Web Annotation Addenda

Genius' Response in Recode

After Rep. Katherine Clark wrote a letter to Genius asking for clarification about its abuse-reporting and other policies, this article appeared at Recode with its reply. The article includes the full response letter from co-founder Tom Lehman. It notes:

We built the Genius Web Annotator to allow anyone to contribute to a layer of context, commentary, and criticism on top of any web page. Like every platform that enables commentary, it has the potential to be misused. However, we want to be clear that Genius does not enable abuse. This is a false narrative that has taken hold on Twitter and other outlets.

Twitter isn't a news outlet, but a collection of features, but, ok! And every platform always asserts that it doesn't enable abuse until such point as they change features to help fight abuse. 

nd we discover that Genius has moderators who read every annotation. They are…volunteers. And that isn't scalable. But also, ok! From the article:

Zechory said that there is a group of volunteer community moderators (like on Reddit) who examine all this content and can take action if they see abuse. He says that there is also a full-time staffer, originally a Genius community member, whose job is to monitor all comments made on the Web annotation tool as a safeguard, should the moderators miss something.

March 28 articles

Three articles appeared Monday about Genius and Ella's concerns and interactions. Slate wrote "Misguided Genius: A new tool wants to annotate everything on the Internet. But at what cost?" And at the Observer, "Genius Web Annotator vs. One Young Woman With a Blog: Can annotating text online straighten out our collective reasoning, or will it just be a new vector for trolls?"

That latter article included these even more chilling paragraphs:

During a recent interview with Ralph Swick, Chief Operating Officer of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the web’s standards body, he expressed optimism that a web standard for annotation is coming, which would almost certainly mean that the feature would be built into every major browser.
When and if it does, users might see some sort of flag at the top of their screen showing if any given web page has been annotated. Clicking on that flag might reveal a multitude of layers of communities that have chimed in, perhaps everyone from political parties to 8Chan users.

An article at Recode, "The Company Formerly Known as Rap Genius Is Once Again Enmeshed in Controversy," had this gem from the editor at News Genius (who, for context, is a woman):

But no one is exempt from a closer look under the microscope of Genius — or whatever! — because of their gender.

I don't know if that person understands that they are using the cadence of assault there, but — whatever! 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.

Other Web Annotation Systems

The Internet's long-term memory bank, the aforementioned Mr. Marks, reminded me of two other systems that had elements in common with Third Voice, Spinspotter, and Genius Web Annotator: SideWiki and QuickTopic's original incarnation.

And I found two more, of a different kind. Microsoft Edge includes annotation, but it's essentially local or personal; it's not globally publishable. Dave Peck also noted via a tweet his own 2000-era project, E-Quill (he was employee #1), which allowed annotations you could email to other people. Again, not globally publishable. He notes, "Abuse was... an issue then, too."

Aram Zucker-Scharff commends Diigo to me, "…you left off my fav 'everyone got excited and then forgot about it' web highlighter Diigo, which is still doing its thing."

And another: Annotea, an abandoned W3C local annotation standard (via ttepasse).

Citation, Appropriation, and Fair Use: News Genius Picks Up Again Where Failures Left Off

As an old man of the Internet, I've seen several waves of "scribble on top of other people's pages" plug-ins and web site. Anyone remember Third Voice? It was a browser plug-in that first appeared in 1999. that let you annotate other people's sites. It failed. When it shut down in 2001, Wired wrote this about it:

But the seemingly innocuous "sticky notes" gained enemies quicker than users. Launching a grassroots campaign called Say No to TV, some 400 independent Web hosts banded together to gag Third Voice, which they likened to "Web graffiti." Nearly two years later, it would appear that the group got what it wanted. On Monday, Third Voice posted a short message on its site, notifying users that the service had been discontinued.

Spinspotter started up around 2008. It was a toolbar plug-in that let users annotate news articles and press releases (or, really, any web page) to mark up spin. It was an attempt to crowdsource spin and remove it. (I was on its journalist advisory committee. I quite liked the founders.) By 2009, they pivoted to a new model, as GigaOm reported:

…the company switched strategies because [founder John Atcheson said] “we found it hard to get people to mark spin with the quality level necessary, and (b) we saw a much bigger opportunity elsewhere for the technology we’d developed.”

