Against LOLflation

Online language is evolving to leave a new generation of older users behind

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From our February 2024 issue

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Between the deranged cancellations still roiling online life the Muskification of Twitter, and the undead nature of the Donald Trump-attention economy, there is no shortage of legitimate matters to depress someone like me who cohosts a podcast about internet bullshit. And yet for some reason, I’m fixated on an insignificant issue: LOLflation.

The majority of you know what “LOL” stands for: “laughing out loud.” What it’s supposed to mean, when communicated via text or direct message or (less often) email, is: you just wrote something funny enough that I physically laughed. This is touching not just…

Between the deranged cancellations still roiling online life the Muskification of Twitter, and the undead nature of the Donald Trump-attention economy, there is no shortage of legitimate matters to depress someone like me who cohosts a podcast about internet bullshit. And yet for some reason, I’m fixated on an insignificant issue: LOLflation.

The majority of you know what “LOL” stands for: “laughing out loud.” What it’s supposed to mean, when communicated via text or direct message or (less often) email, is: you just wrote something funny enough that I physically laughed. This is touching not just because it’s flattering to make someone laugh, but because it temporarily breaks the spell of the online world. Your interlocutor is no longer staring at a screen or tapping away at a phone; instead your utterance has sparked a somatic reaction, and a rather ancient and enjoyable one at that. LOL is intensely human. If a million parallel-universe iterations of homo sapiens developed a million unique versions of the internet, zero of them would be without LOL or some other concise way to signal IRL laughter.

But in our own fallen universe, we’re experiencing LOLflation. Or maybe I should call it lolflation, given how much more common the lowercase variant is these days. Seemingly every other text message is punctuated with “lol.” Over and over and over. I’ve seen how twenty-somethings look when they’re staring at their phones; no one is laughing that much.

While I certainly don’t complain to the large and growing number of people I text with who have become rather promiscuous with the lols, it really does bother me. I feel like something important has been taken away.

More specifically: every other text message sent within certain age brackets is punctuated with “lol.” This is mostly a generational thing. I asked someone who is about eight years younger, whose text messages are peppered with lols, about this. Or rather I made a rare exception and called her out: there’s no way you’re “laughing out loud” when I send those texts. She more or less shrugged and acknowledged that lol simply doesn’t mean “laughing out loud” in her world. I asked her to text some of her other friends to see if, as I suspected, they felt the same way.

A thirty-six-year-old friend of hers replied: “I think haha is when something is funny. LOL just becomes part of regular text lingo, it’s like a reflex.”

This guy is a mere four or so years younger than me, and he’s speaking an entirely different language. When I was coming up, “haha” could not have been a less encouraging four letters to be on the receiving end of — “Haha” was when your friend made a bad joke and you didn’t want to leave him hanging entirely, so you had to respond somehow. Or — and let’s be honest, since I was on this side of the equation much more often — “haha” was what a girl sent you when she wasn’t interested. “Haha” marked the death knell of many online correspondences.

And now “haha” is, well, something like “lol”? I couldn’t help feeling like Abe Simpson delivering his famous rant to a teenage Homer: “I used to be with ‘it,’ but then they changed what ‘it’ was! Now what I’m with isn’t ‘it,’ and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary to me.” He points menacingly at Homer: “It’ll happen to you!” Of course, it will. I’m forty now, which according to the Surgeon General puts me in the high-risk age bracket for yelling at clouds, and “haha” is Nelson Muntz passing by.

“The websites I used to depend on have gotten worse, and it seems as if there’s nowhere else to look,” writes Max Read, a former colleague of mine who is about my age, in a smart New York Times column about “The Year Millennials Aged Out of the Internet.” “Twitter has been transformed under new management into an increasingly untenable social experiment called X. Instagram is evolving into a somehow-even-lower-rent TikTok, while TikTok itself continues to baffle and alienate me. Even Reddit, a stalwart last resort of time wasting, briefly went dark in June during a sitewide revolt over new policies.”

“There was a time in my life when it was trivial to sign up to a new social network and pick up its patterns and mores on the fly,” writes Read. “Now, I feel exhausted by the prospect.” That’s how I feel about lolflation and what it represents.

Like Read, I was an OG elementary-school and teenage internet user. The screeching wail of a dial-up modem is burned into my brain, and there’s still a trace of a Pavlovian flicker: I’m about to have access to informationBack then, we were not drunk on information the way we are at present. It was actually remarkable, as hard it might be for a twenty-five-year-old reading this to understand, that we could tap a few keys on our keyboard and check how the Celtics did last night. That we could talk to “girls” (read: fifty-something male perverts) across the country in California via AOL.

Yes, as soon as there was online there were masks and costumes. That was part of it. But many of us born in the early-to-mid-1980s also had formative online experiences devoid of the extra layer of irony and posing that now saturates everything. My AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) handle was madcat457, but when I was chatting with my friends — the preferred way of staying in touch after school in the era before cell phones — I really was myself. I still have some of the chat logs. My friends and I made the same jokes we would always make; we were awkward teenagers, so we came across as awkward teenagers.

“LOL” was an important part of that. These online spaces were, in retrospect, adorably earnest relative to what we’ve got going on now, and making your friends laugh meant something, because it always does, and doubly or trebly so when you’re lacking in other social skills. I don’t like getting old, but I am very, very thankful the social media boom didn’t hit until I was in college. I can’t imagine being twelve and being online all the time; it’s bad enough being forty and being online all the time.

So there’s an argument that if I don’t want to be the old man yelling at a cloud, I should just let LOL go. But there’s a stubborn, rapidly aging part of me that doesn’t want to. I want online utterances to be as meaningful as real-life ones, even though that ship sailed many years ago, even though we’re now so deep down the rabbit hole of parasocial online weirdness that we can see minds warping right before our eyes.

A lot of that warping has to do with irony. Here it isn’t just an age thing. I know plenty of people my age who are exceptionally online and who appear to have been completely sapped of the ability to communicate earnestly with others. Everyone’s got a personal brand, and in many modern online subcultures nothing is more poisonous to those brands than the impression of caring deeply about anything.

That’s where LOL comes back in: those three letters aren’t just thrown around willy-nilly by zoomers who don’t know any better; the other culprits are super-online types for whom there’s something threatening about actually acknowledging enjoyment. Adulterating LOL, and endlessly dishing it out, serves the same basic function as a teenager’s “whatever” in response to every query.

It’s — sigh, I really am getting old — immature. And it would be nice to think we could hold onto some small part of the internet that’s a bit, well, older-school. But it feels like all of that is getting washed away faster than I can forward an emailed joke from my uncle to a bunch of my high school friends.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2024 World edition.

Jesse Singal is a Spectator columnist.

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