Hahaha, LOL or 555: this is how laughter evolves on the internet | Health & Wellness


In analog life, an adult laughs about 15 times a day. But if we could read all their virtual interactions, we would think we were looking at a clown, a maniac or a child (minors laugh about 400 times a day). The face that cries with laughter 😂 is the most used emoticon at Apple, on Facebookeven in X. Everyone on the Internet claims to be dying of laughter all the time. If it were true, rush hour on the subway would be a carousel of laughter, instead of silent people with their eyes buried in their cell phones. More than fun, it would be a terrifying sight.

Fortunately, what we say on the internet should not be taken literally. Maybe we are exaggerating. In an article by The Conversation, Professors Benjamin Nicki and Christopher Muller estimated that there is an 85% chance that a virtual interlocutor will respond with a face crying with laughter to any comment they find remotely funny. A study from Columbia University analyzed 45,000 text messages from young adults: 14% contained the expression LOL (acronym forIt’s laughing out loud, which could be translated as laughing out loud). Another study, from the magazine American Speech, noted that this expression had come to be used “as a sign of the interlocutor’s involvement, just as one might say ‘mm-hm’ in the course of a conversation.”

Many experts agree on how haha, lol and 😂 transcend humor to express something else. Laughter, when it occurs in the analog world, releases endorphins, relieves stress and serves to create bonds between people. It is an evolutionary advantage and has a role in other species of social animals. But there are few studies that analyze whether its virtual counterpart has the same effect. And it makes more and more sense to look for that answer, when memes have replaced oral jokes and many jobs are carried out remotely, with no more interaction with colleagues than that which occurs in a WhatsApp group.

In recent years, we have taken our conversation to the world on-line. Oral words have been transformed into written ones, losing some information along the way (intonation, accent, etc.) but maintaining their essence and meaning. The same has not happened with laughter, a different form of expression that involves other neural mechanisms, is born spontaneously in a social context and is difficult to transfer to paper or screen. And yet, as soon as we open the phone or computer, we can’t stop laughing.

Laughter is one of the few sounds we use to communicate before speaking, in addition to crying and screaming. Also at an evolutionary level it is prior to language. Before the first hominids invented words, they were already laughing together. Laughter is not exclusive to humans. Rats laugh, meerkats laugh, great apes do it in a way very similar to ours. Neuroscientist Michael Brecht, from the University of Humboldt in Berlin, has been studying how this laughter is formed with animals for years. At the moment he knows where. His team targets the periaqueductal gray matter, a set of neurons located around the midbrain, according to what he published in a study in Magazine Neuron.

Animal laughter and contagious laughter

“Vocalizations like laughter are very important in the game,” explains Brecht. When animals play, laughter coordinates and directs the process. It serves as an acknowledgment of receipt of the humorous intention. It makes the difference between a fight and a game; a chase and a scoundrel. This works with humans too. Laughter turns a politically incorrect comment into a joke, it is the intentionality that disarms a threat. Maybe that’s why, in the environment on-line, Where we are orphaned from a non-verbal context – of smiles, intonations and looks – it is more necessary to point out the humorous intentionality of our words.

Brecht also believes that emoticons and onomatopoeias serve to channel humor. “Humans have this ability for symbolism, and I think we get a lot from symbols,” he says. We must not forget that humor has a social component, and seeing—or reading—that another person is laughing can be contagious. It’s 30 times laughter is more likely to occur in the company of others people. Perhaps for this reason, different studies have confirmed that People tend to laugh more when talking with friends than when watching television or reading books alone.

This is something that television producers also know. “That’s why when we watch comedy series, they introduce that canned laughter every time there’s a joke,” explains Brecht. “It’s surprising, but it works, it helps people laugh.” A study, published in the journal Current Biology, He claimed that even bad jokes were funnier if they were acoustically punctuated with canned laughter; but for this contagion effect to take effect, they had to sound spontaneous, authentic. Something similar happens in conversations on-line.

Laughter is universal, unless you try to express it in writing. “There is usually always a similar pattern, it consists of a repetition, but it differs a lot between languages,” he explains in an email exchange. Lezandra Grundlingh, literature expert from the University of South Africa who has researched the implications of laughter written in different languages. “This repetition can consist of vowels and consonants (hahaha in English; jajaja in Spanish; xaxaxaxa in Greek), a repetition of consonants only (kkkkk in Portuguese; wwwww in Japan), or a repetition of numbers (555 in Thailand or 233 in China). These types of repetitions are used to imitate the sound of laughter,” says the expert.

Anatomy of an emoji

But the way we laugh on the internet doesn’t just say where we’re from. It also gives a clue about how old we are. “Like many aspects of language, the use of emojis, initialisms and written ways of laughing is constantly evolving,” explains Grundlingh. According to an analysis Of 700 million comments on the English-speaking forum Reddit, the expression LOL went from representing 30% of laughter in 2009 to 60% in 2019: LMAO (another acronym for an expression that could be translated as laughing my ass off ) has also increased, although less dramatically, while the traditional hahaha has suffered a slight drop, going from barely exceeding 30% of laughter on-line in 2013, not reaching 19% in 2019. In recent months, on TikTok, they have gone viral videos of young people from generation Z lamenting the use and abuse that millennials make of the face crying with laughter emoticon. Apparently, among the youngest people the skull is used, 💀, as a graphic reflection of the expression I’m dying of laughter.

“The use of specific forms of communication is definitely linked to specific age groups. This underlines the link between language and identity. People who continue to use expressions that we might now consider outdated do so because it is part of their linguistic identity in a particular language,” says Grundlingh.

Barbara Plester is a professor at Auckland University and co-author of the book Laugh out Loud: A User’s Guide to Workplace Humor (unpublished in Spanish). Investigates laughter from a cognitive and behavioral point of view, especially its role in work environments. According to his research, those who know how to tell a good joke are usually considered more competent at work. “Humor helps relieve tension and stress. It also helps strengthen ties with co-workers and can even be used to safely express resistance to an order or directive from the boss,” explains Plester.

From joke to offense

For this researcher, humor often moves on the limit of what is socially acceptable, so in a work context “it can end up offending and bothering colleagues.” In these cases, the fact that it is in writing, with the lack of gestural information, the impossibility of seeing how colleagues react to the joke, can exacerbate susceptibilities.

In 2005, evolutionary biologists David Sloan Wilson and his colleague Matthew Gervais explained in the journal Quarterly Review of Biology the evolutionary benefits of humor. Both are proponents of group selection, an evolutionary theory based on the idea that, in social species like ours, natural selection favors characteristics that promote the survival of the group, not just individuals. Laughter would be one of these characteristics.

Wilson and Gervais point out two different types of human laughter: spontaneous, emotional and involuntary laughter, as a reaction to play and jokes; and non-spontaneous laughter, a studied and unemotional imitation of the previous one. People use it as a voluntary social strategy; for example, when their smiles and laughter punctuate ordinary conversations, even when they are not especially funny. For example, when we point out in a chat that we are laughing out loud, although the comment may not have raised even a slight smile.

Human beings have been writing jokes since at least the 4th century, when the Philogelos It became the first humorous compilation in history. It is not the ability to laugh while reading that is in question, but whether the social component of laughter can be eliminated, whether in the physical or virtual world. Michael Brecht sees this as impossible and believes that, even in the virtual environment, we tend to laugh in company; and he concludes: “That’s why, when you see a particularly funny meme, the first thing you do is try to show it to more people. Because the essence of laughter is the social, the shared.”

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