UPDATE (5/26/14): Rap Genius cofounder Mahbod Moghadam has been fired.
Community site Rap Genius sets as their mission to annotate the world - or to become the Internet Talmud. That's a lofty goal and perhaps a worthy one, particularly if they expand into poetry, literature, political speeches and more. But it's also a thorny path, as you look to a community to interpret the words of others.
Rap Genius co-founder Mahbod Moghadam learned that today when he decided to annotate and publish the "manifesto" of UCSB mass shooter Elliot Rodger.
Defenders of Rap Genius will note that the words of mass murderers are often published and analyzed. But, for the most part, that doesn't happen immediately. Ann Rule's biography of Ted Bundy, The Stranger Beside Me, was published in 1980, five years after his arrest for multiple murders. Moghadam's annotated version of the Manifesto was published just a day after the shootings, at a time when the names of some of the victims have still not been released.
Making the matter worse, Moghadam's comments seemed to reinforce some of the rawness of the crime itself. In perhaps the most egregious example, in a reference to Rodger's sister, Moghadam's comments try to interpret the shooter's feelings towards her, saying "My Guess: his sister is smokin hot".
(image credit: Gawker.com)
While this text was later edited out of the Rap Genius post, it was at best insensitive and inappropriate, particularly since social media has been dominated all weekend with the #YesAllWomen hashtag.
But the core issue, in my view, is that, while the immediacy of the web enables, and often encourages all of us to "publish" events as they happen, that doesn't mean that we should.
Traditional news outlets have editors who set policies and help journalists make decisions about what information should be shared when. Those of us (including bloggers like me) who do not have a background in journalism, nor editorial oversight, must make those decisions ourselves. And while I'd argue that having a layperson try to interpret the meaning of a mass murderer's comments, with no context nor professional experience, is a wrongheaded effort, the timing of it becomes a key factor as well.
Just a week or so ago, there was great debate about whether it was appropriate that the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City sell high-priced trinkets at a gift shop. Personally, I've been more offended by the politicians who have spent the past 13 years grandstanding in front of the site, but I can see the view of those who were upset by the gift shop. Yet, the Holocaust Museum has a similar gift shop that generates no such outrage. And a major difference, in my view, is the passage of time.
If Rap Genius wished to annotate the manuscript a year or two from now, it wouldn't generate much attention. Of course, it wouldn't generate many page views either, which was clearly a driver in getting it posted today.
But the immediacy of the web requires us to gauge public response to our actions and to decide what we want our role to be in doing so.