There are several other similar efforts that I don't believe reached even this level of attention between 1999 and present. The latest entrant is News Genius, part of the Genius network.

From the day’s biggest stories, to the latest travesties of the fashion world, there’s something for you to dive into. And if you don’t see a headline you like on this page, we invite you to start a conversation literally anywhere else on the web.

My translation from marketing speak is, "We want this to be the equivalent of what Talk Soup once was and Joan Rivers' red carpet commentary crossed with a show like Crossfire, but we're throwing spaghetti at the wall because we have no idea what will stick."

Site Cite

The genius of the original Genius (once called Rap Genius) is that it was planned around a corpus that people know: All the lyrics of every song ever written. It's an extension of handwritten and typewritten projects I used to see as a kid (some of which migrated online), where someone would take a song like "American Pie" and try to decipher the easter eggs, clues, and deeper meanings. Genius performs that task at scale, and sometimes gets rather Talmudic in how deep people go.

Some (many?) songwriters and musical artists embraced Genius, because it provides a platform for deeper analysis. A friend's father, an English professor, assembled and edited a collection of critical essays about a well-known British author a number of years ago. He sent her a copy of the book, and her reply to him, as best as I can remember it was, "An author's work is most likely to survive their lifetime when it is taken seriously enough to examine this deeply."

Because Genius expanded into literary works and other genres, its extension into news doesn't seem that peculiar. Except when you examine their marketing phrase carefully: literally anywhere else on the web. While they focus on high-level partnerships and the ability for sites to incorporate Genius Web Annotator into their site, that's not necessary. They generally promote this on their main about page, too: "you can annotate most pages without downloading or embedding anything."

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. Although it was just yesterday that Microsoft had to abandon its machine-learning Twitter bot after it turned into an anti-Semitic, misogynistic, hates-spewing account within 24 hours, having apparently not considered what happens when you put no thought whatsoever into how the unfettered Internet might behave. The best headline on the affair from the UK's Telegraph:

Microsoft deletes 'teen girl' AI after it became a Hitler-loving sex robot within 24 hours

There's a world of difference between specific corpuses—all lyrics, all books, all news articles—and overlaying annotation on the entire rest of the Internet. Those corpuses are typically all copyrighted (unless old enough to be out of copyright or dedicated to the public domain), and, more importantly, are defended typically by firms that have the resources to employ lawyers who can mediate and negotiate over the use of the source material. (For instance, the Hamilton web site links directly to the Genius annotations, and Lin-Manuel Miranda participates in the markup.)

With that in mind, there's also a huge difference between what I'd separate into citation and appropriation:

  • Citation is the reference to something else, whether it's lyrics, a blog post, someone's public tweet, or a published article online or only in print. Because the commentary in citation links to the original or, at most, reproduces a small part of it, there's a clarity of it having a freestanding purpose and nature.
  • Appropriation reforms someone else's work into a product on which you build. It typically involves either outright violation of copyright or invocation of the fair-use doctrine. Reproduction of the whole in much the same form as the original (or a translation, such as audio into words that are identical) forms the basis.

In American law, fair use provides some guidance on commentary. It's perfectly legal—though you may have to defend it in court—to reproduce 100% of an originally copyrighted item if the case for critique can be made well. 

The original Rap Genius involved appropriation: lyrics were reproduced literally in order to comment on them. However, Genius recognized that its fair-use basis might not be enough, and put a licensing arrangement in place just three years ago. It's not that it was indefensible, but rather that fair use is always tried in court, and it can take years and piles of money without any concrete assurance of winning. (The "Happy Birthday" lawsuit that was just concluded is a famous example, but there are many much quieter ones.)

