LOL is not just “laughing out loud” – a new study showed that the function of a popular acronym has changed

Everything about our behaviour is worth researching, because we are not always completely aware why we do things the way we do. For example, lol, the “laughing out loud” acronym, nowadays in social media is used in all kinds of bizarre contexts that may be hard to follow. It is not necessarily used to show that someone is laughing, as a new research from University of York has shown.

The function of LOL has changed dramatically over the years – not it serves as a shield against mockery. Image credit: WOLF LΔMBERT via Wikimedia

This research has been completed by linguistics undergraduate Francesca Duchi, but it is completely serious and totally interesting. Lol used to be a symbol of laughter – if you saw something that genuinely made you laugh, you would comment “lol”. Later the use of this acronym became looser and now it is only loosely related to the actual laughter. As this research showed, Twitter users often use lol to switch to a more light-hearted tone in order to protect themselves from mockery and disapproval from an online audience. In other words, lol now is used to stamp seemingly negative or risky ideas as playful and non-serious.

Internet language is constantly evolving and it is so bizarre. People are talking in a written form, but they are trying to make themselves sound like they are speaking. Add various acronyms, jokes, memes and smileys to the mixture and you get a weird language that our internet is using. Lol, like many other acronyms and symbols, is used to replace the function of a facial expression or tone, which is missing in internet language compared to face-to-face conversations. In this regard lol is still similar to laughter or a smile, used to show that the sentence or the topic is not really a serious one. The author of this study analysed a body of publicly available tweets posted between October 2017 and January 2018 in order to see what is the function of lol today. And it turns out it is a shield from mockery in many cases.

People use lol to downgrade the importance of their own risky Tweets, in order to avoid getting negative reactions. Lol now means something like “I’m just saying” or “I don’t really care”. For example, “I’ve rlly been up since 6 crying lol” or “probs gonna lose my job lol”. Francesca Duchi, author of the paper, said: “the use of lol I describe in my paper is very widespread among a generation of young celebrities which use social media as their main channel of communication to their young fanbase. They adopt their audience’s “linguistic code”, which includes lol used in this way”.

It is interesting, that people are using lol in their language in real life as well. Sometimes people simply say “I lolled” in certain situations. The border between real and internet language is still very vivid, but not as clear as it once was.


Source: University of York


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