When Horace wrote “carpe diem” in his Odes in 23BC it is unlikely he was imagining that, 2,034 years later, a rapper from Canada would be rehearsing that sentiment in an R&B song. But in November 2011, Drake put his spin on it in “The Motto” – “You only live once: that’s the motto, n****, YOLO” – and seizing the day once again found sudden, mainstream popularity.
In 2012, YOLO was the seventh most-used hashtag on Twitter and on the shortlist for the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year. Its sentiment may be as old as recklessness itself, but it caught on in a way that came to define the neologisms of the the 2010s.
YOLO spread far, fast: it was a meme. It was absorbed into and enveloped by wider culture. It was not a specific piece of content but a framework for other content, only meaningful with context.
The ways in which we communicate online are multifaceted and subtle. Language has been altered and manipulated for digital use for decades and YOLO is, of course, an abbreviation, useful for when there’s limited character space and for typing quickly. It was the character limit of early text messages that resulted in the use of “r” for “are”, “u” for “you” and so on; instant messaging that yielded the popularisation of other common acronyms such as “TBH” and “LOL”.
In the 2010s, however, online vocabulary became more advanced and expression more nuanced. Rather than simply being used as abbreviations, acronyms are themselves symbolic of another layer of meaning. Now that messages no longer have character limits or require typing on numeric keypads, using “u” is rarely necessary – but it has become fashionable to use it again online in self-aware displays of authenticity. As Gretchen McCulloch notes in Because Internet, there are ways of altering tone online such as all caps, ironic capitalisation and word-lengthening (even when that word is itself an acronym: “lmaoooo” conveying something slightly different from simply “LMAO”) that can have a profound effect on meaning.
The emergence of emojis in the middle of the decade further separated our online language from that IRL. Here was another highly specific means of communication with multiple meanings and contexts. Where YOLO, LOL and OMG can be spoken, the visual power of the emoji remains resolutely digital. In 2015, the crying laughing emoji was the Oxford English Dictionary’s “word” of the year.
Like many viral trends, YOLO was at first everywhere, quickly became ironic, then made way for something new. This fast-paced online trajectory is itself a 2010s phenomenon – but the true significance of YOLO is its ability to change its meaning depending on its context, to say so much in only four characters. It is now less often used as a hashtag but is the name of an anonymous messaging app within Snapchat, the title a knowing wink to its users. What it really represents is a new language, one that exists only on screens.