Even if your conversational partner can’t hear you laughing or see you smiling, it’s important to express your appreciation of a joke or a funny story. The many popular options can be boiled down into two types: The hahaha of simulated laughter, and the lol of metaphorical laughter.
Both can stand alone as a reaction, or trail a funny sentence as if you’re laughing at your own joke. But what does your choice between haha (or hehehe or hahaha) and lol (or lmao or lololol) say about you?
The default way to represent laughter online. Sometimes accompanied by an emoji. Can be extended into hahahahaha to scale to any joke.
The newer, hipper lower-case version of the old chat-speak standard LOL. While its cousin ROFL hasn’t survived, LMAO lives on.
Haha: We’re Laughing at You, Not With You
Haha tries to translate the reflexive act of laughter into phonetics. For a while it was the best option we had, as the fashion shifted away from the initialisms and acronyms of AOL chatrooms. As recently as 2015, the New Yorker‘s Sara Larson explored variations on haha and hehe in depth with only a disparaging mention of LOL as an “older term” that chatters don’t want to “resort to.”
But sometimes haha‘s awkward insistence on imitating laughter makes it a bad choice. This year the Hairpin‘s Kelly Conaboy (a Gawker alumna) called it out under the headline “Men, You Don’t Have to Write ‘Haha’ at the End of Statements.” Conaboy called haha a “security blanket” that men use to seem relaxed and cool around women, but which actually makes them sound a touch psychotic.
Michael Cera had already made extensive use of the awkward “haha” in a 2013 Shouts & Murmurs piece called “My Man Jeremy.” A fictional version of Michael replies to a stranger’s accidental text with “hahahaha no problem — happens. . .where are you anyway? Like what city? Los Angeles?” He spends eight months bothering the stranger with increasingly unhinged texts. The piece contains 48 uses of haha.
But haha is perfectly acceptable when used after, you know, something funny. Capitalise to HAHA or even just HA to put some joy back into it, to imply you really lost it.
A note on variants: Ha means “That’s not really funny.” Heh means “That’s not really funny, and please reconsider your choices.”
lol: It’s a Word Now
Decades ago, LOL was an initialism in the hall of fame with BRB, OMG, and IMHO. People pronounced it “L.O.L.” like some chemical formula. They argued whether it was dishonest to write it when you were not literally laughing out loud.
But by the time LOLcats emerged in the mid-2000s, LOL was a word that rhymed with droll (or occasionally drawl). And as it transformed from initialism to word, lol lost its capital letters.
As a word, lol doesn’t stand for “laughing out loud.” It can mean “I am laughing,” but just as often, it only means “I’m amused” or even just “I agree, that’s funny.” You can jazz it up with an “I’m screaming” or an “omg dying.”
Put "lol I'm dead af ?" on my tombstone when I die okay— Mariah Kittles (@mariahnicolefit) September 20, 2017
Unlike haha, lol acknowledges the difference between the signifier and the signified. It doesn’t attempt to replicate the sound of laughter; lol is its own sound. This becomes clear when someone extends it: lolololol works like hahaha or haaa; it doesn’t stand for “laughing out loud out loud out loud.”
Best of all, lol adds a touch of irony, of worldliness, of detachment even in the midst of sincere appreciation. Unlike haha, lol can signify mockery, as in “lol nope,” or bitterness, as in “lol nothing matters.”
Is there a downside to lol? If anyone’s bristling at reading this word over and over right now, then they’re the downside. A word is only as good as the audience that accepts it, and if you’re talking to a partisan of the haha set, your lol might seem fussy, snobbish, “millennial,” or just AOL-y.
And don’t imagine that a lol at the end of an unfunny text is any better than a haha.
In this specific cultural moment, while neither is a terrible choice, lol feels more expressive and natural than haha. Its capacity for negative forms of laughter seems essential in our “lol everything sucks,” ????-worthy world.
But neither lol nor haha are nearly as satisfying than a clean, simple keyboard smash: ;lkasdjf;l.
The keyboard smash does what haha can’t: It translates the spontaneity of laughter into a spontaneity of text. It’s organic, it’s different every time (;klasjdf;lk), and it’s as infinitely variable as a true laugh. It hints at cartoon swear words, and it can signify rage, shock, any outpouring of sudden overwhelming emotion.
Urban Dictionary calls it asdfghjkl, but a true keyboard smash would almost never turn up those letters in order. If you’re going to do it, do it for real. Let your fingers leave the home row if you want, but don’t hold down the shift key to jam in some special characters, or you’ll ruin the effect.
The keyboard smash is popular among gamers, but it has its highbrow fans. Choire Sicha, the former editor of Gawker and the Awl, used the keyboard smash liberally, in public and private. Sicha’s successor John Herrman called the result “vexingly vague and therefore powerful.” (It’s yet to be seen whether Sicha will bring it to his new job as editor of the Times Style section.)
The ;lkajsdf is the purest expression of losing your shit, and it’s as physically satisfying as its aural equivalent. Try it. Let your fingers laugh.