Can rappers become the new Wikipedia?

The site Rap Genius, which launched in 2009 as an informal project to let music lovers annotate lyrics to popular rap songs, is getting a lot of attention now that the self-proclaimed “hip-hop Wikipedia” plans to extend well beyond music to include poetry, documents, books, speeches, news stories and even terms of service agreements. On CNBC’s “Power Pitch” last week, 29-year-old Rap Genius co-founder Ilan Zechory explained how his company planned to become the “next Wikipedia” – a “cultural phenomenon” so big that it would become a “pillar of the Internet” mentioned in the same breath as Facebook, Google or YouTube.

Jay-Z, left, performs with Kanye West during Hot 97 Summer Jam 2005 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Sunday, June 5, 2005. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)
Jay-Z, left, performs with Kanye West during Hot 97 Summer Jam 2005 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Sunday, June 5, 2005. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

But can Rap Genius really turn us all into “geniuses” and revolutionize the way we find and share knowledge on the Internet?

On the one hand, it’s easy to see how a Rap Genius model extended to every corner of human artistic achievement could be big. On the Rap Genius site, it’s already as easy to find annotations to the lyrics to the latest Daft Punk song as it is annotations to a work like Einstein’s “Special Theory of Relativity.” For sports fans, there are now annotations for daily tennis matches at this year’s Wimbledon. It’s not just Rap Genius, it’s now Rock Genius and News Genius and Sports Genius. There are even annotations for the English language alphabet, complete with an embedded link to the “The Alphabet Song” on Soundcloud. It’s like a giant CliffsNotes for life.

Imagine every book in the world annotated by book lovers around the world and somehow licensed to Amazon for download on your Kindle or every song’s lyrics annotated and made available for download on iTunes. Or, imagine every news story currently produced by The Washington Post suddenly having its doppleganger on News Genius, where readers from around the world would freely and eagerly mark up daily stories. As a giant meta-experiment to show how this might work, the CNBC story about Rap Genius is now a News Genius story, marked up with annotations and comments.

A lot of very smart investors – including Andreessen Horowitz, which led a $15 million venture capital round for the rappers last year – are placing a bet that the “annotation” model pioneered by Rap Genius can be big. And, indeed, Marc Andreessen explained why he invested in Rap Genius using Rap Genius. If Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, then Rap Genius’ mission is similarly large and freewheeling — to annotate the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

What sets Rap Genius apart from a site like Wikipedia is that the “volunteers” creating all this content sometimes include the “verified artists” who created the original song, book or document. (Yes, even Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.) Suddenly, fans and artists are in this together, potentially leading to new models for the way artists release content to the marketplace. Instead of pre-releasing a song or chapter, they may pre-release all the “liner notes” that went into the unique work of creation — even for something like the Ten Commandments (although it’s hard to say who would earn royalty payments on that one).

The changing direction of Rap Genius raises a serious question about the future of the Internet: What exactly does it mean to become “the next Wikipedia”? There’s a growing consensus that Wikipedia served its purpose well, becoming the greatest encyclopedia in the history of the world, using an approach so novel that many originally doubted that it would work. If Wikipedia was all about the facts and maintaining the appearance of neutrality, though, sites like Rap Genius seem to focus more on having people attach personal meanings or memories to the objects around us. There is something remarkably human and universal about our wanting to attach specific meaning to works of art or events that have influenced us throughout life.

Even with its hip-hop approach to life, Rap Genius faces an uphill battle – they need to create a monetization model based on unpaid volunteer contributions. It’s not easy, but this can be done. Monetization seems to be the major question on people’s minds these days – how exactly do you make money in anything media- or entertainment-related? On CNBC’s “Power Pitch”, the Rap Genius co-founder Zechory, was vague when asked about his plans to monetize the site, basically telling viewers that monetization was something he’ll worry about in the future, once the site scales to a certain size.

Yet, here’s something very exciting about the potential of creating a next-generation Wikipedia for human knowledge. If the Internet really is becoming a Jorge Luis Borges-like Infinite Library of human knowledge, filled with “meaningless sequences of letters compiled into random arrangements with no purpose whatsoever,” then we will need “the new Wikipedia” (in whatever form it takes) to help us organize all this information in a way that is actually useful and accessible to future generations.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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