Sometime around 2015, I started ending most of my text messages with "lol."
Since it's almost 2020, it's time to ask myself why I haven't been able to stop.
In reflecting on my reliance on "lol," I've traced its roots to my lifelong sense of insecurity and social anxiety. This wasn't created by the Internet—I spent a lot of time in my pre-social media youth (and too much of my adult life) worrying about what others think, or trying not to care.
Texting hasn't helped. In fact, texting is my least favorite form of digital messaging, and it often makes me even more uncomfortable than personal interactions. Texting crystallizes my social anxiety, making it present and unavoidable, unless I actively decide to disengage from my phone. Perpetually, there's someone waiting to be responded to or who I'm waiting for a response from, or some conversation I'm supposed to know how to continue or reignite in a perfectly cavalier, laid-back yet considerate fashion. Though I write for a living, I've never really been fluent in the art of casual human small talk, and that has translated into my digital communications.
When "lol" appeared in my life (a crush of mine had a tendency to use it), it quickly became a code word that was and is everything I want to imply but don't know how to say in a text. When I end a message with "lol," it means, I don't take myself too seriously, and neither should you, and, I have a healthy, cheerful, cool and chill attitude towards this conversation and to life, and if you want to end this conversation and never speak to me again, I would understand!
Usually, none of those things is entirely true, but the person I'm talking to doesn't need to know that. "Lol" adds a flicker of sarcasm, a kind of wink. It's less cheery than ":)" and less peppy than "!," less effortful than an emoji (though I do love those), more open and friendly than "…" and far less vitriolic than the period-free cold stop.
On the other hand, emails and status updates are much more formal and easy to intuit. You can end emails with "Best, ____," and call it a day. The artifice is explicit, and no one is pretending that the conversation could go on all night. When we email, there's an inherent understanding that we all want to get back to whatever it is we do outside of performing formal interactions with people we don't really want to be around or don't feel comfortable with.
But you can't end a text message with a cordial "Sincerely" or a "Thanks." For me, texting is so stressful, in part, because it's basically distilled small talk, and it's oddly difficult to end a conversation without ghosting or lying; and, having been on the receiving end of both of those things, I know that neither is a kind thing to do to someone. Also, texts are so easily misinterpreted; it's so easy for them to come off as cold or callous when they're supposed to be the opposite.
All this can be fixed by "lol." In terms of linguistic devices, it's actually quite elegant, a catch-all that does large amounts of emotional labor for a little palindrome. This isn't an accident—it's just indicative of language's ability to become an arbiter of nuance and implication instead of a fixed code. According to linguist John McWhorter, "If you look at the LOLs from the perspective of a geeky linguist looking for structure, what the LOLs are, are particles which indicate that the speaker – so to speak – and the addressee are sharing a certain context of interpretation, i.e., you know what this nasty day is like; You know what it's like being in the library. That is a piece of grammar."
How 'LOL' Changed the Way We Talk www.youtube.com
The definition of "lol" has changed over the years due to its prominence in texting, writes McWhorter, coming to act as a stand-in for casual laughter and a symbol of nuance and empathy. "It used to be that if you were going to write in any real way beyond the personal letter, there were all these rules you were afraid you were breaking—and you probably were," he continues. "It wasn't a comfortable form. You can write comfortably now."
That's a fairly positive interpretation, and I would imagine that Mr. McWhorter is pretty fun at parties, but I'm not quite so optimistic about why we all love "lol" so much. In addition to being a grammatical unicorn, "lol" is, perhaps, a kind of shield against reality.
Like iPhones, a face tattoo, a trenchcoat, or a clown nose, maybe "lol" is a buffer against the truth.
In some ways, "lol" may be an early acronym for the post-ironic discourse that millennials and digital natives have become reliant on. Like a meme about politics or mental illness, perhaps "lol" is a way of communicating information while remaining self-deprecating and un-self-serious, which successfully circumvents the need to acknowledge that a change must be made.
And maybe we do need these kinds of buffers in order to exist in today's world of apocalyptic headlines and cutthroat capitalism. We need our casual laughs and our inside jokes, just like we need our coffee and our alerts and notifications that blink like signifiers of solidarity, albeit fractured through a screen. Perhaps "lol" functions similarly to Tweets, memes, and Tik Toks—all of which are becoming more and more sophisticated at helping us distance ourselves from reality, thereby allowing us to engage with the people and the world around us at lightning speed.
So, should I stop using "lol" or lean in further? Should we continue using the Internet while knowing it brainwashes us and tracks our information (but also opens our minds to new voices we may never have otherwise heard), or should I abscond entirely and move to a permaculture cabin in the woods? Friends, this is all pretty spooky imo lol. I'm not actually laughing, but you knew that.