Almost everyone has used Urban Dictionary at some point or another to look up the meaning of a slang word or phrase. Started in 1999 by then-computer science student Aaron Peckham, the crowd-sourced online dictionary that The New York Times calls the “lexicon of instant argot” has grown over the past two decades into an internet behemoth. In 2014, Peckham claimed that the site boasted more than seven million definitions. The same year, he said that Urban Dictionary’s mobile app had been downloaded more than three million times. According to Quantcast, it is the 25th-biggest site in the United States, and had 130 million global views over the last month.
Urban Dictionary is also really, really racist.
It defines Barack Obama as “the chocolate Jimmy Carter.” The second top definition for Serena Williams is “a large, muscular, ape whose Hollywood credits include the lead role in 1998’s Mighty Joe Young.” Under Michelle Obama, one of the top entries reads: “Mannish wife of Barack Obama. Widely regarded as being more masculine and certainly more gangsta than Barack. Was rejected by the WNBA for ambiguous gender reasons. Some have argued that Barack is actually gay and believed that he was marrying a man when he married Michelle.”
Black people? “A potentially great people who have a lot of problems that need to be addressed. Quite rightly they feel a great injustice has been done to them in the past, but this tends to negate any ability they might have to look upon themselves self critically…thus perpetuating a cycle of crime and underachievement.” Racism? “Pure Bullshit.”
The second top definition for the N-word is “a word that everyone else is afraid to define except in utter seriousness, for fear of being branded a rascist [sic], in total ignorance of the colloquial usage of the word, its characterization in popular culture, and the populations of people it is used most by.”
As Kimberly Lawson pointed out previously at Broadly, Urban Dictionary is also insanely sexist. Hillary Clinton is defined as a “cock juggling thunder cunt.” Feminism? “The biggest disgrace to my gender.”
Despite its implicit promise to clue people into what urban people—read: minorities—are saying, Urban Dictionary does not draw from any source of expertise. It is a pure product of the internet hordes, and the internet hordes are racist and sexist. To contribute to the lexicon of our generation, users merely submit an entry that “volunteer editors” (i.e., other users) can vote in or out. In 2013 it was reported that only five votes are needed for a submission to make the cut. Then, definitions are ranked by how many up- or down-votes they have received.
In its 2014 profile, the Times wrote, “Mr. Peckham says he rarely edits the site or removes words that might be deemed offensive, unless they are aimed at a specific person or reveal someone’s private information. He said it was rare that definitions appeared that were ‘really racist or sexist.’” In a 2011 interview with the Guardian, Peckham laid out a few guidelines: “Publish celebrity names, but reject ‘real life’ names. Reject nonsense, inside jokes, or anything submitted in capital letters. Racial and sexual slurs are allowed, racist and sexist entries are not.”
But even a cursory look at the site reveals that there has been virtually no effort to edit out racism and sexism. And to scrub the site with any effectiveness would require a huge team of moderators, which in turn would require a significant investment. “The bottom line here I would assume is that the site is intended to make money,” Sarah T. Roberts, assistant professor of information studies at UCLA, told the New Republic. “The guiding principle of a site like that is simple to understand—it’s the profit motive.”
In the same Times profile, Peckham claimed that he had not sought out any venture financing and that “his company did not generate a huge amount of cash—though he declined to give specific figures—but said it was enough to support him and the site.” But Peckham’s word is all we have to go on. He also bragged to the Times about getting major advertisers and companies to partner with Urban Dictionary. It is difficult to believe that a site with tens of millions of eyeballs on it every month is earning just enough for Peckham to break even.
Furthermore, Urban Dictionary sells branded merchandise like mugs, games, and t-shirts, and Peckham has published three books that merely aggregate the site’s content. “We are always looking for new ways to get Urban Dictionary’s content out there!” Peckham once said in an interview. (Peckham did not respond to the New Republic’s multiple requests for comment.) He is estimated to be worth $100 million, according to CelebrityNetWorth.com.
Like other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Peckham pitches Urban Dictionary as a social good. “Most dictionaries are objective,” he told the Guardian. “Urban Dictionary is completely subjective. It’s not presented as fact, [but] as opinions. I think that can be a lot more valuable.” In an interview with Cal Poly Magazine, a publication from Peckham’s alma mater, he said the site was “definitely” educational because “it teaches you what things really mean, according to a lot of people.” In the Times, Peckham said that Urban Dictionary is important because it shows how online vernacular evolves—it “allows us to see that process in real time.”
But as we’ve seen time and again with internet phenomena, the power of the crowd is almost never an inherently benign one. From Facebook’s fake news problem to Reddit’s child porn problem to Uber’s exploited labor problem, Silicon Valley’s innovations usually go awry when they aren’t regulated in some fashion. Even Google, whose motto is “don’t be evil,” had to step in to prevent its algorithm from producing a racist image of Michelle Obama as its top search result.
As Roberts notes, “putting [Urban Dictionary] out there as a public service really obfuscates these other kinds of motives that are at play.” Peckham’s lack of transparency on the monetary value of his site, which appears to be making a fair amount of money off racist and sexist content, is disconcerting to say the least.
And as Broadly’s Lawson points out, there are real-world implications to publishing a racist dictionary that is used by tens of millions of people a month. For example, Urban Dictionary has been used as evidence to help define slang words in courtrooms. “Considering just how much racism and sexism pervade the website’s pages, that’s scary,” Lawson writes. Only last week, the Oxford dictionary wrote in a blog post that it was keeping an eye out on the term “Milkshake Duck,” citing the phrase’s entry in Urban Dictionary.
Peckham has claimed that the site’s audience skews towards males between the ages 15 to 24. This is undoubtedly the main reason the site is in the horrible shape it is in. And it is terrifying to think that a whole generation of young men is reinforcing the idea that it is OK to call Serena Williams an “ape” or to define Rihanna as “Chris Brown’s punching bag.” 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.