An Open Letter to Marc Andreessen and Rap Genius

By dwhly | 3 October, 2012

When I got up this morning, I saw the remarkable news that VC firm Andreessen-Horowitz had announced a $15M investment in rap music annotation site Rap Genius.

Congratulations to the team. I’m a huge fan of Rap Genius, and really look forward to seeing where they’ll take this next. (Plus, it’s always great to close a funding round.)

Later in the day I read Marc Andreessen’s blog post about why they made the investment.

There’s some remarkable bits of ancient Internet lore in there. In particular, this:

Back in 1993, when Eric Bina and I were first building Mosaic, it seemed obvious to us that users would want to annotate all text on the web – our idea was that each web page would be a launchpad for insight and debate about its own contents. So we built a feature called “group annotations” right into the browser – and it worked great – all users could comment on any page and discussions quickly ensued. Unfortunately, our implementation at that time required a server to host all the annotations, and we didn’t have the time to properly build that server, which would obviously have had to scale to enormous size. And so we dropped the entire feature.

I often wonder how the Internet would have turned out differently if users had been able to annotate everything – to add new layers of knowledge to all knowledge, on and on, ad infinitum. And so, 20 years later, Rap Genius finally gives us the opportunity to find out. It’s an ambitious mission, and one we are proud to get behind.

Where do I begin?

First: That’s amazing.

I never knew this extraordinary bit of trivia, even though I was quite familiar with the original Mosaic browser. (In 1994 I used it to begin work on the original front end for Internet Travel Network, since of course it was the only graphical browser around).

Second: We concur.

From our “Soul Searching” blog post last week:

We suspect that if an open standard for annotation is successful long term that our front end will eventually be built into the browser, where it belongs, in addition to being duplicated, enhanced, or possibly reinvented by others leveraging a common API. That sounds like success to us. It means our job on the front end right now is to create a phenomenal reference implementation for the user interface that, for instance, Mozilla might build into Firefox.

To just say it again for the record: Annotation eventually belongs in the browser. Period. And the only way it’s going to get there is through the efforts of a large group of collaborators from different organizations and interests working together on open standards to get there.

That process is well underway, thanks to the considerable and sustained efforts of the Open Annotation W3C Community Working Group and other complimentary processes such as NISO’s Bookmarking And Annotation Sharing group (focused specifically on the application of annotation to text online). We’d like to think our own efforts will also be a strong contribution to the open toolkit we’ll all need.

Actually, annotation is already becoming established in a variety of contexts. Biomedical researchers have been developing early systems to do automated annotation of new papers in the field as well as open data sets where annotation allows semantic processing by reasoning systems built to consume it. This is but one example.

Third: A note of caution.

We hope that $15M won’t go into another closed annotation system. When we began to explore this ourselves, and began to realize just how many others had come before us, we assembled a spreadsheet of over 50 past and present efforts–beginning with the godfathers, ThirdVoice and uTok, and including many well-intentioned projects since then, such as ReframeIt and Google’s own, ill-fated SideWiki project. It was our analysis of these projects and a year of research and interviews with many of their founders and key individuals that led us to the conclusion that the only way forward was with an open source, open standards and fundamentally non-profit (though financially sustainable) approach. In conceiving, we articulated a set of 12 principles to reflect this.

The lessons of Twitter and Facebook, other Internet-scale basic service layers that most of us use, are instructive here. After the honeymoon period is over, and disruptive returns need to be generated to pay off limited partners or satisfy public shareholders, the tensions that these monetization efforts create ultimately seem to separate the motivations of management from those of users and the broader ecosystem. How will Rap Genius–and Marc Andreessen–navigate these questions?

Regardless of these central issues, I view the events of today as hugely optimistic in the broader arc of this story. In particular, I’m heartened to hear that one of the founding fathers of the web we know today not only agrees, but saw this clearly way back in those very early days.

Finally, we very much agree with this last bit:

But that’s just the start. It turns out that Rap Genius has a much bigger idea and a much broader mission than that. Which is: Generalize out to many other categories of text… annotate the world… be the knowledge about the knowledge… create the Internet Talmud.

Our motivation is to see a world with annotation and all that it implies–in fact, we think it’s a critical leap forward for humanity. Therefore, let me be the first to welcome Rap Genius into the annotation community (and Marc back into it), and hope that you’ll bring your passion for the excellent work you’ve done thus far to the challenge ahead, hopefully by participating in the conversation, and perhaps joining us in the ongoing drafting sessions. The domain example you’ve already so effectively demonstrated would be a welcome addition to the range of annotation use cases contemplated.

Viva la revolution!

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