SAN FRANCISCO — Millions watched and gossiped online as Miley Cyrus “twerked” onstage at the MTV Video Music Awards in late 2013. Then, they rushed to Urban Dictionary to figure out what that was — making “twerk” one of the most-searched terms on the site all year.
That is just one of many examples of how Urban Dictionary, a crowdsourced online dictionary that lets anyone contribute words and definitions, has become the anthropologist of the Internet, taking the pulse of the Web and capturing cultural moments in real time.
The site was started in 1999 by Aaron Peckham, then a freshman at Cal Poly. Since then, it has become an archive for nearly any new term or slang word, particularly those used to describe the behavior and activities that have risen because of social media and the Web. More than 7 million definitions of words, acronyms and phrases are listed on the site, and 2,000 definitions are added daily.
The site’s audience has grown steadily, as well. In October 2013, 8.4 million people checked the website monthly, up from 6 million in November 2010, according to comScore.
Peckham says his own internal figures are higher. It has slowly crept into the collective and cultural consciousness as a default dictionary, with recent casual references by figures like Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” and the morning hosts on “Good Morning America.” It has even become a source for judges trying to figure out the latest slang.
Despite its audience and reach, Urban Dictionary is not the locus of most online activity. Words, photos and videos flood Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, giving those sites their multibillion-dollar value — or perceived value — and hype. Urban Dictionary, instead, has become the archive of all the words and phrases of this still-forming culture of social media, like “selfie,” “snapchat” and “status update.”
And that is precisely what makes Urban Dictionary’s role important, said C.W. Anderson, a professor of media culture at the City University of New York.
“The Internet is everywhere, but it has its own regional vernacular,” he said. “And those expressions move into standardized language. That process is occurring — like everything else — far more quickly. What’s different now is that it’s being transcribed and written down.”
Urban Dictionary, he said, “allows us to see that process in real time.”
“It’s something that other social and online media sites haven’t really done,” he added.
Although Urban Dictionary predates Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter and even Facebook by a few years, it does not garner the double-digit stock price and billion-dollar bids from eager buyers that are standard fare in Silicon Valley. It is a more modest business, run by Peckham, its 32-year-old founder, out of his home in San Francisco.
When Peckham has a meeting in the city, he borrows an office from friends who work at a development agency. But they have no affiliation or monetary involvement in his site or company, he said in an interview at the company’s sunny, glass-walled conference rooms.
Peckham, affable and good-natured, prides himself on his independent status, saying that he started the site because he did not like the idea that “a printed dictionary, which is updated rarely, tells you what thoughts are OK to have, what words are OK to say.”
The child of a public-school teacher and an artist, Peckham has a history of making satirical Internet sites. While he was studying computer science at Cal Poly, he created a spoof of Ask Jeeves, the search engine. It wasn’t long before he received a cease-and-desist order.
After he shut that site down, he turned his attention to a site that satirized Dictionary.com.
“At first, all the content was by me and my friends, having fun,” he said. But after he graduated, he continued to tinker with the project, named Urban Dictionary, even though he had a job at Google. That job didn’t last long though; after two years, he quit in 2008 to work on Urban Dictionary full time.
“I just wanted to work on one project that represents me,” he said. Peckham said he had not sought or accepted any venture financing for the site. The company makes money, he said, mostly from advertising and a small collection of Urban Dictionary-related products like calendars, greeting cards and books that he sells through the site.
Peckham said his company does not generate a huge amount of cash — although he declined to give specific figures — but he said it was enough to support him and the site.
“It’s stable and growing,” he said.
“It is weird to be in Silicon Valley and want to be independent and not be on track to IPO or want an acquisition,” he added. “But I think something special would be sacrificed if that were to happen.”
Anyone can add a word, no matter how vulgar or controversial, to Urban Dictionary. As a result, much of the content is R-rated. Submissions are approved and rated by volunteers and visitors to the site.
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 is rare that definitions appear that are “really racist or sexist.”
There may be differences of opinion about that. But it is part of the price of being a site that operates on the back of user-generated content.
Anderson, the media professor, said that if Urban Dictionary stayed part of the “weird Internet,” it could probably continue as it has. But if the company decides to pursue a more mainstream path, he said, “that might pose more of a problem.”
Because Urban Dictionary allows people to add multiple definitions to each entry, questionable entries include follow-ups that offer perspectives on why those words are not acceptable.
For example, the definition for a word describing people with cognitive challenges and difficulties includes the sentence, “People who choose to make fun of the mental retarded tend to be complete morons and cannot comprehend that these people have feelings and emotions just like anyone else.”
Because Urban Dictionary’s users contribute and vote on which definitions are ranked highest, Peckham says those nuances and inflections reflect an important cultural perception and context that traditional dictionaries typically do not have.
“You can see that a particular opinion isn’t welcome or popular,” Peckham said. “And understand how you will be interpreted if you use it.”
Peckham said the site’s content has not deterred major advertisers and companies from partnering with him to market their wares, movies and products to Urban Dictionary’s growing audience, which is largely male and skews toward 15- to 24-year-olds.
Urban Dictionary also reflects the fast pace of the Internet. With traditional dictionaries, it can take months or even years for new words and terms to be granted entry. That is eons in Internet time. Urban Dictionary offers an alternative space where words can be introduced and accepted in less than a day.
“People have always been inventive with language,” said Katherine Connor Martin, the head of U.S. Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, which publishes the Oxford Dictionaries and maintains the company’s own online dictionary.
“In the 19th century, if young people were using slang terms among themselves, those worlds had to become very well entrenched before anything came into popular use,” she added. “Now, if someone invents a new word on Twitter, it can go viral.”