The Genius Web Annotator is a hybrid of citation and appropriation that doesn't respect the source's owner nor have any mechanism to opt out or block it. The site retrieves the original page through a proxy server and then rewrites it with added JavaScript, which lets it overlay its commentary tool. I wrote the company earlier in the week through its general feedback form asking about how to opt my sites out. I've received no response so far.

This annotation is probably transformative under the definition of the fair-use doctrine, but it needs the inclusion of the whole to make sense. Genius offering "criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research," which is considering in fair use, and citation or clippings from the original coupled with commentary wouldn't have the same value to Genius. However, reproducing an entire work (such as a complete song, article, or blog entry) often doesn't play out well in court.

Web search engines long ago mostly agreed to honor an opt-out signal, robots.txt, and have used that as a way to knock down legal challenges and ethical ones. If you don't want to have your pages "spidered" (retrieved, indexed, and included in the corpus), the robots.txt file lets you mark pages or an entire site off-limits to every spider or to specific ones.

Genius offers no such tool, nor any opt-out mechanism I can see. They view their annotator as an extension of commentary. In a tweet yesterday, the company's account wrote: "But your blog is public! People can comment on Twitter, Fb etc; Genius is in its simplest form a more efficient tool for this."

Except all those cases that Genius cites are citations; in none of them is appropriation involved.

Sucker Punch Down

Into this environment, my friend Ella Dawson got suckerpunched by News Genius' approach and its editor. Ella is a social-media manager by day, and an advocate for the de-stigmatization of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Shaming people, mostly women, for STIs is another tool of culture to put every consequence of sexual interaction on women, even when a man is involved in the act. Ella has herpes, isn't shy about it, and is my hero for using her voice to take the heat in the path to help others.

She writes today about how someone took offense to a post she wrote about journalists referring to people with STIs as "sufferers." (As a survivor of both cancer and a heart blockage, I agree with her. I was a person with cancer; suffering implies a host of not-necessarily-accurate associations, and can be used to condescend or remove the agency of the person inflicted with a disease. With a chronic condition that has few or no side effects with proper care, "sufferer" seems like a huge overstatement, too.)

After some back and forth, Ella blocked this person, who then took to News Genius to annotate the article, noting it may be "punching down a little bit here." The editor of News Genius joined in with snarky and hostile comments. Despite having blocked both individuals on Twitter, they linked to Ella's tweets, which is potentially a violation of Twitter's terms of service, but certainly indicates a violation of agency when, say, a political figure isn't involved or some other newsworthy person.

As with many Internet tools created without any forethought about abuse, opting out, and reporting and resolving issues, Genius seems malicious in absence rather than in intention. As Ella wrote:

You can hate-read my content all you want—I know that is a risk of being a person who says things on the Internet. But when you create a tool that pastes commentary directly on top of my work without letting me opt-in and without providing a way for people to turn off the annotation on their pages, you are being irresponsible. You are ignoring the potential your tool has to be abused, and you are not anticipating the real harm your tool can do.

Contrast this with Medium's approach to annotation on Medium's site. Essay authors can receive public or private notes, and choose which to make public and which to remain private or delete. Commentary on a post, called "responses," is presented at the end like comments, but each response is a full-fledged Medium post.  (Last year, Medium added the ability for everyone, instead of certain outlets or requiring email, to disable responses to appear linked; they can still be made, they just don't appear at the end of the referenced post.)

It's not a question of attempting to deny people all fora in which to critique her work. It's not a question of whether what she wrote is public or not. My friend Anil Dash linked me yesterday to a very smart essay he wrote in 2014, "What is Public?", in which he examines what that word means in the social-networking era:

Public is not simply defined. Public is not just what can be viewed by others, but a fragile set of social conventions about what behaviors are acceptable and appropriate. There are people determined to profit from expanding and redefining what’s public, working to treat nearly everything we say or do as a public work they can exploit. They may succeed before we even put up a fight.

This no opt-in, no opt-out appropriation by Genius is a taking. It attempts to put a beachhead on one's own words and create a new kind of public work that's beyond the reach of the creator to affect. This is distinctly different than social-media, blog, or other commentary. One would never argue reddit has no right to have comment threads that link to Ella or my or anyone's work. (Some companies have tried to make legal cases that every inbound link to a publicly available web page does require an explicit license, but let's ignore that illogic.)

