Straight Outta Government: GSA Mulls Deal With Rap Genius

By Joseph Marks

June 20, 2013

This article has been updated to correctly state how GSA negotiates with social media sites.

What will be the next social media platform to make it big in government? The answer may be Rap Genius, a four-year-old tool designed to decode hip hop lyrics and that government agencies could use to crowdsource the backstory on policy memos and proposed regulations.

The General Services Administration is talking with Rap Genius about creating a federal friendly version of the website, which has already racked up more than 68,000 annotations to Kanye West’s new album Yeezus, GSA’s social media lead Justin Herman said Wednesday.

“We want to stop chasing the social media tail and start getting in front of it,” he said.

GSA negotiates terms of service agreements with social media platforms that allow agencies to use the sites without fear of violating any federal regulations. 

If the deal goes through, government agencies will likely have to maintain accounts on a segmented part of the site so their annotated documents won’t be displayed next to links for hip hop songs with profane titles, he said.

Herman was speaking during a panel discussion on social media in journalism hosted by the National Press Foundation.

The U.S. Geological Survey has already set up an account on Rap Genius where several of the agency’s policy documents have been annotated by geology enthusiasts. The agency’s “popular songs” include Decline in Amphibian Populations in the U.S. and Forecasting the Impact of Storm Waves and Sea Level Rise on Midway Atoll and Laysan Island within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Rap Genius edits range from translating slang terms into standard English to fleshing out how a rapper’s biography may have informed a particular lyric.

The site has previously branched out from hip hop, including “poetry genius” and “news genius,” which annotates political speeches and quotes.

Government has mixed crowdsourcing and policy in the past but usually with the goal of developing policy or legislation rather than explaining it. The Open Gov Foundation, which spun out of the office of Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., built a tool called Madison that crowdsources edits to legislation. Nextgov is hosting the Madison version of legislation to reform how the government buys information technology.

Agencies have also used IdeaScale to crowd source suggestions for how to improve government programs and policies.

The federal government’s presence on social media has increased dramatically in the past few years as more sites adopt federal-friendly terms of service and as agencies struggle to communicate with a social-savvy citizenry.

By Joseph Marks

June 20, 2013