If you can believe it, many school-age children today were born after OMG, LOL, IDK were added to the dictionary.
We’ve come a long way since SMS language, or textspeak, was dawned as a form of communication via text and instant messaging. Textspeak was a solution in the Stone Age of flip phones when keys had multiple letters on them and texts were limited to a certain number of characters. The shorthand of SMS language has since established its permanence in modern language despite the evolution of full keypads and voice memos used on mobile devices today.
As with instant messaging, our use of the internet has fully transformed over the last two decades thanks to the robust digital interaction that social media has to offer. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and now TikTok are certifiable in their influence over today’s communication. Users’ grievances about these platforms and their functions are many, however the issue of censorship has more recently come to the forefront of these concerns for the masses on social media.
Aside from the countless fiery stances the issue has brought about, social media censorship has made an unexpected impression on today’s language. Whereas text speak emerged as a solution to the space and time constraints created by the first cellphones, algorithmic technology’s targeted constraints on written expression have created a new language: censorship slang or censorspeak.
Any well-versed social media user today has somewhat of a grasp on social media platforms’ algorithms and site moderation. As careers in social media multiply at an astronomical rate, social media literacy for businesses, brands and public figures is now becoming a standard skill for users who wish to reach a greater audience. While laypeople may not fully comprehend the complex metrics behind these algorithms, it can quickly be understood by most social media users that there are certain practices to follow, permitted by this technology, that will earn posts more views and engagement. That’s why we hashtag, share and tag our friends when we want to feel famous.
On the flip side of this, algorithms also have the capacity to cast out content from their platforms. It’s been revealed that many site platforms’ content suppression practices are surprisingly dark, ranging from sites censoring racial justice activists’ posts and LGBTQ+ hashtags to blocking content from users who are deemed ugly, poor and disabled by moderators. Biased design of algorithms has led social media users to not only be careful about the imaging in their photos and videos, but also the written messages in their posts. Be their motives oppressive or otherwise unknown, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok algorithms have proven to deem certain words and phrases as no-no’s.
Instead of giving up entirely on these words and phrases in response to algorithmic censorship, ever-ingenious Gen Z and Millennials have forged a new vocabulary of slang terms that are meant to be undetectable by technology. The solutions to this type of suppression often relies on misspelling, initialism and, with ironic nods to forbidden phrases, malapropism or cheeky misuse of words.
Examples of Censorspeak
As mentioned, users’ discussions about race relations or racial injustice on social media platforms have been blocked due to community guidelines regarding hate speech. In response, many users of color have transformed their use of the phrase “white people” into “yt people” or “yt pipo” (also: “yt folx”). The clever abbreviation calls on the reader to sound out the letters to reveal a semi-hidden meaning. Community guidelines regarding drug use have similarly pushed marijuana users to talk about smoking “ouid” (weed) and harder partiers to refer to their use of “xtc” (ecstasy). Single emojis have also been used as censorspeak for certain drugs, with “🍃” also meaning ganja and “❄️” used by avid Narcos viewers.
Despite rocketing many adult content creators to successful follow counts, TikTok has a particularly punitive history with its users who are sex workers. These creators have had their content removed and accounts banned despite their posts being nonsexual in nature for violating community guidelines about sex (“seggs”). Verified creators have experienced unexpected bans that leave them without access to the money earned on their pages. Many believe the reason for this is these workers’ linking their OnlyFans pages, which houses their adult content behind a thoroughly-vetted 18+ paywall, in their social media bios. Even a third-party referral link like LinkTree, which essentially puts several clicks between a platform and OnlyFans, has been enough to shut down users’ pages. This eagle-eyed moderation of creators’ content has also led sex workers to adopt censored slang to protect their digital livelihood.
Sex workers took over a viral trend by calling themselves as “accountants“ to conceal their line of work. What began as a joke has enabled adult content creators to discuss their jobs and lifestyle using codewords. To further dodge algorithmic problems, “sex work” or “sex worker” is widely shortened to “SW” by creators who upload adult videos to “OF” (OnlyFans). The X-rated videos some SW’s post to OF are also ironically called “corn,” or simply “🌽,” as a play on the word for its true meaning.
