What makes us laugh? I’m asking because as human beings we seem to love to laugh and to make other people do it too. Laughter is highly contagious and pretty much anything can trigger it. A joke. A fart joke. A fart joke involving a rabbi. A fart joke involving a rabbi who is bald. It goes on.
There are places where we go and pay good money, just so we can have a couple of laughs. And then there are moments when your father insists on reading you a WhatsApp joke (instead of forwarding it to you) and laughter suddenly seems impossible.
Generating a laugh takes work. It requires a coordinated effort from our faces, voices, and bodies. It is hard work and hard work has disappeared like grace from the Indian political discourse. Which is why digital laughter, with its acronyms and emojis, is what passes for real laughter these days.
The wide use of “LOL”, “ROFL”, crying-with-laughter emojis, and funny faces gives you the ability to be insanely manipulative. If you’re chatting with someone you fancy, there is no limit to how much you can exaggerate their funniness. While facial cues are relative to every single person and impossible to fake, words and emojis have made it a level playing field. They are like universally acceptable online emotional currency that will not be called into question.
“LOL” has had quite a journey in its short history. It has lost its charm from the early days of the Internet where it was associated with genuine laughter but is now the real life equivalent of the chuckle, when you are forced to be appreciative of a joke that you didn’t really find funny. It is an acknowledgement rather than genuine appreciation of what was said. Nobody is ever laughing out loud when they type “LOL”.
But perhaps “LOL” is collateral damage to the larger perception on texting etiquettes where shorter words are seen as mean or indifferent, a case in point being “K”. You know you’re in trouble when someone sends you a K with only a full stop. “LOL” went through evolutions and soon we had variations in the form of “ROFL”, “LMAO”, “PMSL”, and so on. However, they haven’t stuck around as highly genuine forms of online laughter because the idea of Rolling-On-Floor-Laughing being condensed to a cruel four-letter acronym feels like studying for four months, writing a three-hour subjective exam, and being awarded grades in cursory letters like A, B, C.
When “HAHAHAHAHAHAHA” arrived, I thanked God. It almost feels like the person enjoyed what was said with a good old laugh. It is in text, the replica of the loud sound we make when we laugh. When it runs into more than ten syllables, it is equivalent to a genuine burst of laughter. In the world of digital laughter, it’s a highly prized asset. It’s the closest you can come in text to knowing that your joke was found to be genuinely funny. Incidentally, “HAHAHAHA” seems to have a lot more sincerity into it than a mere “hahahaha”, proving once again that Caps Lock can enhance the power of all sorts of digital communication.
But between “LOL” and “HAHAHAHA” lies the “hehehe”. It has a childish evil ring to it, and the set of situations where it is used are fairly restrictive. In many cases, it is used to playfully validate a joke that would be deemed to be offensive or crossing the line. The other usage for “hehehe” is on the opposite spectrum, where a joke is found to be really silly to deserve a “Hahahaha” but it was so bad, it was good, and didn’t deserve a “LOL”.
Life is hard. And digital laughter is harder — a complex maze filled with nuances, but there are very few times in life when something is so goddamn funny that all nuancing goes out of the window and we are left laughing to the point of tears. That’s when we use the crying-with-laughter emoji. It is to be saved for really special occasions, but, in my opinion, is used far too liberally. A half-decent meme should not get this emoji. Neither should “GOAT” be used to describe every other TV show character. The crying-with-laughter emoji is to be reserved for occasions like the time your friend got caught watching porn by his parents.
Laughter isn’t only about the raw release of endorphins anymore, it is a new social contract, a millennial currency for cool, and now a new visual language in the form of emojis. We were once told laughter is the best medicine, but in the Internet age, it is difficult to decipher the doctor’s cryptic handwriting.