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"Lol" is a funny word — not laugh out loud funny, but ironic in how far it has come from its initial and semi-literal usage. It started out as a sincere reaction, transitioned to a sign of mild amusement, and now often has almost nothing to do with laughter. This is the “lol” we put at the end of a message that sounds too aggressive, too serious, too emo, too … anything. “Lol” as a de-intensifying particle.
English has many de-intensifiers — “a little,” “kind of,” “slightly” — but “lol” stands apart. Think about the difference between texting "I'm a little excited" vs "I'm excited lol." Standard qualifying words serve to specify. When we use “lol” or “lmao,” though, we're instead taking a step back and laughing at whatever we just expressed. “Lol” lets us maintain some ironic distance from our emotions.
“Lol” is also remarkable in its versatility. A Boomer might text "I'm a little upset" or "I'm pretty upset" or "I'm very upset": in all three cases, a Zoomer could use the flexible "I'm upset lol.” It’s very ambiguous, but then again, that’s the point. If I leave it to my friend to decipher the intensity of my feelings through context, he will conclude that I'm exactly as upset as he thinks the situation warrants. I'm protected from judgement.
Zoomer appropriation of "depressed" is another great example of our drive for useful ambiguity. Few Harvard students go a week without hearing the word in some non-literal context, and we're doing something kind of clever when we use it. If I text "I just failed that test, I'm so depressed," I communicate very little. All my friend can say for sure is that I’m somewhere in the open interval bounded by neutral and literally depressed. By exaggerating, we achieve the same ironic ambiguity that we get from “lol."
This kind of ironic detachment was more explicitly embraced by the “high culture” of postmodernism. The horrors of the early 20th century drove a lot of post-war intellectuals to a position that life was a cruel, meaningless joke. The consuming need to signal that they were in on the joke led to a persistent "ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions," as David Foster Wallace wrote in “Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.” This year’s various crises have brought out the same instinct toward irony as a coping mechanism in that highest of Zoomer art forms: the meme. Now we’re probably not channeling John Barth every time we text our friends about a comp result, but it’s not unreasonable to think that the attitudes of high culture have bled into the language of our generation as well as its art.
Now widely adopted because of emotionally stunted people like me, “lol”-type language inhibits sincerity even in the well-adjusted. When texts are universally capped with a “lol,” excluding that “lol” becomes more of a statement than it ought to be. Think about the weird weight of texting a plain, "I'm sad." Emotions that are not infrequent in the course of a normal person's life become more difficult to express directly. Adding “lol” allows us to express these vulnerabilities under a protective layer of detachment and heightened self-awareness. And yet, tempted by the convenience of irony and cynicism, we can lose the satisfaction of sincerity and the unmediated closeness it facilitates.
My column is called Harvard Talk, so I feel like I have to finish with some of the institutional solipsism promised. I’ve noticed far more ironic detachment in my Harvard classmates than my highschool ones: why? We're far from the hellscape of the early 20th century, so that's no excuse. Harvard students, I think, have an unusual need to signal that we’re aware of every implication of every word that comes out of our mouths. Expressing sincere disappointment at comp or punch rejections seems ridiculous when we all understand the silliness of Harvard’s elaborate hierarchies. Even sincere excitement at our accomplishments can sometimes feel almost misbegotten when we know how much privilege contributed to them.
Our need to perpetually signal self-awareness runs up against the universal need for honest self-expression. We look for a way to square this circle. And so a mass of “lols” falls upon our texts “like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up the details.”
Aurash Z. Vatan ’23 is a resident of Mather House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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