Introduction to a Manifesto, lol

This is a short (short, lol) piece about the word "lol" and how I use it and believe in it. It is important to note that this does not touch upon the lulz. That is wholly a different subject. This is immediately concerned with the continuing evolution of the word "lol" within its own form. The word has been around for quite some time, and is defined in dictionaries simply as the acronym for the words "laugh out loud" or "laughing out loud". I don't think it really means that, or ever truly meant that. Sure, in our virgin internet years, that's what we "meant" when we wrote lol, but that's like saying the paintbrush icon in Photoshop is supposed to be a paintbrush. No, that's just our feeble attempt at making life easier for old people who don't understand computers. Hence, "lol" means "laugh out loud". But how often do you - savvy internet reader - think of those three words when you read the single word "lol"? I never do. In fact, I'm not sure I ever really did.

The Word as Nothing

The revelatory nature of the word, and the overall idea of communication over the internet, came to me when an acquaintance was upset when I wrote "lol" but didn't actually laugh out loud. She said, "but why did you write 'lol'?" To me, that was like asking why do you ask "how are you?" when you see someone you know on the street. Mind you, this was probably around 1999, when the internet was "young". By "young" I mean not that the internet was just born, but because it was (in my eyes) between the years of 1998 and 2002 that a new generation was really growing up with what we now call The Internet. Sure, young people before 1998 had been on the internet, but not en masse. Even in a somewhat small rural town in Maine, the internet was beginning to make a big impact on impressionable young minds, and helped to rewire the neural pathways of myself and some others.

I like to think that I'm a part of the real first wave of internet-borne youth, specifically those who are today between the ages of 20 and 25. Mostly because if you ask one of us, we remember a time before The Internet, but it's a faint glimmer. We have war stories; I was there when Facebook launched. I was in Boston a year after it debuted and was in one of the first 25 schools they gave access to. I remember everyone moving from MySpace to Facebook. I remember when there was no Facebook. I remember when I made my own website on Geocities (before it was bought out by Yahoo). At 12 I was a moderator on a user-created chatroom on MSN, and I remember "hacking" into the chatroom via IRC to set up my own bots to control it. These are my war stories during the daring early days of the internet when it transitioned from that dot-com bubble-bust to youth-centered cesspool. It's quite simple: all the old people throwing money at the internet left, and the kids came to play in the ruins. A new culture was born.

Anyway, this girl was mad at me because she didn't think I had actually laughed out loud. I didn't know what the big deal was. And I realized that really, lol in itself means nothing. It is as airy, unnecessary, and devoid of meaning as "the" or "is". Actually, it's more like "um" when speaking (which happens only deliberately when typing -- is "lol" the internet's "um"?). Not to compare word types, but I mean that lol requires more than itself, otherwise it's just empty space. You might as well have not typed anything at all. It's like when people say their Google Docs live "in the cloud". What cloud? It's just nonsense, it doesn't mean anything real.

The Word as Symbol

And yet suddenly "lol" began to mean something by itself, enough so that TV commercials could parody its usage as it became a centerpiece of a pantheon of new-internet-abbreviation-words like OMG and ROFL. Words that suddenly symbolized a barrier between your old world and my internet world. Parents just don't understand. That interconnectedness, the rigid defining of friend, the text-messaging boom, all of this created a symbol out of "lol". It meant a kind of appropriated affluent/aloof attitude toward today, tomorrow, and yesterday. The internet, in its grand equality, made all us kids feel a little more cool and smarter than our parents. (More than a teenager usually can feel smarter than their parents.)

The power-play between the son who has a smart phone and the dad who can't figure out email is one so played-out and overly-used in the last ten years that it's been culturally ingrained in everyone under 30. When we see someone 40 or older at a computer, we expect them to be having a difficult time, because they're obviously missing some fundamental ethereal aspect of computers that we somehow wrangled with our youthful spirits. (It's funny because it's true.)

That was how "lol" was used to the outside of our small world; within it, to each other, "lol" was an acknowledgement. The correct use of "lol" (and other prominent internet lingo) was our secret handshake, and often it still is today for teenagers (though the vocabulary is more dense, the sources more secret). The word "lol" began to mean "I know, right?" or "As if." or "Tell me about it!" more than it was just filler. To lol was to be passé, to be cool.

The Word as Subversion

Somewhere within the last few years, "lol" has become a lot more fun to some of us. Probably around when everybody started using it. When your mom texted it to you. Suddenly things had to change, at least for me. I characterize it as when LOL became lol. All-caps to all-lowercase. In my own usage, "lol" became subversive. Attach a comma-lol to the end of things and it gave whatever it was what could be defined as a very hipster-y attitude. Climate change, lol. Haiti, lol. What does that even mean? I don't really know, but a term that was once in itself an indicator of youth became an indicator of even cooler youth. So passé it hurts. So aloof I'm in The Cloud. The kind of feigning laughter and contemptuous lack of interest that makes indie bands squirm with delight.

I like to think that I'm trying to take lol back. I use a few key phrases as shortcuts to larger meanings, as many of my fellow twenty-somethings do, thanks in part to lol itself. I use the phrase "i lol'd" when recommending a lot of important, deep readings that I do (normally when I share them on Facebook). I find an article somewhere that really appeals to me and expands my mind a little bit and I share it with that header. Thanks to all those videos of cute kittens, people in my age group are more likely to click a link only because it might be funny; my use of lol generates that pretense. My hope is that they click the link, find nothing funny, but keep reading anyway. As arrogant as it may seem, I'm trying to expand some perspectives a bit. The internet has only narrowed our vision; we peruse the blogs we agree with instead of reading a newspaper that might challenge us with something we don't know (or care) about. On the internet we are naked and vulnerable, so we have to make ourselves feel entwined with our friends or fortified by our aliases. Doing so makes us miss the beauty that the internet has provided for us, the leveling of a world into a common garden (or a shopping mall, depending on how you look at it).

I Believe in lol

lol is in itself nothing; and yes all words by themselves are nothing, semiotics and bullshit, but I mean lol requires a basic level of context to make it meaningful. If we can do this with lol, I look forward to what new ways of communicating we might draw out from the internet. lol itself is, like the paintbrush in photoshop, still an anachronism. What original content can we make to replace it?

lol, like 4chan, ytmnd, and other meme-generators, is merely a piece of a new cultural language that is growing up with us. We live in a world where a kid on youtube can become a world-famous singer (albeit a terrible one). We live in a world in which the internet supersedes all other forms of communication for gathering news and information. The beautiful thing about it is that the internet (the form, not the technology) is still young and idealistically democratic. It's up to us to believe in shit like lol to keep it that way. If we were to give up this collectively self-created culture, and cave in to marketing social media trending bullshit, this new world is no longer ours -- it turns into the static noise of television. And who watches television anymore?