
The average RapGenius user only experiences 10 percent of the site, says Moghadam. As a user's reputation on the site grows, they may become more entitled to special privileges by being selected as an editor.
"Right now only the powerful users [editors] have access to the chat feature, and other advanced features," says Moghadam. "Nine-tenths of the site is only visible to the editors who have accounts. That's how we have [rapper] Mac Miller in the chat room helping editors understand his lyrics."
Moghadam says that RapGenius is as much a social networking site as it is a place to compile rap annotations.
But rather than charging users for a membership or opening the whole site to the public, a contributor must prove themselves competent enough to join the inner social circle of RapGenius "editorship" by explaining songs insightfully and earning RapIQ.
The editorial community of RapGenius is a close-knit group of international users and hip-hop buffs. Through the use of the chat feature and message boards, editors can network, discuss, and spread their own hip-hop experience with contributors who share their passion. Topics ranging from making RapGenius a more user-friendly site, to questions regarding 1970s Jamaican slang terminology, are all discussed in editor-only chats and private messages.
This editor-centered power structure promotes civil discussion between Internet users who have been verified as having a baseline knowledge of hip-hop. It limits the editorial power of novice users, while not excluding them completely. The site maintains a base of veteran editors who help keep the site organized, while new users complete much of the original content creation.
"We initially wanted it to be a circle of friends explaining rap," Moghadam said. "Then we started letting outsiders in, and now they're the people working on the site. The original purpose was to find homies. It's a social site primarily," but it has the added dimension of providing quality hip-hop annotations.
RapGenius seems to have melded the web-research element of Wikipedia, the wise-ass cultural understanding of UrbanDictionary, the social networking of Facebook, and a new kind of crowd power.
The owners of Andreessen Horowitz and RapGenius believe that their crowdsourcing model is the future of massively compiled online information. The annotation style of utilizing the crowd is relatively new, and still extremely pliable.
But Moghadam says he won't be completely satisfied with the RapGenius model until he gets his "three white whales" on the site as verified users: Barack Obama (for LawGenius), Kanye West (for RapGenius), and Radiohead (for StereoIQ).