What Happened to Urban Dictionary? | WIRED
In time, however, the site began to espouse the worst of the internet—Urban Dictionary became something much uglier than perhaps what Peckham set out to create. It transformed into a harbor for hate speech. By allowing anyone to post definitions (users can up or down vote their favorite ones) Peckham opened the door for the most insidious among us. Racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and sexism currently serve as the basis for some of the most popular definitions on the site. In fact, one of the site’s definitions for sexism details it as “a way of life like welfare for black people. now stop bitching and get back to the kitchen.” Under Lady Gaga, one top entry describes her as the embodiment of “a very bad joke played on all of us by Tim Burton.” For LeBron James, it reads: “To bail out on your team when times get tough.”
When I first discovered Urban Dictionary around 2004, I considered it a public good. The internet still carried an air of innocence then; the lion’s share of people who roamed chat forums and posted on LiveJournal had yet to adopt the mob instincts of cancel culture; Twitter was years away from warping our consumption habits and Facebook was only a fraction of the giant it is today. I was relatively new to what the internet could offer—its infinite landscapes dazzled my curious teenage mind—and found a strange solace in Urban Dictionary.
My understanding of it hewed to a simple logic. Here was a place where words and phrases that friends, cousins, neighbors, and people I knew used with regularity found resonance and meaning. Before Urban Dictionary, I’d never seen words like hella or jawn defined anywhere other than in conversation. That they were afforded a kind of linguistic reverence was what awed me, what drew me in
Urban Dictionary’s abandonment of that edict afforded it a rebel spirit. Early on, the beauty of the site was its deep insistence on showing how slang is socialized based on a range of factors: community, school, work. How we casually convey meaning is a direct reflection of our geography, our networks, our worldviews. At its best, Urban Dictionary crystallized that proficiency. Slang is often understood as a less serious form of literacy, as deficient or lacking. Urban Dictionary said otherwise. It let the cultivators of the most forward-looking expressions of language speak for themselves. It believed in the splendor of slang that was deemed unceremonious and paltry.
But if the radiant array of terminology uploaded to the site was initially meant to function as a possibility of human speech, it is now mostly a repository of vile language. In its current form, Urban Dictionary is a cauldron of explanatory excess and raw prejudice. “The problem for Peckham’s bottom line is that derogatory content—not the organic evolution of language in the internet era—may be the site’s primary appeal,” Clio Chang wrote in The New Republic in 2017, as the site was taking on its present identity.
Luckily, like language, the internet is stubbornly resistant to stasis. It is constantly reconfiguring and building anew. Today, other digital portals—Twitter, Instagram, gossip blogs like Bossip and The Shade Room, even group texts on our smartphones—function as better incubators of language than Urban Dictionary. Consider how Bossip’s headline mastery functions as a direct extension of black style—which is to say the site embraces, head on, the syntax and niche vernacular of a small community of people. The endeavor is both an acknowledgement of and a lifeline to a facet of black identity.
That’s not to say Urban Dictionary is vacant any good, but its utility, as a window into different communities and local subcultures, as a tool that extends sharp and luminous insight, has been obscured by darker intentions. What began as a joke is no longer funny. Even those who operate on the site understand it for what it’s eroded into. The top definition for Urban Dictionary reads: “Supposed to [b]e a user-inputed dictionary for words. However, has become a mindless forum of jokes, view-points, sex, and basically anything but the real definition of a word.” Where Oxford and Merriam-Webster erected walls around language, essentially controlling what words and expressions society deemed acceptable, Urban Dictionary, in its genesis, helped to democratize that process. Only the republic eventually ate itself.