10 Questions with Urban Dictionary's Aaron Peckham

Urban DictionaryOne of the most useful sites on the Web is Aaron Peckham’s “Urban Dictionary.” If you’re anywhere near my age, you need the site in order to keep up with the increasingly broad and colorful language of the street in the U.S. Like all generations, the current one distorts language in order to make a statement. “Groovy” kind of defined my generation, but today’s seems to be dominated by acronyms like LOL, LMAO and OMG, among many, many others.

Urban Dictionary has become an icon of the Internet generation, deciphering for us everything from those acronyms to the language of rap music and beyond. The dictionary’s founder, Aaron Peckham, never imagined it would take off the way it has, and now finds himself in the job of a lifetime. He’s a fun guy, as you’d imagine from the structure and content of Urban Dictionary, and he recently took the time to answer our 10 questions.

Aaron Peckham1. What was the original reason you began the Urban Dictionary and has that been fulfilled in the last 11 years? It must be the source of a great deal of personal pride for you.

I started the site in 1999 as a parody of dictionary.com. I had just started college, and I thought it would be fun if my friends and I were the ones who wrote the dictionary. I also felt that people take the dictionary too seriously! In some ways, Urban Dictionary is the opposite of a regular dictionary — the definitions are opinionated, not researched, and sometimes even misspelled. But it can be useful and often hilarious.

Since 1999, the site has exploded — 1 million people visit Urban Dictionary every day, and in the last 10 years almost 5,000,000 definitions have been sent in. The vast majority of those definitions were written by people I’ve never met, and many are opinionated and witty.

For a single word there can be many definitions, each written by a different author. The definitions are ordered by popularity. When you’re on the site, click “thumbs up” when you like a definition and “thumbs down” when you hate it. You can read a lot of varying opinions about a particular word, and see how popular they are.

I never thought Urban Dictionary would be as big as it is today. It has a life of its own — people took the opportunity to write their own definitions, and ran with it. Sometimes it feels like the site has its own personality. Fortunately, it’s one that I can get along with.

2. Have people who use the Web, in fact, created their own language?

I think technology and the Internet has accelerated the evolution of language. Communication is so immediate now, and a word or a meme started by a single person can reach the whole world in a very short amount of time. On Urban Dictionary, 2000 definitions are submitted each day, and many are published on the site within 24 hours. I don’t think it’s a separate language, but the Internet has definitely sped up the changes in English.

3. What does your research say and what do people say to you about why they use the Urban Dictionary?

Lots of people use Urban Dictionary for entertainment. There are many really funny definitions on the site — and they are not necessarily slang. You can easily find funny commentary on, for example, the neighborhood you live in, the car you drive, or your favorite sport. You can also learn a new word that describes your relationship or employment status (maybe you are “funemployed”). The most popular words describe things that we all recognize — like “stealth abs”, when your ripped sixpack is covered by a thick layer of fat. Maybe giving a name to something we all recognize helps us feel like we have more in common.

I didn’t expect it would be such a useful tool for other audiences — teachers, people learning English as a second language, parents and even judges and police investigators have found Urban Dictionary useful. In one of the site’s first appearances in the news, a judge in the United Kingdom used it to understand what two rappers were saying to each other.

4. In some ways, your product is more relevant than traditional dictionaries. What’s your relationship with them like?

The history of normal printed dictionaries shares a lot in common with Urban Dictionary. It’s fascinating to read about how the industry has developed over time. I’ve heard that people who work at normal dictionaries sometimes read Urban Dictionary — but I don’t know if that’s for entertainment or research. I don’t have any formal relationship with traditional dictionaries but I enjoy learning how they work.

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5. I find your product so necessary that I use the widget on my Google home page. I don’t see how anybody my age can keep up without it. Do you hear that a lot?

Yes, in fact, I’m one of the people who depends on Urban Dictionary to decipher what’s going on. I’m now several years older than the average age of Urban Dictionary users! Based on a recent survey, 80% of them are younger than 25 years old, and two thirds of them are in the United States.

