From Notorious B.I.G. to "Plan B" — Rap Genius Takes on Health

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Photo: Matt Handy

There is something special happening over at Rap Genius. The site started as a collection of user-generated forums where anyone can read, discuss, and analyze rap lyrics from Biggie to Markie Mark to Eminem. But now, the team is focusing on health and fitness with "Health Genius," a platform that tackles health news using the same crowd-sourced techniques that made Rap Genius a success.

"Rap" and "health" aren’t exactly a classic combination, but the idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds. The team at Rap Genius has built an online empire around people’s desire to decode and debate what they’re passionate about — in this case rap lyrics. Rap Genius was born in 2009 and quickly grew to include hundreds of thousands of active users and approximately 10 million unique monthly visitors. It has since spawned a new vertical called “News Genius,” which focuses on current events using the Rap Genius model. Health Genius doesn't have its own tab just yet — for now, it's a collection of stories dispersed under the News Genius umbrella. This can make "Health Genius" difficult to find, but those health stories are gaining popularity and attracting their own unique community of users.

Much like its big brothers Rap Genius and News Genius, Health Genius is a community-moderated forum where any user can annotate primary documents relevant to current health concerns. Users can pour over the FDA’s approval of Plan B, a FAQ on gout, the cloning of human stem cells, a report on carcinogens from the National Institute of Health, or any other health news. Encouraging conversation about health is always a plus, but why does a “rap” forum care about our health, anyway?

What It Is

Health Genius follows the Wikileaks model: A small editorial team sources relevant documents and presents them in full. The community then goes through them, making annotations and starting discussions. The annotations can be literally anything — personal opinions, debate, essays, studies, articles, images, and even emojis.

The entire site — including Rap Genius and News Genius — is community moderated, which means incorrect comments are either flagged by the community or edited for accuracy. “Annotations can be aesthetically or factually bad,” says Gavin Matthews, a News Genius editor. “Aesthetically, it will get voted down and turned into something useful. A factually bad annotation will get removed.” Part of the reason the system works is due to the large and engaged audience. Without a community that cares, Health Genius (and all of the Genius forums, for that matter) would turn into a den of misinformation.

Why It Matters

Three Yale alums launched Rap Genius was in 2009. Their goal was to create an online forum where users could read over, listen to, and annotate rap lyrics to better explain their meaning. The site’s success prompted the founders to broaden the topics to include rock music and poetry. Despite some growing pains, the site continued to expand, launching “News Genius” after the 2013 TechCrunch Disrupt Conference in May. “It was definitely weird when it first started,” Matthews says. “When the first [new] channel launched, a lot of people were up in arms about the differences.”

Regardless, the rap-centric community gradually learned to love the new subject matter. Unlike rap, current affairs was more actionable and had a much wider appeal. “In rap, there’s a passionate community that cares; but with news, everyone has a connection to it,” Matthews says.

Health Genius' first breakthrough story was about the acquisition of Warner Chilcott, a pharmaceutical company, by Actavis, another pharmaceutical company. The story first appeared at the beginning of the summer, but since then Matthews has noticed Health Genius and its community have embraced technical texts and complex court decisions. “I think people underestimate that people online do want to learn about things and engage in new information that matters,” Matthews says.

This aspect of Health Genius is certainly influenced by the site’s emphasis on conversation and discussion (of song lyrics as well as weightier subjects). Matthews says the whole approach of the site is to give the community the power to make sense of the news as they see fit. “We build up a big wall of information. You don’t just get a CNN story, you get 20 stories on [a topic] that have been edited by a community,” Matthews says. “People enjoy that there’s information out there that they didn’t know existed.”

What’s Next?

Of course, any community-run site has countless potential pitfalls. While Health Genius often sparks relevant conversations, the annotations are sometimes few and far between (in skimming through the site, there was an average of 3 to 5 annotations per story). It’s clear Health Genius doesn’t yet have the same engaged community as Rap Genius to create and moderate discussions.

It’s one thing if someone misreads a music lyric, but there are real, potentially dangerous consequences for messing up health information. “If you know what you’re doing, you can use [the site] as advice, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, then you need to talk to a doctor,” says Matthews. There is a disclaimer that applies to the whole Rap Genius family, but there's still a risk of promoting misinformation, especially on less popular (and therefore less annotated) stories. This is different from other forum-style sites because Health Genius exclusively posts primary documents. Other forums, like Reddit, are littered with links from third party sites, but Health Genius only posts source material.

Another issue for Health Genius is organic growth and popularity. While the content on Rap Genius is almost entirely community-generated, Health Genius is lagging behind in terms of audience participation: “Health is going to take a lot more injecting, more pushing,” says Mathews. Because the content is limited, it’s difficult to find specific articles on Health Genius — searching for “caffeine,” for example, brings up lyrics from a Das Racist song before it brings up anything health-related.

This isn’t all bad. Health Genius is a growing vertical of the Rap Genius empire and it will take time for its community to catch up. Health Genius is even borrowing some tricks from the original Rap Genius site, like sourcing material from “verified” users. In the rap platform, artists like A$AP Rocky and Nas can moderate annotations on their own lyrics. For wellness, that means that Health Genius is approaching organizations — like the ACLU — and even star trainers to post stories, create discussions, and even annotate relevant articles on the site.

Health Genius is an ambitious approach to dissecting complex health ideas. It’s not fully formed just yet — the site is still in its development phase, which means it can be buggy and a bit tough to navigate. But Health Genius is banking that people don’t just want to read about their health, they want to influence the discussion as well.

Good idea? Bad idea? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below, or find the author on Twitter at @zsniderman.

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About the Author
Zachary Sniderman
Hey there - I'm the editorial director at Greatist. Before joining the (crazy good) team here, I worked at Vanity Fair and at Mashable, where I...

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