Screenshot of Urban Dictionary front page as of 2011
|Created by||Aaron Peckham|
|Slogan(s)||Define Your World|
|Alexa rank||593 (July 2016)|
Urban Dictionary is a crowdsourced online dictionary of slang words and phrases that was founded in 1999 as a parody of Dictionary.com and Vocabulary.com by then-college freshman Aaron Peckham. Some of the definitions on the website can be found as early as 1999, however most early definitions are from 2003. At the start of 2014, the dictionary featured over seven million definitions, while 2,000 new daily entries were being added. In November 2014, the Advertise page of the website states that, on a monthly basis, Urban Dictionary averages 72 million impressions and 18 million unique readers. Anyone with either a Facebook or Gmail account can make a submission to the dictionary, and it is claimed that all entries are reviewed by several volunteers. Site visitors may agree or disagree with definitions by an up/down vote system.
1999–2003: Founding, UK high court case, advertising
The site was founded in 1999 by Peckham while he was a freshman computer science major at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly). Peckham had previously created a spoof version of the Ask Jeeves web search engine while studying at Cal Poly but closed the website after he received an infringement letter.
During the "Internet Underground" panel of the 2011 ROFLCon Summit, Peckham explained that, as a computer science student, his primary motivation was to construct a website; but he was also dissatisfied with the conventional English-language dictionary, as it "was telling us how English was spoken, instead of reflecting how English was actually spoken." For the launch of Urban Dictionary, Peckham installed the website on a FileMaker Pro web server that was operated from under his dormitory room bed at Cal Poly. One of the first definitions on the site was "O.G.", defined as "a retired gangster who sits on the porch in the ghetto and preaches to the youngsters".
For the first five years, the site generated revenue without making a profit for Peckham, but did not incur any costs, so Peckham's role was mostly passive. In 2003, Peckham paid more attention to the site after a news article revealed that United Kingdom (UK) high court judges had used Urban Dictionary to assist them in a case involving two rappers (the judges unsuccessfully attempted to comprehend slang language that the rappers used).
According to Peckham in 2011, the site first displayed advertising around 2004. Peckham explained that advertising networks connect companies to Urban Dictionary.
2004–2010: In print, merchandise, new technologies
Peckham commenced writing the first Urban Dictionary book around the start of 2004, and continued for a year and-a-half before it was complete. Urban Dictionary: Fularious Street Slang Defined was published in November 2005, when the author was 24 years old, and the book's 343 pages consists of a compilation of 2,000 entries from the site.
By 2005, 300,000 entries and 2 million definitions (multiple meanings can be assigned to individual entries) had been submitted, including slang language such as "adorkable" and "top up music". Additionally, Peckham informed journalist Kevin Amorim in December 2005 that 40,000 volunteer editors contributed to the site, which was receiving 140,000 unique visitors per day, and "emo" was the entry with the most definitions (697).
Around the time that the first Urban Dictionary book was published, Peckham was employed by Google Inc., and he continued to monitor the site during his tenure. In October 2006, Peckham submitted a "friend of the court" brief for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) freedom-of-speech lawsuit "ACLU versus [former Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales", in which the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) was successfully challenged. Peckham wrote:
Free speech and the Internet go hand in hand, because online, anyone with a computer can be heard. The Internet equalizes people like that—no matter how much money you have, or how old you are, you can connect with a huge number of people ... Urban Dictionary evolved to what it is today because people used it for their own purpose -- self-expression. My job is to support that use, and that's why I'm participating in this lawsuit.
During Peckham's time at Google, the second Urban Dictionary book, 2007's 'Mo Urban Dictionary: Ridonkulous Street Slang Defined, was published. Peckham remained at Google for two years, before deciding to manage Urban Dictionary on a full-time basis. Peckham explained in 2014: "I just wanted to work on one project that represents me."
By 2009, the site listed around 4 million entries and received about 2,000 new submissions per day. In April 2009, the site registered 15 million unique visitors, while 80 percent of its monthly users were younger than 25. In July 2009, Peckham explained to the New York Times that Urban Dictionary is the "anti-Wikipedia", and its goal of neutrality, as "Every single word on here [Urban Dictionary] is written by someone with a point of view, with a personal experience of the word in the entry." Writing for the Pasadena Weekly about the Urban Dictionary phenomenon, Kevin Uhrich asked later that month: "What is it that drives us to define everyday realities in such wildly clever but hugely offensive terms?"
Custom Urban Dictionary merchandise, including mugs, magnets and mouse pads, was introduced to the site's store in 2009. The custom products built upon the print editions and a desk calendar that was first sold around 2007.
In April 2010, Peckham stated that "1 million people visit Urban Dictionary every day, and in the last 10 years, almost 5,000,000 definitions have been sent in," in addition to revealing survey results that showed that 80% of site users were younger than 25 and two thirds were located in the U.S. By this time, a Google widget was available and users could receive Urban Dictionary results via SMS.
2011–present: Mobile, Disruptive Innovation Award, multilingual
The website was referenced in a 2011 District Court complaint by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents to document the meaning of the vulgarism "murk", as used in a criminal threat. "Hipster", with over 300 definitions at the time, was the most searched-for entry in 2011.
Over a 30-day period in March and April 2011, 67,000 people wrote 76,000 new definitions for Urban Dictionary, while 3,500 volunteer editors were registered. In an April 2011 Guardian article titled "In praise of urban dictionaries", Peckham revealed an overview of 10 rules that he had devised for the site's content: "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."
At the 2011 ROFLCon Summit, Peckham described his relationship with advertisers as "touchy", explaining that he prefers "advertisers that are more relevant to my audience". As a panel member, he also stated that, outside of Urban Dictionary, he spends most of his online time at the Hacker News site.