Rather, there's a not fine distinction at all between citation and appropriation. 

How will this play out? Genius will likely continue to put out mealy-mouthed statements until something happens that's too egregious to ignore, or they're sued by an individual or organization that has the wherewithal and interest to pursue it for long enough and with enough money that it prompts Genius to change the parameters of what it does.

Like Third Voice, Spinspotter, and other failed efforts, I expect Genius' "annotate everything" effort to fail as an extension of its main focus, which is valuable and defensible.

See addenda at follow-up at this post.

Update! Genius is adding a way to report abuse and Hypothesis is adding nuance and thoughtfulness to redesigning aspects of being able to annotate everything without consent. We'll see how it plays out, but it's a relatively quick response to some aspects of the critique. 


Note: I originally said Genius was using a frame-based approach that let the user's browser load the content, and then Genius to overlay it. In fact, as Kevin Marks pointed out to me, it's using a proxy server and posting the contents from its servers, which is substantially more problematic.

Take Control of Slack Basics! First Chapters Free

Read Chapter 1, Introducing Slack, and Chapter 2, Getting Started with Slack, at TidBITS, free.

I've been using Slack for a year, and fell in love with it right away. It's part of my flow of communication with publications with which I work and part of the social fabric I share with fellow nerds on a podcast network and other writers. Slack is group chat with searchable history, plus a lot more.

This love led me to write Take Control of Slack Basics, a book that arose from my interest in understanding the details of Slack, which has a very nice Web app and well-designed native apps for all major platforms. I kept learning new tricks and discovering them, and thought that I could pull this all together for people whose workplaces, social groups, academic institutions, or other organizations had decided to use Slack—and they felt lost or undertrained in making the most of it. (By the way: This book was written independently of Slack, which didn't influence or endorse its contents.)

This book is for people who want to use Slack better, want to get started in Slack and aren't sure it's for them or their group, or have been told at work that they will use Slack and want to get up to speed.

One of the most important things about Slack is keeping it quiet. It's got a lot of features to help notify you of messages and conversations, but it also increasingly has options that keep it less talky, including a "do not disturb" mode introduced towards the end of 2015.

You can read the first two chapters of my book free at TidBITS, the publishers of the Take Control series. I've finished writing the book, and we're working through technical edits (checking details) and regular editing, and syndicating the remaining 10 chapters to TidBITS subscribing members. (Members get syndicated book chapters plus discounts on all sorts of Mac and iPhone/iPad-related products.)

I'll make an announcement when the book ships in a few weeks, but, for now, you can read the first two chapters!

Here's the full table of contents:

Chapter 1, Introducing Slack
Chapter 2, Getting Started with Slack
Chapter 3, Master the Interface
Chapter 4, Post Basic Messages
Chapter 5, Go Beyond Basic Messages
Chapter 6, Work with Channels
Chapter 7, Message Directly
Chapter 8, Configure Notifications
Chapter 9, Search Effectively
Chapter 10, Manage Bots and Integrations
Chapter 11, Be Productive in Slack
Chapter 12, Start a Team

Freelance Editor, For Hire

With the conclusion of a very lovely and worthwhile editorial contracting job, I'm back to full-time freelancing. While that freelancing includes weekly contributions to Macworld I still have a dance card with slots free for other one-time and recurring writing assignments.

Beyond writing, I'd also like to find project-based or article-based editing gigs both for publications and for authors looking for some help in punching up and tightening their prose.

I've been editing for most of my life it seems, and professionally for 25 years. I've worked with many publications and run my own, most recently spending over two years editing what added to up to nearly 300 non-fiction, long-form reported stories and essays for The Magazine, which I owned for most of its run.

In early 2016, I worked as a freelance editor for Mark Harris's Kickstarter-funded, editorially independent investigation of a successful crowdfunding campaign for a palm-sized drone that imploded with few working models delivered.

