UrbanDictionary.com Impact on Language on the Margins

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On: October 4, 2021
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Abstract

Using Clark-Parsons and Lingel’s margins-as-methods framework, this paper analyses the ethical implications and political impact of UrbanDictionary.com’s contribution to the shaping of mainstream understanding of popular culture slang. Following a review of the UrbanDictionary’s cultural impact, this paper analyses the platform’s affordances, its impact on the power relationships with its users, and questions the platform’s relationship with alterity.

Introduction

Starting in 1999 as a parody site, UrbanDictionary.com is a crowd-sourced platform that records new slangs as they emerge and their meanings. The platform seeks to move at the speed of culture itself by letting users add and vote on definitions they deem most appropriate for different words.

Although a lot of the definitions are opinion-based, ribald and ironic, the platform’s ability to translate evolving slang for mainstream audiences has allowed it to endure for over two decades. According to Similarweb, UrbanDictionary.com has had 42 million visits in the United States the past six months. The U.S. Library of Congress now archives UrbanDictionary entries. It was saved to the Internet Archive more than 12,500 times between May 25, 2002, and October 4, 2019, with a steady increase over time. Definitions on UrbanDictionary have even been used to arrive at judgements in court. The site has therefore become “the anthropologist of the Internet, taking the pulse of the web and capturing cultural moments in real time(Jenna Wortham, n.d.)”. As Jason Parham writes on Urban Dictionary’s 20-year anniversary:

“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. The site, it then seemed, was an oasis for all varieties of slang, text speak, and cultural idioms. (Later, as black culture became the principal vortex for which popular culture mined cool, intra-communal expressions like bae, on fleek, and turnt, were increasingly the property of the wider public.) It was a place where entry into the arena did not require language to adhere to the rules of proper grammar .”

(Jason Parham 2019)

Using the margins-as-methods framework offered by Clark-Parsons and Lingel, the analysis of UrbanDictionary.com will analyze the platform’s relationship with alterity using the concepts of counterpublics, countercultures, and alternative media. A lot of the definitions in Urban Dictionary are of words common in the language used by racial and sexual minority youth, whose use of language has been increasingly mainstreamed. This post will refer to these populations as “counterpublics,” because counterpublics connect through a shared marginalized identity and experience of subordination, as opposed to countercultures, who are not necessarily the product of social, political, or economic disenfranchisement (Rosemary Clark-Parsons and Jessa Lingel 2020).

UrbanDictionary’s Impact on Counterpublics

The documenting power of UrbanDictionary is worth studying because crowd-sourcing platforms like these do not merely convey definitions; the platform itself serves as an actor-network on which knowledge is actively co-produced (José van Dijck 2010). It does this by deciding what entries make it onto its landing page, as well as ranking and moderating entries before they can be engaged with by its online community. As the website affords users the capacity to vote on the validity of provided definitions with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, UrbanDictionary distributes power of categorization and validity to its users(José van Dijck 2010). However, a more complex engagement with the question of power requires an understanding that avid followers of various strands of youth culture will understand social phenomena differently, have a distaste for certain phenomena, or otherwise bring their own subjectivities to bear. As such, one cannot see all counterpublics as the same (Rosemary Clark-Parsons and Jessa Lingel 2020). A good example of this is anti-trans activism by some feminist advocates in the UK, or the split between black and white feminist discourse in the United States over the past decade.

A key affordance of the UrbanDictionary is that anyone can give a definition of any term or vote on a definition already provided, but UrbanDictionary’s reliance on user input is remarkable even for a crowdsourcing platform. Compared to Wiktionary, another crowd-source dictionary, the definitions of UrbanDictionary are far less moderated. For example, the word “emo” has only five definitions on Wiktionary, but 1,204 on UrbanDictionary. It is also because of the laxity in the moderation of UrbanDictionary that it also has more definitions than Wiktionary; indeed, 72% of the words on UrbanDictionary are not on Wiktionary (Emerging Technology from the arXiv 2018). The number of thumbs-up votes versus thumbs-down votes on an UrbanDictionary definition is the only real indicator of validity of a definition for a user trying to understand what a word means and how it is best used, so even the validity of definitions are user-determined.

There is also no discernible way to manage the intentions of those who contribute definitions, or who gets to post definitions of what terms used by a given counterpublic. More innocuously, this means that people can post humorous opinions as definitions, and visitors to the website looking to learn what a word means will need to rely on the number of votes for its validity. On the other hand, people outside of a given community can easily misrepresent terms used by a different group, and these definitions can easily take a turn for the hateful. This is why hate speech has been the bane of the platform in recent years (Jason Parham 2019), and has driven UrbanDictionary to review its policies on moderation in 2019 and again in 2021.

UrbanDictionary was not specifically built to cater to the needs of counterpublics. This is to say, UrbanDictionary is not an example of alternative media. Alternative media are media that, according to Lievrouw:

take advantage of the recombinant, networked nature of the new media infrastructure, and the ubiquity and interactivity that they offer users, to create innovative projects in which people extend their social networks and interpersonal contacts, produce and share their own “DIY” information, and resist, “talk back” to, or otherwise critique and intervene in prevailing social, cultural, economic, and political conditions.

(Rosemary Clark-Parsons and Jessa Lingel 2020)

While Urban Dictionary takes advantage of interactivity in the cataloguing of language and creating of DIY information, it is not a counterpublic’s own attempt to critique or intervene in prevailing use of language. Indeed, its founder Aaron Peckham began the site as a parody site of Dictionary.com. The notion of protecting some definitions from hate were not deeply considered at the founding of the website. In fact, early in the website’s existence, its founder was quoted expressing skepticism on the propriety of removing offensive words from the website. Urban Dictionary’s own blog entries in 2020 and March 2021 on how they are dealing with the need to moderate user contributions demonstrates increasing awareness of the need to address these concerns over time.

Conclusion

A restructuring of the relationship with its users will begin with a re-examination of how UrbanDictionary wants to use its power in engaging with the counterpublics whose language it helps define. Decades on, UrbanDictionary is belatedly acting in that awareness, and in a way that brings forth the question of whether one can create space for counterpublics without seeing oneself as alternative media — and acting accordingly.

Bibliography

  • Emerging Technology from the arXiv. 2018. “The Anatomy of the Urban Dictionary.” MIT Technology Review, January. https://www.technologyreview.com/2018/01/03/146467/the-anatomy-of-the-urban-dictionary/
  • Jason Parham. 2019. “What Happened to Urban Dictionary?” Wired, November 9, 2019. https://www.wired.com/story/urban-dictionary-20-years/.
  • Jenna Wortham. n.d. “A Lexicon of Instant Argot.” January 3, 2014 https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/04/technology/a-lexicon-of-the-internet-updated-by-its-users.html.
  • José van Dijck. 2010. “Search Engines and the Production of Academic Knowledge.” International Journal of Cultural Studies, November. https://doi.org/10.1177/1367877910376582.
  • Rosemary Clark-Parsons and Jessa Lingel. 2020. “Margins as Methods, Margins as Ethics: A Feminist Framework for Studying Online Alterity.” Social Media + Society, Marginality and Social Media, 6 (1). https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305120913994.
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