I moderate Facebook comments all day. While the rest of the Internet shuts off comments on publications, Facebook comments aren’t going anywhere—they count as engagement to help rank posts in the newsfeed, and there is no way for an admin to turn them off. As the host of a large media non-profit’s page, it is my responsibility to remove comments that are hateful while not censoring our audience. I work to create positive discussion by hiding the most appalling instances of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, and by banning consistently hostile users. If we can’t turn off our Facebook comments, we need to own them.
As a result of this daily grind of filtering the worst instincts of humanity, I have a thick skin. I also know the value of sites that protect their creators. As a herpes+ sex blogger, I avoid writing for publications that do not moderate their comments, or, in some cases, even encourage negative comments through outrageous headlines. Websites that are known for their horrendous comment culture use it to drive additional traffic—online reading as public shaming that anyone can participate in. I have had my lifestyle, my intelligence, and my sanity raked over the coals in the comments of sites like BuzzFeed and The Daily Mail. The sexual nature of my writing is a beacon to the seriously disturbed. When I confided my terror in a male friend after going viral for the first time, his response was essentially: What did you expect? It’s the Internet.
My experience with comments has led me to make two choices: to write more often on my blog, where I have full editorial control, and to not allow comments to go live without my approval. This blog has become a home for me to pull out stitches and reopen wounds. I’ve written about emotional abuse, about internalized shame, about how herpes stigma has impacted my relationships and my mental health. Most of my posts have no comments, and I prefer it that way. The essays are widely shared and discussed on social media, but reader reactions, be they positive or negative, do not color the experience of other users, who are often newly diagnosed and suicidal. Comments on my blog are signatures in a yearbook: they reflect me, and they reflect that someone else has been here. I want productive signatures, and I get to make that call as the administrator of my blog. The rules here are mine.
Except that’s not true anymore, thanks to News Genius, which allows readers to annotate pages anywhere on the web. News Genius puts comment sections in the margins, just as most publishers are taking them away to protect their writers. I was introduced to News Genius last week when a woman took issue with a post I wrote about how journalists refer to people with herpes as “sufferers.” We went back and forth on Twitter a few times until she stopped responding to me, and until I noticed she was tweeting with other users who mocked me as one of the “crazies.” When I saw that she regularly brags about how many users have blocked her, I blocked her too, motivated by my desire to just not get into it. I wrote an update to my post, frustrated by her approach and our interaction but interested in rewording some of my thoughts. I also sub-tweeted about “assholes” misreading my post, because if you retweet my blog post with the comment “ffs really,” I feel confident calling you an asshole.
After I blocked her on Twitter, she took to Genius to annotate my post, no doubt a good faith effort to clarify her criticism. She was joined by News Genius’s editor Leah Finnegan. Their comments, while not abusive, lacked an awareness of how the media stigmatizes herpes. They suggested that my title of “stigma reduction activist” is not a real thing, pasted in links to my tweets—which theoretically they should not have had access to, as I had blocked them both on Twitter—and picked at details based on their personal experience, which were apparently more important than mine, the expert in stigma writing the post on her own website.
Obviously I was frustrated. No one likes being questioned, and no one likes having their wording pulled apart by strangers. But it is not unusual for my work to be a hate-read, and I frequently get traffic from r/NotTheOnion, 4chan, and hard right-wing websites. I can live with having my writing mocked, even by women, even by feminists, even by journalists.
What I cannot accept is how News Genius works. Although the coverage of News Genius praises it as a feature hosts can code into their site, anyone can lay comments on anything by adding some language to a URL address. That is the entire point: according to the annotator’s Twitter bio, “The Genius Web Annotator lets you add line-by-line annotations to any page on the Internet.” Because my blog is currently a free WordPress website, anyone can use Genius to annotate my posts without my control. It is not opt-in for the creator, and if I want to engage with the annotations, I have to sign in using a Genius account. I see no way to report an annotation for abuse or harassment—perhaps that is only available for users?—and I see no way to block a user from annotating my content.
Genius is officially worse than Twitter: I can block a user on Twitter, and they can then go and scribble whatever they want on my website using Genius.
I wouldn’t even know this extra layer existed over my blog if one of the women annotating it hadn’t tweeted the link. A creator receives no notification if someone has annotated their content. Opening my post using Genius was like discovering graffiti over some of my most personal work. Annotations display more like passive aggressive Post-It notes, but for someone who has been gaslit by partners, diminished by journalists, and harassed by mobs online, Genius annotations are an invasive violation. The design itself doesn’t help in this regard. I expect line edits from my actual editor, a thesis advisor, or even a friend sharing their thoughts on an early draft; I have no established relationship of trust and respect with the denizens of the internet.
I am nervous to publish this post because I know it will be annotated, and not in good faith. I am afraid to talk about how Genius can be used for harassment and abuse because Genius’s code offers no way for me to protect myself from the harassment and abuse I will receive for writing about it. Considering one of the people who annotated my blog is a News Genius editor, I’m not confident we agree on what harassment and abuse even is. That same editor has concern-trolled other women writers who have published personal essays about intimate topics. The very loss of control that boxed me into writing just for my site has been exacerbated by a tool originally built to annotate hip hop lyrics.
News Genius was probably created as a way to speak truth to power, but it has incredible potential to punch down. I am not a highly paid journalist at a huge publication; I am a survivor with a blog. You can hate-read my content all you want—I know that is a risk of being a person who says things on the Internet. But when you create a tool that pastes commentary directly on top of my work without letting me opt-in and without providing a way for people to turn off the annotation on their pages, you are being irresponsible. You are ignoring the potential your tool has to be abused, and you are not anticipating the real harm your tool can do. News Genius adds one more way for people on the Internet to be made unsafe. The potential it has to intimidate and silence marginalized voices needs to be recognized. Snarky journalists are not who I am afraid of. A tool that allows my abusive ex-boyfriend to interact with me and my content is a tool that should not exist.
When I reached out to Genius and News Genius to ask how I could opt-out of annotations on my website, I was told to not use the Genius URL or its extensions. As I had not downloaded the extension in the first place, their advice was basically just don’t look at the annotations. I told them that wasn’t good enough, and I’ve yet to get a reply.
News Genius, I am asking you to provide a simple, accessible way for creators to disable Genius annotations on their sites. I am asking you to respond to genuine criticism from survivors with respect and consideration, not tell us that you’re doing us a favor by sending us thoughtful engagement and traffic (as happened to me on Twitter). That is the bare minimum required to keep people safe and not contribute to an online environment hostile to women, the LGBTQ community, and people of color. Give me the same ability that the New York Times has to select which articles are available for annotation. Or better yet, make Genius truly opt-in.
All I am asking is for you to give me my blog back.
Recommended reading: Citation, Appropriation, and Fair Use: News Genius Picks Up Again Where Failures Left Off by Glenn Fleishman