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15 Ways to Laugh Online

istock (women, word bubbles) / apple (emoji)
istock (women, word bubbles) / apple (emoji)

How is language evolving on the Internet? In this series on internet linguistics, Gretchen McCulloch breaks down the latest innovations in online communication.

We can't actually hear someone chortle or guffaw through the internet, but we still want to express our emotions. Luckily, internet residents have come up with a whole slew of ways to convey laughter online—here are 15 of them. Which ones do you use?

1. LOL

The classic acronym for laughing out loud (it may once have meant "lots of love" or "little old lady," but it doesn't anymore). However, lol has been around long enough now that it doesn't really mean out-loud laughter either—linguist John McWhorter says it now indicates empathy. For genuine laughter, make sure to emphasize it somehow: all-caps LOL is a good start, or try one of the longer variants below. (Lol doesn't count as emphasis; it's probably just autocorrect.)

2. OTHER SPELLINGS OF LOL

When we treat lol as just a word rather than an acronym, it means that we can change things about the letters just to indicate a different pronunciation, and without trying to come up with something they stand for. Changing the vowel, as in lel and lawl, indicates a more laid-back, less-laugh-y response, whereas repeating part of the word, as in lollll and lololol, indicates more actual laughter. And the combination of all-caps and reduplication—LOLOLOLOL—is the most likely to be genuine laughter of all the lol-variants, the more -OLs the better.

3. OTHER LAUGHTER ACRONYMS

It's not just lol—there are other acronyms indicating laughter, such as lmao, lmfao, rotfl, rotflol for laughing my ass off, rolling on the floor laughing (out loud), and of course they can also be capitalized for emphasis. Lmao and lmfao are still relatively common, but while ROTFLOL had a great cameo in Weird Al's "White and Nerdy," it and rotfl have gotten rarer.

4. WORDS MADE FROM LOL

Lollerskates, lollercoaster, loltastic, roflcopter—these words are fantastically creative, but like rofl, they ring "vintage early 2000s" to me. Perhaps they're due for an ironic revival? Another expansion is lulz, but it's more of a noun than an emotive response: you can do something for the lulz or say that much lulz were had.

5. HAHA

Another classic laughter expression that, like lol, has weakened through repeated use. Plain haha or autocorrected Haha are sufficient for mild amusement, but for true laughter, go for all-caps HAHA or one of the expansions below.

6. EXPANSIONS OF HAHA

You can go shorter, for less amusement (ha, aha, heh), or longer, for greater amusement (hahahaha, bahaha, ahaha). You can also vary the consonant (bahaha, gahaha) or the vowel (heh, hehe, heehee). Typos, like ahha or hahahaah, may indicate you're laughing too hard to type properly. Caps, as ever, for emphasis. Combining them is not common (I've never seen *behehe or *ahehahe or *abaha, and even BAHAHA is rarer than HAHAHA).

7. EVIL LAUGHTER

Fairly straightforward: evil or mock-evil is expressed as a variant on mwahaha or muahahah, with the usual caveats about reduplication of ha and all-caps for emphasis.

8. HAHA IN OTHER LANGUAGES

Other languages use repetitions of different symbols, such as Spanish jajajaja (that's the "j" sound as in jalapeño), Thai 5555 (the number 5 is pronounced ha), or Korean ㅋㅋㅋㅋ (pronounced kkkk—vowels are only written for louder laughter). A few languages also have their own acronyms, such as French mdr (mort de rire "dying of laughter").

9. THIRD PERSON NARRATION

You can also choose to transcribe what you're doing in the third person, almost as if you were giving stage directions of yourself. Some platforms may automatically turn *g* into a "grins" emoji, but you can also write longer versions like *laughs* or *laughs uncontrollably* or *spits water on keyboard*. This style is less common with laughter though, and more common with emotions that are hard to draw and don't have onomatopoeia, such as *sighs heavily* or <\sarcasm> or #headdesk.

10. FACE WITH TEARS OF JOY EMOJI

The crying-laughter emoji gets its own category because it's the most common emoji on Instagram. And it's definitely the laughiest—Instagram engineers found that it's used similarly to lolol, lmao, lololol, lolz, lmfao, lmaoo, lolololol, lol, ahahah, ahahha, loll, ahaha, ahah, lmfaoo, ahha, lmaooo, lolll, lollll, ahahaha, ahhaha, lml, lmfaooo. And like the lol and haha families, this emoji often gets repeated for emphasis. 

11. OTHER SMILING EMOJI AND EMOTICONS

If you're not a fan of the tears of joy emoji, there are lots of other happy emoji, such as:

Or even simple emoticons, such as :) :') :-) :D :'D :-D XD =D. The problem with this set, though, is that it's not obvious that they're laughing as opposed to just smiling, which is something that the tears of joy emoji makes quite clear. Adding a tear to the emoticons may help, or repeating them in full:

Or in part :DDDDD.

12. STICKER

If an emoji isn't quite big enough to express your laughter, you can go for a sticker, at least in platforms that support them such as Facebook or Whatsapp.

Unlike words, emoticons, or emoji, it's not common to repeat a sticker for emphasis, probably since they're already so large.

13. REACTION GIF

For even bigger and more specific kinds of laughter, I'd recommend the reaction gif. Perhaps you're doing a disbelieving-explosion laugh like David Tennant in Doctor Who?

Or maybe you have the head-shake laugh, like Joe Biden?

