Thursday, May 9, 2013

News Apps, Rap Genius, and Crowd-Sourced Annotation

For the last year or so, I've been playing in the news app sandbox, delighted that Project X will soon see the light of day.  That is, if the algorithm gods are willing.   From time to time, I pull my head out of the sand and notice that other parties are moving in with buckets and spades in considerable numbers.   The competitive set is becoming very competitive indeed.   We are all in search of that nectar, that secret sauce.  We want a news app that is personal, reliable, beautiful, predictive, and getting better by the day thanks to machine learning.   And we want to hang on long enough without seed money or venture rounds until Google or a large media company agrees to buy us for at least $30 million.  This story is more than a thrice-told tale and not such a fantasy after all.  It is the sound of Orpheus with flute.

Ken Doctor at The Nieman Journalism Lab just published a mobile aggregator roundup, reminding us of how hot and full of intrigue this space has become.  Most of the basic facts are well-known, but Doctor’s perspective is nonetheless quite interesting.  So tablet aggreggator Pulse was sold to LinkedIn for $90 million.  I’m still trying to get my head around why Yahoo paid $30 million to an English teenager for Summly, a smartphone aggregator.   CNN had earlier picked up Zite and Google had purchased Wavii for $30 million and closed it down.  One assumes the software will find a home somewhere.  Doctor notes that this leaves Flipboard , which is probably valued at $400-500 million, with Facebook and Google lurking in the wings.

Clearly the above start-ups have gotten the jump on traditional media companies that are learning to deal with them.   And the more established start-ups, such as Flipboard, Pulse and Zite, are in their second or third generations, where design and business model are taking center stage.  In some ways, there is a great deal of commonality among the news aggreggators—and I mean as a compliment.   As Flannery O’Connor reminded us, everything that rises must converge. 

Just this morning, I learned about another start-up or at least an idea of a start-up:  News Genius, which is a first cousin to Rap Genius.  The latter richly and deeply annotates, through crowd-sourced commentary, textual analysis, and clarifications, specific lines of rap lyrics such as ZPac’s “Hail Mary Lyrics.”  Those who contribute useful annotations earn Rap IQ points and can become contributors.   I’ve heard that Rap IQ points are being traded like Bitcoins, and could be as valuable.   

This is a curious site that publishes tons of respectable coarse rap lyrics with a layer of commentary floating over the profane body as if delivered by an army of professors who are dedicated to annotating the world.  To get the flavor of this site, have a look at a YouTube investment video (DLD13 Conference: Annotating the World) in which the investment  lead and the Rap Genius start-up team, apparently from Yale and eager to cite Plato, talk about their venture as if it’s akin to a kind of biblical exegesis.  Yes, the Torah does appear in an annotation.   This is not like analyzing poetry and finding the hidden meaning. Rather, with the help of the wise and filtered crowd, this is about building layers of knowledge about knowledge.   If you are up to it, you can enter that DMZ between Gucci Mane’s thug lyrics and that quiet zone of linguistic and textual subtlety.

I was fully ready to call this a scam, an Internet joke that marries, shotgun-style, discordant layers of meaning, such as rap hyperbole and semantic squatting, until I learned that the business had received $15 million in funding from the increasing rap venture capitalist Marc Andreessen.  What to do, what to do!

Rap lyrics have a density, discordance, and a metaphorical vulgarity that would be an English teacher’s wet dream.  Have a look at Rap Genius; meaning is breaking out all over.  It’s an open question whether the extended metaphor can reach all the way into the crucible of news.  That is, unless news becomes rap, a kind of melodramatic, vital poetry that focuses on the shadow side of news, our desperate underbelly, our alligator shoes that neither talk the talk nor walk the walk.

Lately I’ve been broadcasting Bit-poems on Twitter and Facebook.   It’s a desperate attempt at legitimacy.  Rap Genius seems to have a better idea.  Annotate rap lyrics until they smother you.  These Yale guys seem to know that the media business, the land of suits and summer yachts, is a two-valued nightmare.  It’s either this or that, Newton or the NRA; in other words, a semantic and profitable pissing contest.   Perhaps a service that adds layers of crowd-sourced meaning, vulgarity, flights of fancy, error and disdain might have a fighting chance in  this field of the also said.

Marc, call me.  Maybe.

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