Howdy, there's no Sheriff of Laughter 💀

"I'm ded", "I'm being attacked", and other metaphors like "💀" are not a replacement for tears of joy but an escalation to connect with others.

I’m a laugh-er. I come from a family of laugh-ers and joke tellers and there's nothing that energizes me more than going to Grandma's house, eating a big dinner with my family and laughing our heads off. I'm a big laugh-er in both meatspace and via chat. My laugh isn't particularly dignified — I sound a bit witch-like and these days I find myself snorting (SNORTING!) watching teevee. Fortunately (?) few people have to suffer through my open-mouthed vulgar guffaws because most of my communications are text based now. I throw in a tee-hee. haha. hahahahahha. alkdjflakjdflakjsflkasldfasldkfjalskdfas. lololololololol. lol on occasion. The classic, 😂 and it’s louder counterpart, 🤣. For those moments when I'm feeling a particular meme or video very deeply, 💀. All of these are valid — I throw them in instinctively, uncontrollably.

Despite a number of ways to express laughter online there appears to be some laughs that are more common than others: two of the top five most frequently used emoji are about laughing: Tears of Joy (😂) and Rolling On The Floor Laughing (🤣) and they represent 13% of ALL emoji use 🤯. (It doesn't hurt that Rolling On The Floor Laughing (🤣) sits next to Tears of Joy on your keyboard 😉)

As for the other "haha” emoji? Well, since they are less emblematic of the concept of laughter they are less frequently used. Each has their very own specific purpose, falling on a spectrum from “teehee" to “Im ded”

  • Nervous but keeping it positive (😅)

  • jkjkjkjkjk 😜

  • Light chuckles* 🤭

  • Light haha vibes (😆)

  • I feel so attacked (💀)

  • etc.

*For the majority of mobile phone users, this emoji has “smiling eyes” with the exception of iOS. A new emoji is getting added to resolve this mismatch.

Tears of Joy (😂) is an interesting emoji because it captures all the belly laughs, muffled chuckles, hee-haws, snorts, uncontrollable giggles, nervous tittering, evil cackles, getting shook, and so much more. Tears of Joy is iconic of the concept of laughter not representative of any specific kind. With the added benefit that emoji can be constructed like lego blocks to elaborate hilarity (😂 is ha, 😂😂😂😂😂 is more like hahahahahaha) laughter online is as diverse as we are.

As far as your brain is concerned, emoticons straddle both verbal and non-verbal communication. Tiktok, Zoom, Skype … no video based chat app has released emoji data but it shouldn’t surprise us that as digital spaces evolve to include more verbal and visual signals how we relate to each other changes to suit the context. Though we go through life mostly unaware of it, humans mimic each other’s expressions when talking in person. Similarly, we tend to use the same emoji as our friends. These emotional contagions are a big part of how we show empathy and build relationships.

Keyboards are organized in a manner that illustrates a spectrum of emotion. Google's Android keyboard organizes emoji horizontally with increasing intensity. Apple’s iOS keyboard organizes emoji vertically.

These days, emoji are everywhere there is a blinking cursor. This means they have long eclipsed the preconceived notion they are primarily for messaging like, "happy birthday 🎂🎉🎈🎊!!!” Emoji can be used in number of ways …

  • Biographically (in twitter bios)

  • As memes (are✍️you✍️ writing ✍️ this✍️down✍️?)

  • In comments

  • As slang (🥺👉👈)

  • As shortcuts (I add a “🐢” emoji next to my closest friends’ names on my phone)

  • As URLS

  • As reactions (quick acknowledgement without getting sucked into a conversation)

  • As Art

  • And more ….

What’s so funny?

Laughter is inherently social. In some ways that explains the year after year after year dominance of Tears of Joy (😂). One out of ten emoji shared is 😂 and nothing else is remotely close. Laughter isn’t just something we do to fill the silence — I know this sounds heavy for an emoji newsletter but bare with me — laughter is important to our survival. Wait wait wait before you close this tab hear me out. We start laughing before we learn to talk. It indicates a signal of intent to connect with others and is deeply social. It communicates, “we chill”, “I get you”, or on a primal level, “I am not a threat”. People from all cultures laugh, although we may laugh at different things. (I’m sorry, Borat just doesn’t do it for me). Hell, even animals laugh. If this was a New York Times Styles piece we’d be calling laughter a “global phenomenon” lmao

lmao. Who’s laughing? Why do we continue to type “lol” or “😂” even though we both know no one is laughing? “lol” has grown up. It is a pragmatic particle, a marker of empathy and accommodation. Words emoji, punctuation … they all adapt to serve our needs. Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch writes in her book Because Internet, “lol indicates a second layer of meaning to be found telling the recipient to look beyond the literal words you are saying.”

(Above) Language evolves. This 2018 chart illustrates demographic shifts in indicating laughter-types online.

At some point “lol” transformed into “lmao”, then “rofl” then “roflcopter” … each one more ridic than the last. Like an arms race to prove how empathetic, accommodating, and un-threatening we are. As we bunker down in our homes during a pandemic it comes as no surprise that in this battle for attention online we find the previously pragmatic “😂” isn’t doing the job. These days when we identify with something online we don’t just “like” it. We say, “I feel so attacked”.

The recent sound bite, “Tears of joy is not cool anymore” captured the imagination (and ire) of many over 30 who were horrified to learn they may be “showing their age” if they dare to convey laughter with “😂” instead of “💀” . But, fear not. “💀" is not a replacement for tears of joy, it's an escalation. While I’m akksmcnajjxjajjdksjjdj-ing my way into my late-thirties, folks on tiktok have coined a new keyboard smash. We’re “💀💀💀”ing in a deeper and dramatic way that today's very online experience demands.

Language emerges from human minds interacting with one another. It’s visible in the unstoppable change we see through jargon and the formation of new slang particularly online. Will we still be using “💀” two years from now or will it embody the same dated vibes of “Gag me with a spoon” from the ‘80’s? What I love about writing this newsletter is that it forces me to zoom out of my tiny world and see how we’re in the middle of the story, not at the beginning, not at the end.