The Genius Problem

Every few years, someone decides to invent a way to scribble on the internet. They generally aspire to some higher goal, but in practice, they create tools that allow the mouth breathers to haul out the crayons and vandalize other people’s work. The most recent attempt at this — annotation platform, they call it — is New Genius (links intentionally redacted).

And it’s more of the same.

These tools have a long history online — Glenn Fleishman does a nice overview. I had friends who actually joined the Third Voice startup back in the day and tried to recruit me, and they were quite surprised when I not only turned them down, I started complaining loudly about their approach.

The problem with News Genius was surfaced by Ella Dawson, who is (a) a woman and (b) writes about uncomfortable and politically sensitive topics. Her twitter stream is a great place to browse to follow this issue and to see this kind of abuse in action — coming from the News Genius team itself, since when she contacted them and asked them to allow her to opt out of the service, they told her to get over it.

News Genius doesn’t see why someone who creates content should be allowed to opt themselves out of having that content used in ways they don’t want it used by someone why haven’t given permission  to use it. And yet — as the observer noted — when they were asked to engage in a discussion of these policies, they declined. So the rules are, I’m forced to engage in conversations on things by their system and have no say in the matter, but News Genius has reserved the right to opt out of these discussions of themselves by us.

And I expect they don’t see either the inconsistency or irony of this.

I’ve found somewhere in the bowels of these kinds of controversies you’ll generally find a young and enthusiastic product manager, probably with an MBA, almost definitely male, and usually white and somewhere in the vicinity of 25 years old. Young, enthusiastic, probably white, and at that age where they know everything and the answers are obvious, and we old farts just need to get with the program. They don’t stop to ask why a service like this doesn’t already exist on the net (hint: they’ve all failed, badly) and they don’t go studying the past to learn from past mistakes, because they know better. So they go off an implement the old mistakes in new and technologically fun and geeky ways.

Here’s the thing: these kind of systems work great: if you curate the users, which invariably happens when a service is small and in use primarily by people you know and can convince to come and try it out. When the network is small and homogenous they tend to do fine, and can give a product team a feeling they’re on the right track.

And then the thing starts getting known, and scales, and people not like you find it, and…

Since this tool has now been covered in multiple high profile outlets (like the Observer above, and Slate, which I recommend as the best general overview of this thing and the problems it’s starting to cause), the professional trolls now know about it, and I predict News Genius’s corporate life is about to get very interesting and not in a good way. Good luck, guys, you’re going to need it.

My take is simple: a service like this without good abuse management and ways to opt my site/content out of their systems is an abuse vector and will be treated as such. I’d be curious how a DMCA takedown would be treated and assuming they reject it, since they’ve shown no indication they give a damn about abusive uses or legal uses of content (they seem to consider “it’s online’ as equivalent to ‘public domain’, and if that’s the opinion their legal team’s given them, they need a better legal team. They will get steamrollered once someone decides they’re worth going to court over).

Which is too bad. I tool like this could be potentially useful. If you take a look at the original idea behind Disqus, and compare it to the bloated, slow, grumpy reality that it’s become, there’s a good need for some strong feedback/commenting tools that I can integrate into my site (by my choice) and use to manage a social conversation — right now, I’m most encouraged by what I see with Civil Comments, but it’s not at a point I can experiment with it on my sites.

But that implies that I opt in to using the tool, have some say about what content is thrown into the social conversation (and what isn’t) and some ability to manage the conversation and who’s in it to keep the trolls and their cyber crayons off my site. All of which News Genius refuses to do.

I predict News Genius will continue to act like 25 year old male entitled fratboys, the mega trolls will see fresh meat and leap onto the platform to play, and ultimately, this will all blow up in everyone’s faces and the platform will either have to pivot and clean up its act, or it’ll go all biker bar and all the good people will run like hell. This scenario has played out before (hell, this kind of ‘because we wanna, get over it’ attitude goes back to the days of USENET), and it’ll play out again once people forget about this one.

And it’s sad, because it’ll cause collateral damage along the way, as these things always do, and ultimately leave nothing to the future except a smoking hole in the ground and some more footnotes in the long history of “people really ought to know better but keep proving that they don’t” that is life on the internet…

 

I’d love to set up a web conference call with the product team to “converse” with them about their platform. Say, 3-4 hours of discussion. You know what their answer to this suggestion would be, since they’ve already declines similar asks by others.

And yet, they won’t allow that same ability to decline the conversation to Ella and others, and told them that they can learn from the conversation, so it’s for their own good. They should really take a step back, look at their own actions and consider how their lives would be if they were forced to react to our requests they way they’re forcing others to react to the ‘requests’ of their platform.

But of course, they won’t.