The first version of the official Urban Dictionary iPhone app was launched in 2012, and, at the start of the year, the site consisted of six million words and received around 25 million monthly visitors. Peckham stated in a 2012 interview with the Poynter Institute:
The part of Urban Dictionary that I love the most and that I want to protect is its personality. People write really witty definitions, and they aren’t taking it very seriously ... I feel like that’s what distinguishes Urban Dictionary from other dictionaries and Wikipedia. It’s not trying to be the authority, and it’s not trying to be without an opinion.
By 2013, Quantcast identified the site as the 77th-biggest in the U.S., with 110 million monthly page views and around 2.3 million definitions. By this time, Peckham maintained the site on his laptop computer without any venture funding or the assistance of any paid employees; although, he paid contractors for advertising and design purposes.
Peckham accepted the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards (TDIA) "Disruptive Innovation Award" in April 2013. In May 2013, numerous examples of the use of the site in court cases were known of and Rutgers law professor Greg Lastowka told the New York Times: "If it is Urban Dictionary or hire some linguistic expert to do a survey, it seems like a pretty cheap, pretty good alternative for the court." In October 2013, 8.4 million people visited the website monthly.
At the start of 2014, 32-year-old Peckham resided in San Francisco, U.S., and, while he did not reveal exact figures, he informed the media that the site was "stable and growing", and generated enough profit for both him and the site's maintenance. Peckham continued as the site's sole employee and maintained that he was not interested in venture funding or an IPO: "It is weird to be in Silicon Valley and want to be independent and not be on track to I.P.O. or want an acquisition ... But I think something special would be sacrificed if that were to happen." The site's audience at this stage was predominantly male and aged between 15 and 24.
Also in early 2014, Peckham said that he wanted to further establish the site's mobile presence. As of January 5, 2014, 50 percent of the site’s traffic was mobile, the iPhone app had been downloaded nearly three million times and, according to Peckham, the iPhone app was opened five million times in December 2013. During the same period, Peckham was continuing a dialog with translators to further expand the number of languages that the site is available in after 30 new languages were released on the site in late 2013. Although English entries were by far the most common prior to the multilingual transition, some words from languages that have been incorporated or assimilated into English-speaking societies were published, including those from Swahili, Arabic, and the Fula languages.
In the context of Urban Dictionary, "definitions" include not only literal definitions, but also descriptions. As such, "to define" a word or phrase on Urban Dictionary does not necessarily entail providing a strict definition; merely a description of some aspect of the word or phrase could suffice for inclusion in the dictionary.
Originally, Urban Dictionary was intended as a dictionary of slang, or cultural words or phrases, not typically found in standard dictionaries, but it is now used to define any word or phrase. Words or phrases on Urban Dictionary may have multiple definitions, usage examples, and tags. Some examples include, but are not limited to "Angry Hitler" or "Russian Candy Cane."
Visitors to Urban Dictionary may submit definitions without registering, but they must provide a valid email address. Before new definitions are included in the dictionary, they must be approved by volunteer editors. Editors are not given any guidelines to use when approving or rejecting definitions.
By default, each definition is automatically accepted or rejected based on the number of "Publish" or "Don't Publish" votes it receives from volunteer editors, who are members of the public. The editors are not bound by any criteria for the approval or rejection of definitions. Editors previously needed a valid email address, but it is no longer required, as three options are provided for new words: "Add It!," "Keep Out!," and "I Can't Decide." However, a Facebook or Gmail account is required to post a new definition.
Editors are distinguished by their IP address, and the site's usage of HTTP cookies limits each editor from voting on any particular definition too many times. If a definition is initially rejected, it is automatically rejected if it is resubmitted in the same form at a future time. If a definition is published, it is immediately displayed on the site. The definition can then be voted "up" or "down" by site visitors. In late 2011, the site was reviewed by about 20,000 editors on a monthly basis.
Issues with content
One objection about content is that the very name "Urban Dictionary" misleadingly implies that urbanites in different cities share a common vocabulary. A more serious objection is that definitions can be trumped up for the sole purpose of embarrassing people. This last charge is particularly concerning.
Although the explicit nature of many definitions on the site has led to objections, the site contains many non-explicit definitions. For example, the word "massive" is Jamaican in origin and is used to describe a group or collective. Peckham responded to the issue, stating that people may not be able to understand the meaning of such words without the aid of Urban Dictionary.
Since 1999 Urban Dictionary has exploded with popularity. Over one million people visit Urban Dictionary every day. Within the first ten years of Urban Dictionary’s existence, it received over five million definitions. At the start of 2014, the dictionary had over seven million definitions, while 2,000 new entries were being added daily. In November 2014, the Advertise page of the website stated that, on a monthly basis, Urban Dictionary averages 72 million impressions and 18 million unique readers. According to Peckham in January 2014, just under 40 percent of the site’s traffic is international, while the site's audience was predominantly male and aged between 15 and 24.
In the United States, some state Departments of Motor Vehicles refers to Urban Dictionary in determining if certain license plates are appropriate or not. For example, a man in Las Vegas was allowed to keep "HOE" as his license plate after managing to convince the state, with the use of Urban Dictionary, that it meant "TAHOE", as in the vehicle made by Chevrolet, since that was already taken.
IBM had programmed Watson to use Urban Dictionary. After having all the words and definitions incorporated into Watson, he began responding to researchers' questions with profanity, leading the programmers to remove it from its memory and adding an additional filter to prevent it from swearing in the future.
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- NobleWorks Cards (2013). NobleWorks Cards: Urban Dictionary All Occasions Greeting Cards. Union City,New Jersey. Retrieved 2013-03-03.