The White House is using Genius to annotate the SOTU

Tony Wagner Jan 12, 2016

The White House is using Genius to annotate the SOTU

Tony Wagner Jan 12, 2016

President Barack Obama’s favorite song of 2015 was Kendrick Lamar’s “How Much A Dollar Really Cost,” the White House announced last month. Obama hasn’t contributed to the track’s extensive annotations on Genius — formally Rap Genius — but the White House will mark up Obama’s final State of the Union address, as part of a new partnership with the company.

It’s a big get for Genius, which has been gradually expanding its purview from explaining rap songs to annotating all kinds of music, literature and news events. The site’s community of user editors and contributors offer up their takes, vote up the best responses and tweak them over time, like a Wikipedia consisting of only interactive footnotes. It also recently launched a new tool that will let users mark up any page on the internet with one line of Javascript.

The White House has already used Genius to add behind-the-scenes details, anecdotes and supporting data to previous addresses, and they’ll do the same tonight. Genius has also partnered with the Washington Post, to annotate Republican presidential debates, and prominent political reporter Chris Cillizza has praised the platform.

As Genius keeps wading into editorial content by working with both journalists and news makers, we called Rachel Blatt, the company’s director of partnerships, to talk about it. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

How’d this partnership with the White House come together?

In the lead-up to the President’s final State of the Union, we got together with their digital team, and we said “Let’s see what we can do.” Lets imagine how we could use Genius tech to not just to revisit the presidents words to actually reinvent them.Could a new layer of context and commentary to these texts?

So I’m looking at a few different texts that have been annotated using Genius: an old State of the Union, a Washington Post story about the Chinese stock market and the new Kanye West song. Do people annotate these texts more or less the same way? How does the editorial process differ?

Anyone can annotate any of these texts and they can do it a number of ways. There might be particular pieces, like features or big projects where we’re collaborating with the publisher ,where we will sometimes give moderation abilities to that publisher. It really depends on the project and what they’re going for. So I’m not sure which Post story but it sounds to me like this is one that’s just open to everyone. And it’s the same for any of the song pages on 

So how does this work with something like the State of the Union?

I think Genius will end up being the definitive way to experience and analyze the address tonight, and we’re working and sort of flexing the tech in a few different ways. So in the same way if you go back to the seven SOTUs that have already been annotated, you’ll see how different voices from admin are featured on the pages. We’ll keep that up, so you’ll hear from the same voices and some new voices too.

We do want to open this up to everyday citizens to get involved. So when the speech is up, everybody is welcome to jump in and add their context, and their commentary, and the way that moderation will work in this case is the White House is going to see a stream of all the user generated content and they’ll get to go in a choose the best ones that they want to feature alongside the voices of the administration.

There are different parties that might want to annotate something like the State of the Union. Journalists that have analysis, the White House has a message that they want to get accross, of course, and there may be people with a partisan message. If the Republican National Committee wanted to annotate, for example, how would you balance that?

I guess the piece that I should really underline here is that every annotation a user makes using Genius is a public utterance. If I follow you and you make an annotation on the SOTU tonight, in the social element of Genius I’ll still see “Tony made an annotation.” 

So the White House gets to control the default experience on their site but within the Genius network every annotation remains a public utterance, so if the RNC comes in and says something, they might not be visible by default, but someone who is a follower of the RNC could still see their annotation in context.

In particular it might be interesting tonight — and if not tonight in the next couple of days after the speech is delivered — because we have so many active Washington Post reporters on the network, and because the Washington Post is probably also going to annotate this speech, I’m interested to see if there’s any overlap between all of the members of our community there, it’ll be interesting to see if their texts have any interplay.

I guess I come back to this idea of who is this platform for? Is it for people to offer analysis, is it for authors to own and clarify their own text, or is it just a platform that can be used for both?

You know, the tool is so new I think in some ways we are asking ourselves the same questions at this point. Ultimately, our vision is to provide away for people who have a stake in the political process — or whatever text we’re talking about — to have a straightforward and fun tool to bring knowledge and truth to it. It’s a great question, it’s one that we are thinking really seriously about and also really involving our community in all the time, so it’s a decision we want to make with our user base as it grows.

Along with exploring these sort of editorial questions around the tool with our community, we’re also looking to bring editorial leadership onto the team, so look out soon for more news there.

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