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I hate myself lol: Why “laugh out loud” means everything but

Semantic shift sees the once accurate acronym adorn sentences about depression, suicide, and self-esteem.

On a typically busy day on the New York City Subway, Joyce Jude made an enemy. As she clambered onto the rush-hour train, she jostled the body of a man “20 years older and one foot taller” than her.

“He proceeded to kick the back of my leg,” the 25-year-old photographer tells me now. When she took out her headphones to confront him, the man started to shout and swear at her. No one helped. “I’m physically alright but this was incredibly traumatic for me mentally,” she says.

Yet when Joyce told her friends this story on social media, she used a word you might not expect. “I can’t believe someone fucking kicked me and yelled at me on the subway and people saw it happen and did nothing while I cried like a fucking idiot,” she began her tweet. She ended the update: “What the fuck is wrong with this world. I hate myself lol”.

In the early 2000s, “lol” meant “laugh out loud”. The acronym allowed people to express an emotion that was invisible online, although it quickly stopped reflecting the truth. “Lol” helped people to pretend to laugh out of politeness or awkwardness, and then became an easy, disinterested throwaway to end a conversation.

Now, a quick Twitter search shows that “lol” has been used a multitude of times to end the following sentences:

“I’m so depressed lol”

“I had an anxiety attack lol”

“I want to kill myself lol”

In these instances, no one is actually laughing about their own mental health. “Lol” has become a linguistic shock absorber – used to dampen the impact of overly-emotional statements.

“I said ‘I hate myself’ and ‘lol’ because I felt embarrassed for crying in public and having a train full of people see what happened,” says Joyce, who describes herself as self-deprecating and sarcastic. “I suppose I was serious about what I had said – because physical assault is a very serious issue – but I wanted to lessen the impact of the words and make myself appear less dramatic, if that makes sense.”

“Lol” is now so commonly used in such circumstances that what Joyce says does make sense. But how did this happen? How did “laugh out loud” evolve into “sorry for making things awkward”?

“Almost since the dawn of social communication via email, IM, and texting, ‘lol’ has been morphing in meaning,” says Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University and author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World.

Baron explains that lol is sometimes a “phatic filler” – the online equivalent of saying “uh huh” while another person is talking. “Other times it’s intended to convey sarcasm,” she says. “If you text me ‘The stock market just crashed’ and I text back ‘lol’, probably neither of us really thinks the financial nose dive is funny – just the opposite.” Another example Baron gives is of a friend telling another friend they have been injured. If you replied “lol what?”, you wouldn’t be laughing or being sarcastic. “Lol could mean ‘I feel for you’ or ‘Good grief!’,” Baron explains.

In 2018, then, “laugh out loud” means anything but. The acronym has historically changed meaning – a process called semantic shift – meaning it isn’t that surprising that in 18 years “lol” has become a buffer word used to soften shocking statements.

“I had never even noticed that I use ‘lol’ this way until you pointed it out,” says Dahlia Johnson, a 22-year-old student from Florida. On Twitter, Dahlia recently wrote: “are you ever unable to get out of bed for three hours and then realize that it’s just the depression lol”.

“It definitely does act as a buffer,” Dahlia says, “because a sentence like that without the ‘lol’ can raise some genuine concern.” She explains that she jokes about her mental health because it helps her deal with it by acting as a distraction.

“The ‘lol’ in this situation is a way of saying ‘yes, I’m dealing with something bad right now, but don’t worry about me because I’m laughing it off and I’ll be fine’.”

Dahlia and Joyce aren’t alone. A lot of young people use “lol” (and occasionally “lmao”) in this way. Although the internet breaks down a lot of barriers and therefore allows us to be candid about our mental health, we may still be inclined to feel awkward. In such scenarios, “lol” becomes a self-aware way of sharing something without worrying your friends or without sounding dramatic. It is so prevalent that one student, when caught up in a high school shooting, used it when texting her friends from the locked down school: “I’m having a panic attack lol.”

“I think people say ‘lol’ because it's become habitual; the word has lost its meaning and has been reduced to be a mere filler word,” Joyce says, explaining that she and her peers don’t really think about why they use “lol” like this – they just do it. “It’s almost gotten to the point where text messages can be so overthought and misinterpreted that if you don’t say ‘lol’ after something that can be easily misconstrued, the other person may receive your message in the wrong way.”

It is useful to remember, then, that if you see a young person tweet “I’m so anxious lol” or “I feel depressed lol”, they aren’t actually joking (or laughing out loud).

