In a stunning victory for the rights of people who find out about TikToks via Instagram Reels and have fond memories of Warped tour, the cry-laughing emoji has once again emerged from the fray as the most-used emoji of the year, according to data from the Unicode Consortium. The tearful grin, whose Christian name is “Face with Tears of Joy,” hasn’t relinquished its stranglehold on the top spot since 2015, when we as a nation were reeling from Zayn Malik’s One Direction exit, marveling at the Sisyphean efforts of pizza rat and becoming slowly numb to "Uptown Funk." That was the same year that the teary-eyed grin was named Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year.
This is the second year that the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit organization tasked with digitizing language, has released data (the first was in 2019). Other emoji in the top 10 include the red heart, sobbing face, face with heart eyes and Old Faithful, the venerable smiley face 😊. The Consortium notes that many of the most-used emoji’s placements have stayed consistent from its 2019 data, although the pleading face emoji (🥺) did make a noticeable leap from 97 to 14.
If you pride yourself on knowing what the kids are into these days, you might be surprised to learn of laugh-cry’s continued supremacy after so many outlets diagnosed it with terminal cringe. Even as early as 2013, Complex’s Brenden Gallagher stated he wouldn’t be surprised if it went the way of the kissy face emoji, predicting that it would tumble into obscurity after reaching a state of what he called “complete saturation.” (The kissy face emoji, by the way, has crawled its way back to the top 10.)
Instead, the opposite happened, and two years later laugh-cry would usurp the red heart at the top of the digital emotion hierarchy. If you go to the real-time Twitter emoji tracker (be warned; it’s jarring), you’ll see 😂 continuously adding to its billions of appearances, each flash indicating a new content aggregator carefully scraping the watermark off of a meme just to demand “Who did this??!” or a “The Office” fan account remembering the good ol’ days with a well-timed GIF of Mindy Kaling.
There’s a cynical read on the laugh face emoji; that it’s become joyless, it’s outdated, it’s lost all meaning as anything other than a compulsory response, the way “lol” did when we as a species acknowledged that nobody was ever really laughing out loud. Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch told CNN that the emoji was a “victim of its own success,” and that through the constant repetition, “it starts to feel insincere.” An even darker sentiment is that the laugh-cry emoji has become loaded with a sense of “callous disregard” for others’ misfortune, as Guardian writer Abi Wilkinson expressed in 2016.
From the beginning, emoji have sought to fix an inevitable flaw in digital communication — the need to compensate for all the nonverbal cues we’ve evolved to perceive and respond to. A text message reading “Dylan called my dog ugly,” for instance, can seek entirely different responses depending on whether it’s followed by a 😭, a 😠 or, yes, a 😂.
This has only been exacerbated as we’ve lost so much of the real-life context, in the form of water cooler discussions and afternoon coffees and unannounced pop-bys, that in pre-COVID could cushion and buffet our digital interactions. It’s not surprising that all 10 of the top-used emoji are faces, emotions or gestures — the pandemic saw the prayer hands emoji jump up in use by 25% between August of 2019 and April of 2020. We ran out of words to discuss unprecedented times, and emoji helped shoulder the burden. And this has been true in the professional sphere as well as the personal one. As communications company 8x8’s formerCEO Vik Verma told Forbes, emoji “help employees communicate more effectively with each other. They can indicate tone that might otherwise be misconstrued and can boost credibility.”
Of the many, many young people who have been consulted on the passé nature of the laugh-cry emoji, several stated that their main use case for it was in professional settings, while conversing or connecting with their (often older) colleagues. “I usually only use it when talking to 25+ year-olds on my work’s Slack,” a 23-year-old source named Selina told Vice. While this sentiment was shared by Selina and others with a sense of resignation at having to comply with a sort of verbal dress code to communicate with bosses and colleagues, this is where the true beauty of laugh-cry emoji lies.
In conversations in the workplace, or with casual acquaintances, isn’t there a major utility to having a button to press that conveys “I am having fun and I am enjoying our interaction”? I will press that button all day long, and I will mean it. The laugh-cry emoji has provided us with a codified process for indicating that we are all having a fun time here, and as someone who has yet to meet the majority of my co-workers face-to-face, this is a lifeline I couldn’t appreciate more.
I have a visceral memory of standing in an office and laughing along to my three bosses’ extended riffs on “Glengarry Glen Ross,” a movie I have never seen, and that experience now has a digital equivalent in the laugh-cry emoji. I understand how either could be considered an obligation, something to be undertaken with an internal eye roll, but they also serve as a shorthand for connection, engagement and appreciation, and one that saves me from having to figure out how to type out some convincing iteration of “I am at ease!” on a regular basis.
In a world that has the potential to become ever more cold and digital as more of our real-world interactions start to live inside our screens, we can’t afford to scoff when we are offered easy chances to convey happiness and positivity, even if those means can edge into the land of the cliché or imprecise. I don’t care if I am hauled away by the cheugy cops to cringe jail for saying so — as long as 😂 exists, my co-workers will never have to worry whether their jokes landed and my parents will know I appreciated the Facebook video they tagged me in.