Online discourse on mental health, a topic that is increasingly important to Gen Z, has also been impeded by algorithmic intervention. Platforms have removed users’ posts hosting honest discussion or helpful mental health resources for going against self harm and violence guidelines. In response, any written iteration of death (or kill) is widely being replaced by “unalive.” The new slang term is especially used to replace mention of suicide, or more crudely, “sewerslide.”
In the realm of discussing personal trauma online, #SA presently has 2.8 billion views on TikTok. The shortened version of “sexual assault” frequently accompanies social media users’ stories of abuse (although not all videos under the SA hashtag are about assault). In addition to posts about users’ personal experiences, the devastating sexual misconduct allegations that continue to plague influencers on TikTok and YouTube often spark responses from fans and viewers that includes sensitive words and phrases. Perhaps due to the disheartening prevalence of sexual abuse, “SA” seems to have integrated itself into internet culture’s lexicon in the way “DM” is now a pillar of internet shorthand.
By themselves, the many aforementioned examples of censorship slang represent the broad range of online communities that make up modern internet culture. Trending slang or new viral phrases offer insight into those smaller circles when examined alone. However, young internet users’ sprawling access to a variety of topics has widely familiarized folks with the many confines technology places on different content. This has forged a censorship slang literacy among Gen Z and Millennials that ultimately makes the following sentence one you could feasibly read (and understand) on your feed: My SW friend made corn with a yt man before he unalived himself.
The Future of Censored Slang
Incorporating censored slang into ones’ online vocabulary may be more obligatory than trendy. Whereas a post containing sensitive language getting removed could cause frustration for the average social media user, a suppressed post or video could mean loss of income for many creators. YouTube commentary channels, for example, often have had their hands forced by the platform to censor videos to the point of viewer confusion to avoid getting their videos taken down or demonetized.
While creators often suffer money loss as a consequence of content suppression, making a profit more than ever appears to be social media companies’ overarching intention with its users. Platforms themselves stand to gain money from viral content, even if it’s harmful or dangerous. With recent reports that Facebook takes action against only 3 to 5 percent of hate speech on the platform, the framework of community guidelines to promote user safety feels deceptive to those unreasonably punished by content moderation.
It’s also worth noting that not all censorship slang is used out of contempt for algorithmic or moderator intervention; some censored slang terms are used out of consideration for ones’ peers and followers. Particularly in the mental health community, adding a trigger warning, or “TW,” to content is just the first step in keeping posts safe for all to view. Because promoting good mental health is of the utmost importance to Gen Z, many users enforce censorspeak at will to avoid triggering others. Alongside “SA,” mention of rape becomes “r-word” or “r@p3” and sexual activity with minors is reduced to “p-word.” While this helps dodge content suppression, it’s also a more gentle way for people to publicly share their stories. It’s quite possible that teens today may first learn about tough subjects through content with this augmented language, solidifying the implications of censorspeak beyond more than fleeting trends.
As is with other trending phrases on the internet, censorspeak has quickly been adopted in the vocabularies of many young people simply for being popular. Slang’s popularity shouldn’t dismiss its value, though, as Linguistics Professor D.W. Maurer explains that if the speaker of a slang term is part of a group which finds that the term projects an emotional reaction of its members toward an idea or social institution, the expression “will gain currency according to the unanimity of attitude within the group.” In other words, social media users’ shared contempt for the platforms on which they thrive rockets these expressions to widespread, sometimes ironic, use.
According to Maurer, slang’s flavor is characteristically irreverent and a witty form of social criticism. Internet culture isn’t the first culture, nor will it be the last, to respond to structural pressures with humor and creative deviations of language. Censored slang allows the new generation to speak mostly freely on the sites that dictate the digital social climate, often about the platforms themselves.