Tom Lehman was sitting with his friends on an otherwise ordinary autumn day in 2009, listening to hip hop music.
A Miami native — he notes this as somewhat of a prerequisite — he always liked the beat, the kind he could “dance to,” but had never seriously listened to the lyrics. So he had his friends explain to him what was going on, and why the lyrics were “cool.”
Immediately, he became entranced.
“I just thought, ‘Wow, these conversations are so interesting and fun,’ ” Lehman said. “What if we could take these conversations and put them on the Internet, so that people who aren’t in this apartment can also have fun in this way?”
Nearly seven years later, Lehman is the co-founder and chief executive of Genius, a Brooklyn-based company that he and his colleagues call “the world’s biggest collection of song lyrics and crowdsourced musical knowledge." Its list of contributors includes major artists like Eminem, Sia, Pharrell Williams and Selena Gomez.
Its mission, however, extends far beyond music.
Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia and Stack Overflow, Genius is coming into its own as a global network of collaborators aiming to “annotate the world” — that is, any text online.
Liz Milch, Genius’ deputy director of content, said the idea behind this concept is to create a place that allows any person to take part in a project about the things he or she loves.
“We really believe that every reader can be an expert, and has their own knowledge to share on that text, where it lives,” Milch said.
With approximately 40 percent of users living outside the United States — including France, Germany, Poland and Brazil — the site has become a global multilingual conversation, and it's steadily growing.
In addition to offering its signature Web annotator tool, Genius recently partnered with Spotify, a global streaming music service with 75 million monthly active users. Their product, called Fact Track, allows users to explore fun stories and annotations from collaborating hip hop artists as well as the Genius community.
Milch called the product a learning experience that allows users to feel more deeply connected to their favorite music. The staff’s role in the workplace, meanwhile, is to highlight the most exciting facts.
“We find sort of that piece of gold that’s maybe at the bottom of the annotation or even in the suggestion, and then what we’re doing internally is [saying], ‘No, this is the thing! Let’s bring that to the top!’ ”
More than six years in, Lehman said their work at Genius is only beginning, with “94 years to go.”
“This is a 100-year project,” he said. “If you really want to become the layer of knowledge that follows you wherever you go — from music to television to news to everywhere on the Internet — that is an enormous project, and we are only just beginning.”
Lehman joked that, after all these years, he has finally gained a deeper appreciation for the genre of music that started it all.
“I can say I do actually know a lot about hip hop right now,” he said. “So, you know, mission accomplished! Thanks y’all."