Mark is an award-winning freelance science and technology writer for the Economist, the Guardian, Scientific American, MIT Tech Review and others. Here's what he says about my work:

Glenn is one of the very best editors I have worked with. Not only does he scrub copy until it shines, catch errors both obvious and obscure, and ask the most useful awkward questions, he also adds genuine weight and substance to any project he is working on. He’s diplomatic, attentive, rigorous, and utterly focused on quality, even under tight deadlines.

I'm available on an hourly and project basis, and pride myself on being a colleague who is delightful, supportive, and constructive, but also won't let a writer off the hook on unanswered questions—whether the writer has hired me directly or I'm editing for a publication.

I asked some of the word artists who contributed to The Magazine for endorsements—now that I no longer have the power of assignments to sway their honesty—and compiled a set of their comments on my Editor for Hire page. My c.v. is available on request as well. (You can contact me at glenn@glennf.com.)

Twitter Hibernation

I'm taking a break from Twitter after about nine years, more or less, and—400,000 tweets. I used the last bunch of tweets as a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, and I hope did some good! (P.S. It raised over $2,200!!)

Twitter as a company hasn't yet revised how it works to encompass disagreement and critique and yet let people block the asymmetrical harassment that regularly occurs. While I've only occasionally been a target, I see the regular toll on friends and colleagues. The lack of being able to engage simultaneously in a rich froth of discussion and yet not find yourself buried under endless messages (unable to sort friend from foe) that try to make you feel bad—it's got technical solutions, and Twitter hasn't (yet) deployed many of them. (I have some hope based on what people have said who have seen or heard glimmers.)

This fundamental problem of Twitter has caused many people I know and care for to withdraw, post only anodyne messages, not engage in conversation, or leave altogether. I find myself launching the app with dread about what I'll discover, and then wondering why I'm launching it at all.

The reason is, of course, camaraderie. Twitter is where you find friends you didn't know you had. I've made plenty, and some have become close pals. But, for me, the negative tone and dogpiling and worse outweighs the community I went to Twitter for.

Slack teams (for both work and with friends) have filled in part of what I was missing in Twitter. Perhaps Slack will expand to encompass more people and discovery and be more like a better Twitter? Hard to see. But Twitter either has to improve how people navigate interactions with those who engaged in serial or collective abuse or another service will ultimately rise and take its place for those, like me, who want community and conversation, not celebrity messages and brand advertising.

400,000th Tweet for Charity

Update: Thanks to everyone who contributed! I know many people told me they'd already given to PP in recent months, but folks still gave over $2,200! Wonderful and thank you.

Original post

I'm about to hit 400,000 messages posted on Twitter since I joined in August 2007. While a terrifying number, that includes retweets (those made by others that I repost), article tweets from news sites I'm reading, and the like. I've also long used Twitter as a kind of public chat room, so many of my tweets are conversations, not posted statements for everyone to read.

But I'd like to redeem the time spent by turning my run-up to 400,000 into a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood—you can contribute here.

It's been under attack for years, most significantly with an allegedly criminal effort (two perpetrators have been charged) to mislead about both its purpose (abortion is a small portion of what PP does) and the way in which fetal body parts were transferred (it happened at a few facilities under tight controls). And, hey, even Nancy Reagan supports fetal tissue research.

PP does so much good for so many women who otherwise have no access to healthcare that includes and goes beyond reproductive medicine. I hope they will work to better explain how they help women and non-gender-binary people across so many aspects of medicine tailored to the particular issues of female bodies.

What I'd like to do is raise at least 400,000 cents ($4,000) for PP, and make my 400,000th tweet be something picked by the highest-dollar donor. I'll thank everyone who wants to be thanked by name and handle after 400,000 tweets, but I'll use some of the run-up of the next 150 or so tweets to promote the fundraiser, and that big 400K to reward someone who goes the extra mile. This is in honor of the brave people who work at Planned Parenthood every day.

Not everyone feels like Planned Parenthood is the best place to give money right now, and so I'd also like to encourage people to donate to Flint to help people obtain water (via The Flint Water Fund), and to Black Lives Matter, which has brought to America's attention problems that have plagued America and can no longer be ignored. I'll honor donors to those causes, too.