6. Besides Google, how else is your product unbundled? Do you have future plans for delivery to other types of devices?

The newest way to get Urban Dictionary definitions is via SMS — from your phone, send a text message to (209) 87-URBAN. The robot will respond with the most popular definition of whatever word you sent it. Smartphone users can visit iphone.urbandictionary.com.

Every day Urban Dictionary publishes one of its best definitions as the word of the day. That’s distributed via twitter, e-mail, Facebook, and RSS, and posted on the front page of the site.

Urban Dictionary is also available in print. We’ve published three books, and for the past few years we’ve been publishing an Urban Dictionary desk calendar with one definition every day. Last year we started selling custom merchandise, so you can get any definition printed on a mug, magnet, mouse pad or T-shirt. This year we are experimenting with other merchandise — the newest is temporary tattoos. My favorite is the “tattoo remorse” temporary tattoo.

We are always looking for new ways to get Urban Dictionary’s content out there!

7. I imagine some people have difficulty with the salacious nature of some of the content. What are your feelings about that? Do you find yourself having to defend that often?

We have definitely received e-mails from people asking us to remove definitions of common offensive words. But removing an offensive word from Urban Dictionary doesn’t remove it from the world’s vocabulary — and when somebody uses that word in the real world, we want its definition to be available in Urban Dictionary.

In the early years of Urban Dictionary we tried to keep certain words out. But it was impossible — authors would re-upload definitions, or upload definitions with alternate spellings. Today, I don’t think it’s the right thing to try to remove offensive words — but even if I did think it was the right thing to do, it would be incredibly difficult to do in practice.

But that doesn’t mean the definitions are not reviewed. All definitions submitted to Urban Dictionary are reviewed by volunteers. They read new definitions and decide whether to publish them. They do an excellent job of filtering out personal attacks and mundane entries.

8. Do you and your team ever have the opportunity to sit back and marvel at the nature of change in our culture today? You are right at the edge of at least some of it, and I’d like to get your thoughts. Are you the black hats helping to destroy everything, or are your hats white, representing the good guys leading the way?

To tell the truth, I don’t have a lot of deep thoughts about society and how it’s changing. I spend most of my time developing the site, interacting with site visitors, and trying to keep up with the volume of new definitions and the demand to read them. On Urban Dictionary we are collecting a large amount of information about how we communicate today, and I hope that’s useful both in the present, to help people interact with each other, and in the future for researchers or historians. Years from now when pop music is known as “oldies”, we will need Urban Dictionary to remember what musicians were talking about.

Regarding the color of my hat, I’m not trying to destroy everything. Urban Dictionary is just driven by a belief in free speech, the hilarity of normal English speakers, a lack of reverence towards dictionaries, and a distaste for impersonal business euphemisms. And speaking of hats, let me plug the embroidered Urban Dictionary hat, which looks pretty fresh.

9. Now take out your crystal ball. What’s the future for the Urban Dictionary? What are your plans?

Urban Dictionary continues to grow, so one thing is to make sure users can always find definitions that are entertaining and relevant. We will also focus on making Urban Dictionary’s content available in more places. Just those two things should keep us busy for another 10 years!

10. Lastly, and using that crystal ball, tell me where the Urban Dictionary fits in where we’re all headed, as a part of this marvel known as the World Wide Web. What is your view of tomorrow?

According to my crystal ball, in 10 years, we’ll all have Babel fish chips in our ears that use Urban Dictionary to immediately translate what other people say into what we can understand. I don’t think our language is going to stop changing, so this must be the only way we can keep up. Spoken conversations will be indexed — and monetized — by Google.

But more likely, we’ll just be getting smarter phones and mobile devices. Technology allows more and more people to express themselves — I hope that continues, so we can all enjoy the wit and wisdom of the masses, no matter what language they’re speaking.

Originally posted in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel newsletter)

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