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Laughter is complex. In real life it can be hard to tell the real from the fake. Online, it is even harder, with fewer visual cues and a wider range of tools to express laughter. As internet language develops, new forms of laughter spread like a cold in a classroom. This is a three-part series that takes a closer look at the usage, evolution, and perception of the digital laugh.

Pick a laugh. Not familiar? Skip it!

  • Unamused, not smiling; perhaps even feeling spiteful.
  • Neutral. Used as filler or to be nice. No physical response.
  • A single breath of air exits the mouth, a possible smile forms.
  • Visibly amused. Puffs of air released, slight body gyration.
  • Laughing so much that breathing is hard; actually rofl-ing.
Usage share of the top 20 laughs since 2009

Lol is increasingly used for more than “laughing out loud.” According to McCulloch, it can soften confrontation, request sympathy, or add subtle layers of meaning. You might find it unfair to compare lol to “real” laughter, but as Mculloch points out, in some ways, lol hasn’t changed its meaning so very far from its roots in laughter. Sure, sometimes we laugh at a direct joke, something we can point at and say, ‘That’s funny.’ But there’s also nervous laughter, social laughter, and polite smiles.

Lol’s transformation is less like a shift and more like an evolution. Squirtle became Blastoise. A butter knife became a Swiss Army knife. Dancing 90’s J Lo became triple-threat J Lo? J Lol.

2019 usage share of laughs by category on Reddit

  • lol
  • ha
  • acronym
  • other
  • text

Note: Many laugh labels represent a collection of variations of a laugh we discovered programmatically. For example, "lool" includes matches on multiple "o"s. Show details.

Anyone who spends time on the internet should not be surprised by lol’s dominance. In her book Because Internet, linguist Gretchen McCulloch explains that ...while lol started out indicating laughter, it quickly became aspirational, a way of showing your appreciation of a joke or defusing a slightly awkward situation even if you didn’t technically laugh at it.

When a term that literally means laughing out loud isn’t necessarily used for laughter anymore, it becomes difficult to parse its meaning.

But the nuances are more intricate than just meaning. Two other huge factors of the intended effect are length (e.g., ha vs. hahaha), and capitalization (e.g., lol vs. LOL). When McCulloch conducted a survey in 2017, she found that the youngest group [of survey participants] flat-out rejected the idea of capitalizing lol or using it to indicate real laughter, even when expanded to LOLOLOL, and instead preferred the meanings of amusement, irony, and even passive aggression.

So many variables at play! In this next chart you can go deeper to see not only the market share of each laugh, but the ratio of lower to uppercase usage.

Usage share of laughs by category and lower/uppercase

  • 50%lowercase
  • Uppercase50%

Zoom Level

This story was published in October 2019. Questions or comments?

We used BigQuery to process every Reddit comment since 2009. This isn’t a comprehensive survey of every single laugh, but darn close. We analyzed way more laughs than displayed but only include results with 0.01% or greater share of laughs. We accounted for all sorts of laughter misspellings and variations with some handy regex patterns. Sadly, this does not include emojis which are certainly a big player in today’s laugh arsenal. We also didn’t include true keyboard smashing, a favorite with the kids. Punctuation was ignored so we didn’t examine exclamation points as a laugh enhancer.