“The challenge with ‘lol’,” Baron says, “is that when you use it, you need to hope the person with whom you are communicating understands which nuanced meaning you have in mind.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Carolyn Stritch
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The inside story of one Instagrammer’s fake trip to Disneyland

Why did one influencer pretend to be 10 years younger, fake a trip to Disney, and edit herself a new nose? 

In the cold, gravelled backyard of her British home, 32-year-old Carolyn Stritch took a photo that would later accumulate over 18,000 Instagram likes. She wore a sunhat and sandals – even though it was March – and held out the skirt of her flowy summer dress. In the background were the red bricks and bent window blinds of her Sunderland home, with a patch of damp moss visible on the pavement outside.

The shot was vastly different from the glossy, stylised photos Stritch usually posts to her Instagram @theslowtraveler, where she has nearly 200,000 followers. For two and a half years, Stritch has posted pictures to the site and run her own personal blog, often being paid by brands to promote their products. “My images are all edited and styled to an extent,” she explains. Each is light, bright, clean, and – like most pictures posted by Instagram influencers – incredibly aspirational.

“I’m sure some people look at my account and it makes them feel bad,” Stritch says. “Look at my account and you might think I’m always either travelling or I’m lounging by the window with a coffee and a book.”

It was this that inspired the Instagrammer to lie.

The photo 18,000 people liked on Instagram didn’t look as though it was taken in Stritch’s backyard. She used Photoshop to cut out her body and imposed it on a picture of Disneyland California she found on the web. “I’ve taken myself off to California. There I am in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle – my crazy, self-indulgent 22nd birthday present to myself,” she captioned the picture. “Tomorrow I’ll be back home and it’ll be like it never even happened!”

Of course, it never did.

“I wanted my fictional narrative to challenge the way I portray myself online and the effects of this portrayal,” Stritch wrote in a blog post explaining her fake picture. She explained how she had “faked” other pictures in the past:

“I never read by the window – those windows, beautiful as they are, make my flat freezing cold. Sometimes that coffee cup I’m holding is empty. I suck in my stomach. I rearrange the furniture. I Photoshop out dirty marks made by bashing furniture off the walls.

“Is it bad to do those things? I don’t know.”


A post shared by Carolyn (@theslowtraveler) on

Since the app launched in 2010, Instagram has been accused of encouraging fakery. The social network’s filters have always made life look more magical than it really is, but the rise of influencers (people, like Stritch, who are paid to promote products to their followers) made things gradually faker. In October 2015, model Essena O’Neill called Instagram “contrived” and quit the site after rewriting the captions on her posts to explain the reality behind long photoshoots and brand deals. In May 2017, photographer Sara Melotti told the New Statesman about the “Instagram mafia”, a group of influencers who like each other’s pictures in order to seem popular.

Stritch’s faked Disney pic is perhaps most similar to a scandal involving blogger Amelia Liana last year. In July 2017, Liana was accused of Photoshopping other tourists from her pictures, with some critics even claiming she superimposed herself on to tourist sites. “All my imagery is actually shot at the time in the location I specify,” she said at the time. “I strive as far as possible to present images that have been shot using natural light and in real conditions.” Eagled-eyed followers noticed a flock of birds seemed to fly in the background of many of her pictures. Nowadays, hot air balloons are frequently seen in the background of her shots.


A post shared by Amelia Liana (@amelialiana) on

“I think we all have a shared responsibility to make social media better,” says Stritch, who reiterates that she faked the Disney picture in order to question her own practice, not others. Though a few of her followers asked how she managed to get a photo with no one else in shot, most simply admired the pic. “Wow amazing shot,” wrote one. Another: “This is so cool. Never seen Disneyland so empty before.” Multiple commenters used the word “magical”.

As part of the project, Stritch also faked her face. Via the photo-manipulation tool FaceApp, she made her face slimmer, brighter, and more flawless. “I was horrified when I saw my new face,” she says – her own mother didn’t question the image, assuming instead that her daughter had simply “gotten really good” at make-up.

Of course, exposing Instagram fakery is in itself now a solid Instagram PR trick. Instagrammers who take “real” pictures of themselves sans make-up, or explain in candid captions that their lives aren’t perfect, often gain publicity on the site. It’s a cynical news cycle, and one that so far seems to have come up with few answers on how to make social media a healthier place. Stritch’s fake pictures might not change the Instagram community – but she never wanted them to. “This project was about me questioning my own practice,” she says.

“I have to work, study, exercise, clean the bathroom, do all the stuff everybody else has to do. I feel all the same pressures my followers feel. I want people to know that.”

Stritch doesn’t know where the line is when it comes to Instagram fakery, and admits she's still figuring things out. “This project has thrown up more questions than it’s answered and it’s still something I’m trying to work out,” she says.

“It’s about trying to make work that’s both responsible and good.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.