Reaction gifs really get at why we'd bother having so many ways to express laughter online—there's a whole lot of ways of laughing. You may need to do a little digging to find the right gif, or you could do as many Tumblr users do and keep a folder with useful-looking gifs as you come across them.

14. IMAGE OR VIDEO CLIP OF YOUR OWN FACE

Or maybe you'd like to be more personal with your laughter than a gif of someone else can convey? Well, in that case, if you've got quick reflexes and can pull up an app while you're still laughing (or if you're a good actor), you can grab a picture or short video using Snapchat, Instagram, or Vine and post it or send it along.

15. NOT ACTUALLY LAUGHING

Finally, if you're opposed to hyperbole, you could always go in the other direction. May I recommend LQTM (laughing quietly to myself) or, for the ultra-literalists, NE (nose exhale)?

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The Great Yanny vs. Laurel Aural War of 2018, Explained
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It's rare for people to disagree on the internet, but no amount of civility could be spared when a "social media influencer" named Cloe Feldman posted a four-second sound clip on Twitter on May 15, 2018 and asked followers whether they heard a voice say "Yanny" or "Laurel."

Maybe you hear "Yanny." Maybe "Laurel." Proponents of either one recognize a very distinct word, which seems like some kind of aural magic trick. 

Popular Science asked several audiologists to help explain what’s going on. Brad Story, a professor of speech, language, and hearing sciences at the University of Arizona, performed a waveform analysis, which is already more effort directed at this than at the ransom calls for the Lindbergh baby. Story observed that the recording's waveform displays the acoustic features of the "l" and "r" sounds, offering reasonable proof that the voice is saying "Laurel." Whoever engineered the track seems to have layered a second, higher-frequency artifact over it—a frequency that sounds like "Yanny" to some people.

But why do listeners hear one name versus the other? We listen with our brains, and our brains tend to prioritize certain sounds over others. You might be focused on hearing your child talk, for example, over the din of a television. Because "Laurel" and "Yanny" are on different frequencies, some listeners are subconsciously favoring one over the other.

Audiologist Doug Johnson of Doug Johnson Productions provided further proof in his YouTube video analyzing the recording. By isolating each track, it's clear listeners can hear both "Yanny" and "Laurel."

A bigger mystery remains: Who conceived of this recording? It wasn't Feldman, who said she picked it up from a Reddit conversation. According to Wired, the answer is likely Georgia-based high school freshman Katie Hazel, who was looking up the word "laurel" on Vocabulary.com, had the site play it back, and was confused when she heard "Yanny" instead. She shared the discrepancy on Instagram, which was picked up by school senior Fernando Castro. From Castro's Instagram, it landed on Reddit. The original recording was performed for Vocabulary.com in 2007 by an unnamed opera singer and former cast member of the Broadway musical CATS.

Vocabulary.com isn't sure if the singer will come forward to claim their role in this fleeting internet sensation. In the meantime, the "Yanny" and "Laurel" camps continue to feud, mystified by the inability to hear what the other can. Musician Yanni is in the former group.

[h/t Popular Science]

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Why Browsing in Incognito Mode Isn’t as Private as You Think
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There are plenty of reasons to try to shield your web activity from prying eyes. You might not want your internet provider to know you’re illegally downloading Game of Thrones. You might not want your employer to see that you’re looking at job boards. Unfortunately, private browsing mode won't help you there, contrary to what many internet users think. Although what you do in private mode doesn’t save in your browser history, it isn't entirely hidden, either, and your activity can still be tracked, according to The Independent’s Indy100.

The site highlights research recently presented at a web privacy conference in Lyon, France, which shows that many people have significant misconceptions about what private browsing really means and how it can shield your information. The survey of 460 people, conducted by researchers from the University of Chicago and Germany’s Leibniz Universität Hannover, found that even when browsers warn users that all their data won’t be hidden when using private browsing mode, most people still come away with major misunderstandings about what will and won’t be hidden about their activity. According to the paper [PDF]:

"These misconceptions included beliefs that private browsing mode would prevent geolocation, advertisements, viruses, and tracking by both the websites visited and the network provider. Furthermore, participants who saw certain disclosures were more likely to have misconceptions about private browsing’s impact on targeted advertising, the persistence of lists of downloaded files and bookmarks, and tracking by ISPs, employers, and governments."

While incognito mode doesn’t store your browsing history, temporary files, or cookies from session to session, it can’t shield you from everything. Your internet service provider (ISP) can see your activity. If you’re logged into your company or school’s Wi-Fi, your boss or school administrators can still see what you’re doing on that network. And if you’re on a site that isn’t secure, incognito mode won’t keep other users on your network from tracking you, either.

According to Chrome developer Darin Fisher, Google tried to make this fairly clear from the outset with incognito mode. In 2017, Fisher told Thrillist that the Chrome team intentionally decided to steer clear of the word “private” so that people would understand that their activity wasn’t totally invisible to others.

Using a VPN along with incognito mode can help anonymize your browsing, but your ISP will still be able to tell when you connect and disconnect, and the VPN company may log some information on your activity, depending on its terms. Overall, it’s just very hard to hide your online activity completely.

Private browsing is useful if you’re using someone else’s computer and don’t want to deal with logging out of their email or social media accounts. It can help you shield your significant other from seeing all the engagement rings you’ve been browsing online. And yeah, sometimes—though we don’t condone this!—you can use it to get around a site’s paywall. But it’s never going to completely hide what you do online.

[h/t Indy100]

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