“Haha” or “lol”? Whether you’re an enthusiastic user of every messaging app and social network under the sun, or only recently downloaded Snapchat to see what the fuss is about, you probably have a preferred method of conveying laughter in a text or a post. Maybe you’re a “haha” person, and will add more “ha”s as the texts or posts get funnier. Maybe you prefer “hehe,” and tend to use restraint when adding extra syllables. Or perhaps you always type “lol,” and can’t imagine yourself doing anything else.
Or maybe you’re the type of person who doesn’t express your laughter in writing, neither in messages to friends or in social media posts that wider groups of people will see. On the other hand, perhaps you think that written laughter helps others recognize the lighter tone of a message, even if you rarely use such expressions yourself. Or maybe you’re secretly annoyed at everybody who appends messages with “haha” or “hehe,” or the dreaded “HAHAHAHAHAHA.”
Maybe you think that the entire thing is undignified. Perhaps it’s your silent judgment that everybody is either too lazy to properly express their appreciation of a joke or comment, or everybody is wasting far too much time adding and subtracting syllables from words that don’t even remotely approximate the sound of real human laughter.
Regardless of where you come down on the issue, it’s hard to deny that the language that we choose when firing off short missives to one another is interesting. Sarah Larson reports for the New Yorker that “the terms of e-laughter — ‘ha ha,’ ‘ho ho,’ ‘hee hee,’ ‘heh’ — are implicitly understood by just about everybody.”
“Ha,” “haha,” “hahaha,” or “hahahaha”?
In Larson’s assessment, a single “ha” is the “basic unit of written laughter.” Typing “ha” is usually regarded as a hat tip to a joke or an observation that you don’t really think is hilarious. “Haha,” on the other hand, is what Larson characterizes as a respectful laugh. “Hahaha” means that you’re really amused. And any more than three “ha”s is the appropriate response to “a scandalous remark, a zinger, a gut laugh, the high-grade stuff.”
Larson instructs readers to be judicious about all-caps, as this may indicate “how violently you’re laughing and how sane you are,” and advises that in fits of enthusiastic laughter, exclamation points are often superfluous. She also has some words of advice about alternatives to “ha” in all its permutations. “Heh” is an acknowledgment for a good point. “Ho ho” is an appropriate response to a bad joke. “Hee hee” is, in Larson’s assessment, “cute and conspiratorial.” But “tee hee,” on the other hand, is potentially too cute. “Hehe”s are, to Larson, a “strange mystery” — likely the mischievous “hee hee” slightly shortened in an odd but common misspelling. But she noted, wisely, that usage and interpretation of e-laughter terms tends to vary by age and gender.
Facebook data scientists Udi Weinsberg, Lada Adamic, and Mike Develin read Larson’s piece, and sought to catalog the usage of “not-so-universal language of laughter” on the world’s most popular social network. They reported that 15% of people included laughter in a post or a comment in a week on Facebook. The most common usage on Facebook is “haha,” followed by various emoji, and then by “hehe.” Age, gender, and geographic location play a role in laughter type and length, with the researchers reporting that young people and women prefer emoji. Men prefer longer “hehe”s. People in Chicago and New York prefer emoji. And those in Seattle and San Francisco prefer “haha”s.
“Haha” vs. “hehe” vs. “lol”
The majority of users (51.4%) in the researchers’ data set used “haha” or its variants. While 33.7% used emoji, only 12.7% used “hehe” or its variants. And finally, just 1.9% used “lol.” In terms of variations, the researchers found that the most common are the four-letter “haha” and “hehe.” The six-letter “hahaha” is also quite common. In general, users who pick “haha” tend to use longer laughter. Haha-ers are also a little more open to using an odd number of letters than those who choose “hehe.” On the other hand, “lol” almost always stands by itself. But the researchers did find some “rare specimens” of “lolz” and “loll.”
Even though “haha” is more popular on Facebook than alternatives like “hehe” or “lol,” that doesn’t mean that the same is true across all social networks and online communities. FiveThirtyEight notes that “haha” has been significantly more popular in Reddit comments since late 2007 than alternatives like “hahaha,” “heh,” “hah,” “hehe,” “hahahaha,” and “hahahahaha.” But “lol” has been much more popular than “haha” in the same period of time on the site. It’s worth noting that Reddit users are mostly 35 or younger and 80% male — a much more specific demographic than Facebook’s broad user base.
So, if your preferred method of text-laugh places you in the minority on your social network of choice, should you change your ways and adopt a more common mode of e-laughter? Probably not. (You wouldn’t change your real-life laugh, so why conform to the norm with your text laughter? That may make you worse than those who type “hahahahahahahaha” with no sign of stopping, or choose the slightly obnoxious “lolz,” or type everything in ALL CAPS.) Ellie Kemper writes for McSweeney’s that she had no plans to stop using “ahahahahahaha” instead of “lol,” despite pressure from friends and colleagues. She writes, “Here’s the thing about ‘lol’: What in the hell does that even mean? That I’m laughing out loud? Yeah, that really comes across when I’m reading it.”