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My Taboos, Your Taboos

Why we don’t talk about them, but probably should

To archive the internet is a Sisyphean task: To do so would take near infinite amounts of time, energy, and server space. To do it accurately and ethically would be even more difficult; as the barrage of hate speech and online trolls only grows with each day, it’s also worth asking if saving the web for future generations is worth it. Still, people try. The Internet Archive, for example, has accumulated over 45 Petabytes of information since 1996 (a Petabyte contains a million Gigabytes). A registered non-profit, they preserve around 22 billion public URLs each year. Others take a more grassroots approach: When SoundCloud’s finances took a turn for the dire in late 2017 and it was rumored that the music-sharing platform was on the verge of shuttering without warning, a Reddit user claimed that he had downloaded every track listed on the site—a whopping 900 Terabytes, or around 128.5 million three-and-a-half minute songs.


For others, though, archiving the internet is a task best structured around categorizing and cataloging the internet as a sociological endeavor, and it makes sense: Part of the appeal of the internet’s digital democracy is that user-generated content is published and shared in ways that offer a broader reach for ideas and stories that previously would have been lost. Sites like Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary act as free resource centers for people looking to broaden their knowledge, as well as people hoping to contribute to the rapid swaths of information accessible online. Indeed, some people believe that documenting the way that the internet has renewed, reordered, and redesigned how we interact would offer a better picture of the way that digital spaces have changed our lives.

This includes a group of researchers from The Alan Turing Institute, who released what they claim is the first study of Urban Dictionary last May in the Royal Society’s Open Science journal. It offered a glimpse into the inner workings of the decentralized dictionary website on which users can both submit words alongside their definitions as well as vote on the accuracy of existing definitions. Questions of past, present, and future internet subcultures rose to the surface—the trends this study mapped could presumably be used to reverse engineer how our linguistic idiosyncrasies came to be, or point to trends to watch in the future. Key discoveries? “Love”, “God”, and “Emo” were the three terms with the most user-generated definitions, and Urban Dictionary is peppered with words that are meant for what the researchers deemed were informal contexts. Key blind spots? Race.

“According to Quantcast, it is the 25th-biggest site in the United States, and had 130 million global views over the last month,” writer Clio Chang noted in a 2017 article for The New Republic, before adding: “Urban Dictionary is also really, really racist”.

Chang continues, citing the overwhelming number of racist imagery and tropes that litter the pages of Black celebrities (Serena Williams, Michelle Obama, and Rihanna included) as well as the reluctance of Urban Dictionary founder Aaron Peckham to address the platform his site offers for racist and sexist posts. It’s a point that Kimberly Lawson picked up too. Writing for Broadly, she pointed out the real-world implications of Urban Dictionary’s prominence:

It's so popular, it's been used in court cases—including one in Tennessee in which a court Urban Dictionary's definition of "to nut" as meaning "to ejaculate," thus supporting grounds for a sexual harassment claim—and utilized by the Department of Motor Vehicles and by the US Patent and Trademark Office to look up the meanings of various slang terms.

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It’s these slang terms like these that drew people to Urban Dictionary in the first place. The website thrived in the salad days of the internet. It was a makeshift translator for those crossing cultural or social boundaries—it offered a repository for terms and their meanings without ratification from gatekeepers who controlled most dictionaries. Moreover, it was a priceless opportunity to legitimate words from non-dominant forms of English, especially African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Words from Black communities traveled through music, radio, and television before ending up on Urban Dictionary, and Urban Dictionary thrived as the middleman peddling definitions of AAVE phrases. It has since written them out of history.

Popular slang terms from “woke” to “lit” to “tea” share two characteristics in common. The first is that they’re often described as “internet speak”—the kind of slang proliferated across Twitter and Instagram, and popularized by younger users slipping in and out of a lexicon that alienates older generations. Additionally, they all have deep, deep roots in AAVE.

When discussing archives of the internet, it would be disingenuous to say that Black communities generate popular slang, because these words are more borrowed than lent. Take the use of “yas” as a colloquial affirmative: While some credit television show “Broad City” and others cite Lady Gaga, the word was lifted from the context of queer ballroom culture of the 80s and 90s, spaces predominantly made by and for people of Black and minority ethnic heritage. Words like “woke”, “lit”, “tea”, and “yas” have been folded into the mainstream vocabulary by an audience that is far younger, whiter, and more online than the communities from which these words came. It’s far from a new mode of cultural appropriation: In a piece on how Black creators are the architects behind the biggest digital trends, cultural critic Hannah Giorgis wrote, “Black cultural production – from art to music to dance – has always set trends and predicted the nation’s creative landscape, regardless of medium”.

It’s worth noting that these markers of Black cool–the phrases born from AAVE, the viral dances, the reaction images and GIFs–are the same cultural signifiers that have been used to bar Black people from accessing resources and material gains. Discussions of cultural appropriation are often tired and repetitive simply because they’ve taken place over a full decade at the least, but it is important to note how the study conducted by The Alan Turing Institute replicates the systematic policing of language along racial axes. While “words not found to be appropriate in formal settings” could refer to obscenities and words that are vulgar or casual in nature, it’s also impossible to determine whether or not this references words that are from non-dominant forms of English such as AAVE without studying and recording the history of internet linguistics without addressing race and Blackness.

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Doreen St. Felix:

“Black teens’ internet production becomes a means for communication and entertainment. Their names as creators are harder to find”

It’s not a victimless crime, either: As late-stage capitalism pushes for a convergence of corporate branding and individual cool, brands replicate the decontextualization of AAVE terms and cultural movements for material gains—for example,“It’s Lit”, a presentation developed by Google to help brands reach teens. There’s perhaps no better demonstration of this than the life and times of “On Fleek”. Coined by South Chicago’s Peaches Monroee, the phrase was inescapable from 2014 through late 2015. It started off innocently enough: Peaches, then sixteen years old, filmed a quick clip from her mother’s car in which she ran her nails over her eyebrows, admiring them as she said, “Eyebrows on fleek, da fuck. She then shared it with her modest following on Vine, a now-defunct app for posting and reposting 6-second video clips.

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Within months, American restaurant chains were tweeting the phrase back and forth, celebrities were posting their own takes, and talking heads bandied it about on television. It even spread to the tech industry: Fashion retailer and startup success story Zalando announced they were going to launch an app to sell clothes at the start of 2016. Its name? Fleek.

For Peaches Monroee, her virality was doled out in a currency that banks don’t accept. Speaking to Doreen St. Felix for The Fader, she said:

I gave the world a word. I can’t explain the feeling. At the moment I haven’t gotten any endorsements or received any payment. I feel that I should be compensated. But I also feel that good things happen to those who wait.

A few years later, Peaches hoped to cash in on her fame: She announced she was raising money to cover the overheads to start her own beauty business. She’d already given the world one of its most coveted buzzwords; it was time for the world to pay its dues. But like many Black people before her, she was forgotten as quickly as she came to fame. Despite multimillion-dollar corporations using “fleek” in their marketing campaigns, her crowdsourcing efforts fell over $83,000 short of its goal. Disappointing? Sure. Surprising? Not so much—as St. Felix wrote in 2015, “Black teens’ internet production becomes a means for communication and entertainment. Their names as creators are harder to find”.

Nathan Ma