Kate Holterhoff @KateHolterhoff is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her research areas include nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century British literature, visual culture, digital humanities, and the history of science. She directs and edits the literary and art historical resource VisualHaggard.org, which has recently become a federated archive with with NINES, the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship.She’s previously written for ProfHacker on “Using Digital Archives to Teach Data Set Creation and Visualization Design.”
That many academics rely on social media goes without saying. Not only is social media integral to the research, pedagogy, and public identities of academics, online communication permits us to share thoughts, accomplishments, notifications (book publications, conference CFPs, syllabus questions) with colleagues across the globe. Yet, I am dissatisfied with my social media. Twitter can often be overwhelming, and in my experience it fails to foster engaged discussion. In fact, Theresa MacPhail complains of “Twitter’s brand of shallow scholarship” in her recent piece “Why I Quit Twitter.” Both personally and professionally I get the most out of Facebook. However, like others at ProfHacker, the recent revelations concerning Cambridge Analytica have spurred me to reconsider my relationship to this app.
Is there another option for social engagement that aligns with the unique needs, interests, and skill sets of academics? Of course, numerous apps targeted to academic audiences have sprung up. Academia, LinkedIn, HASTAC, and Humanities Commons among others, all lobby to provide a forum for academics to socialize online. However, in my experience these niche sites all fall short of my need to engage meaningfully with peers, while establishing myself as a public intellectual.
This spring I decided to become more engaged with Genius.com (formerly Rap Genius), in part by thinking of it as a form of social media. Although Genius offers no substitute to Facebook for sharing birthday well-wishes, and no Instagram-like experience for posting photos of brunch, there remains much to recommend the site. For those unfamiliar with it, Genius is a platform for annotating poetry, speeches, song lyrics, news stories, critical theory… pretty much any written media. Beyond song lyrics, these include such disparate texts as bell hooks’s “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance;" the 2016 Presidential debates; and the manifesto “My Twisted World” by Elliot Rodgers, the perpetrator of the 2014 Isla Vista shootings. The ongoing conceit of Genius is that registered users may add new or correct existing annotations for “I.Q.” points. While the nonprofit app Hypothes.is offers a similar service permitting users to “hold discussions, read socially, organize your research, and take personal notes,” it lacks Genius’s community as well as its sheer volume and caliber of visitors. I admit to being starstruck knowing that, if not necessarily active in the community, artists Lin-Manuel Miranda, Junot Diaz, and Michael Chabon are all verified users who have contributed annotations to the site.
Much of the fun of Genius for me is its low-stakes facilitation of creativity and critical thinking. As a crowdsourced project, the quality of annotations (or “tates,” as the community terms them) is not always exceptional, and rarely academic, but it has proven seductive for academics. For good or ill, with the numerous and varied poems and critical theory pieces available on Genius instructors have been using the site in their pedagogy for years. Tom Morgan, Associate Professor at the University of Dayton, uses Genius as part of his 300-level hip hop course. In order “to get them thinking about writing for a non-academic audience, but to still write in a way that emphasizes analysis over summary,” students write five annotations (100-words minimum per post) and tag their professor @poeticimmunity. Especially in a course centered on music, there is good reason to incorporate Genius into the classroom. However, Dr. Morgan finds something else enticing about the site on a personal level. As a moderator and author of over 850 annotations, including a coveted “tate of the week,” Genius forms a significant part of his identity.
My interest in Genius also extends beyond the classroom, but not beyond my work as a scholar. In fact, so far my use of the platform has been wholly self-indulgent—although, I like to think it contributes to a communal good. The exercise of writing “tates” permits me to flex the muscles I use regularly as a writer, critic, and teacher, but in a low stakes format. What I get from Genius is a validation of my skill-set at the end of the day, when all of my sharpest brain cells are exhausted. For many academics, the idea of writing annotations for fun may not jump out as an obvious avenue for recreation, community, or building up a public identity. Yet for music enthusiasts in particular, of which many academics certainly number, it is surprisingly pleasant to reflect on the songs that touch us. What is more, by attracting over 100 million visitors each month, I take some satisfaction knowing that these annotations will likely reach a broader audience than the majority of the academic essays I have published.
What has surprised me most about the experience, is that I have also gained from the social aspect of Genius. After posting a greeting and introduction to the editorial forum following my elevation to the role of editor, I received a number of kind messages, privately and on the forum, from enthusiastic members of the community offering to show me the ropes. There is also a cooperative aspect to the annotation writing process. I have enjoyed the exercise of reviewing, adding to, and collaborating on annotations with other users. In this way, the creation of annotations serves the similar function of community building found in other comment and post-centered online forums like Reddit. Although, in a sense, Genius’s reliance on unpaid labor is reprehensible, I get paid as little for my “tates” as my peer-reviewed scholarly writing (especially as a non-tenured academic laborer).
Genius is not for everyone, but it has opened my eyes to the factors which I value in an online community. Now, when I find myself becoming overwhelmed by tweets or depressed by Facebook, I make the conscious decision to use Genius to revisit an artist I enjoy, or perhaps see if the new song I recently discovered in Spotify needs attention.
Do you have a favorite alternative form of social media? Let us know in comments!