I'll update this post with more detail as I set up the fundraiser and get closer. I have to set a deadline on PP's site to raise money with a goal, and I'm not sure how far off to set it at the moment.

Happy Birthday Song Settlement

A 1922 book that contained the (unauthorized?) lyrics.

It took years of litigation, but the "Happy Birthday" copyright issues could finally be settled. The song's musical component long ago entered the public domain, but the "Happy Birthday To You" lyrics have remained ostensibly under copyright—until an intrepid filmmaker sued the group that claimed to own the rights.

I've written about the details several times, which included an 11th-hour addition to the suit by a foundation funded by the Hill sisters, one of whom was credited with the lyrics, as that foundation belatedly asserted that it inherited all the rights, not just a share of royalties. (See my August coverage of the suit, then a September update, and a November surprise update.)

The settlement, if approved by a judge who should weep tears of bitter joy to sign off on it, wipes away decades of copyright ownership. Any fees collected since 1949—up to $14 million minus millions in lawyer fees—could be refunded under the settlement by Warner-Chappell! All the parties, including the foundation, have agreed to the terms. (In the settlement agreement, attorneys suggest that from 1949 to 2009, relatively few parties will come forward to claim refunds, but the 2009-to-present group will be more likely.)

"Happy Birthday" was one of the three stickiest extended copyright situations. Another, relating to the "characteristics" of Sherlock Holmes in 10 stories that remain under copyright, was conclusively settled last November, after the Supreme Court denied an appeal.

Some Favorite Podcasts, 2015 Edition

I admit I have a very uneven podcast listening habit. I work from home and travel rarely, so I don't have an opportunity to listen to much or a lot of new stuff. I can't listen to podcasts and do most of the kind of work I do, either (writing, editing, audio editing, and podcasting!). But then I'll wind up with a slough of appointments or slack time in the evenings, and catch up. I seem to prefer to binge listen to podcasts than binge watch TV series.

These are shows I think a lot of other geeky people or damned intellectuals will enjoy, not just with my niche interests and quirky tastes. (For instance, while I like listening to Langsam Gesprochene Nachrichten, a weekday 10-minute podcast of German news spoken slowly and clearly to aid in learning (or re-learning), I doubt many will.)

  • Hello from the Magic Tavern. I'd heard about this for months, but I hadn't dipped my toes in, and I'm now I'm just obsessively listening to the dozens of episodes produced so far—it's hilarious and fascinating. Magic Tavern is podcast by a guy named Arnie (true) who fell through some kind of gateway to the magical land of Foon (not true?), from whence he podcasts in a tavern. It's an improv show combined with light scripting, so every week they build canon and remember it. So in episode 40, there will absolutely be a callback to something said in passing in Episode 1. It's really an extraordinary bit of mythmaking and incredibly funny.
  • Answer Me This: A podcast by Helen Zaltzman and Olly Mann (with interjections from producer Martin the Sound Man, Helen's husband). They answer listener questions with humor, obscenity, and sometimes great moral reasoning. The show's been around since 2007 and is now fortnightly. Helen launched a great podcast in 2015 called The Allusionist, which does deep clever dives into the meanings of words.
  • The Flophouse Podcast: Three hosts, including the former head writer of the Daily Show, bring a mix of absurd intellectualism and intentional poop/sex humor to dissecting terrible movies. They watch a bad movie and then discuss it, and improv off into hilarious tangents.
  • Thrilling Adventure Hour: After a decade of continuous production of freshly scripted radio plays—performed and recorded live as readings—I only tuned in as it was going "off the air." The back catalog is enormous, and they promise more limited future additions to the canon. The live show was structured into segments, which typically appear as individual episodes. It's a combination of parody, homage, and truly original work.

(Of course, you should also tune into The Incomparable Network, which now has a huge array of shows about geeky and nerdy stuff, including our main podcast, a radio theater show, a rotating gameshow format, and much more.)