The cry-laughing emoji has absolutely earned this

Is it always sincere or even trendy? No. Does it serve its purpose? Absolutely.

A person wearing a big mask that looks like the laugh-cry emoji, looking at a smartphone.

The laugh-cry emoji has provided us with a codified process for indicating that we are all having a fun time here.

Photo: atomicstudio via Getty Images

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.

Unicode's chart of most used emoji from 2021 Image: Unicode

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.


Apple's new payments tech won't kill Square

It could be used in place of the Square dongle, but it's far short of a full-fledged payments service.

The Apple system would reportedly only handle contactless payments.

Photo: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

Apple is preparing a product to enable merchants to accept contactless payments via iPhones without additional hardware, according to Bloomberg.

While this may seem like a move to compete with Block and its Square merchant unit in point-of-sale payments, that’s unlikely. The Apple service is using technology from its acquisition of Mobeewave in 2020 that enables contactless payments using NFC technology.

Keep Reading Show less
Tomio Geron

Tomio Geron ( @tomiogeron) is a San Francisco-based reporter covering fintech. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, covering venture capital and startups. Before that, he worked as a staff writer at Forbes, covering social media and venture capital, and also edited the Midas List of top tech investors. He has also worked at newspapers covering crime, courts, health and other topics. He can be reached at or

Sponsored Content

A CCO’s viewpoint on top enterprise priorities in 2022

The 2022 non-predictions guide to what your enterprise is working on starting this week

As Honeywell’s global chief commercial officer, I am privileged to have the vantage point of seeing the demands, challenges and dynamics that customers across the many sectors we cater to are experiencing and sharing.

This past year has brought upon all businesses and enterprises an unparalleled change and challenge. This was the case at Honeywell, for example, a company with a legacy in innovation and technology for over a century. When I joined the company just months before the pandemic hit we were already in the midst of an intense transformation under the leadership of CEO Darius Adamczyk. This transformation spanned our portfolio and business units. We were already actively working on products and solutions in advanced phases of rollouts that the world has shown a need and demand for pre-pandemic. Those included solutions in edge intelligence, remote operations, quantum computing, warehouse automation, building technologies, safety and health monitoring and of course ESG and climate tech which was based on our exceptional success over the previous decade.

Keep Reading Show less
Jeff Kimbell
Jeff Kimbell is Senior Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer at Honeywell. In this role, he has broad responsibilities to drive organic growth by enhancing global sales and marketing capabilities. Jeff has nearly three decades of leadership experience. Prior to joining Honeywell in 2019, Jeff served as a Partner in the Transformation Practice at McKinsey & Company, where he worked with companies facing operational and financial challenges and undergoing “good to great” transformations. Before that, he was an Operating Partner at Silver Lake Partners, a global leader in technology and held a similar position at Cerberus Capital LP. Jeff started his career as a Manufacturing Team Manager and Engineering Project Manager at Procter & Gamble before becoming a strategy consultant at Bain & Company and holding executive roles at Dell EMC and Transamerica Corporation. Jeff earned a B.S. in electrical engineering at Kansas State University and an M.B.A. at Dartmouth College.

Why does China's '996' overtime culture persist?

A Tencent worker’s open criticism shows why this work schedule is hard to change in Chinese tech.

Excessive overtime is one of the plights Chinese workers are grappling with across sectors.

Photo: VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Workers were skeptical when Chinese Big Tech called off its notorious and prevalent overtime policy: “996,” a 12-hour, six-day work schedule. They were right to be: A recent incident at gaming and social media giant Tencent proves that a deep-rooted overtime culture is hard to change, new policy or not.

Defiant Tencent worker Zhang Yifei, who openly challenged the company’s overtime culture, reignited wide discussion of the touchy topic this week. What triggered Zhang's criticism, according to his own account, was his team’s positive attitude toward overtime. His team, which falls under WeCom — a business communication and office collaboration tool similar to Slack — announced its in-house Breakthrough Awards. The judges’ comments to one winner highly praised them for logging “over 20 hours of intense work nonstop,” to help meet the deadline for launching a marketing page.

Keep Reading Show less
Shen Lu

Shen Lu covers China's tech industry.

Boost 2

Can Matt Mullenweg save the internet?

He's turning Automattic into a different kind of tech giant. But can he take on the trillion-dollar walled gardens and give the internet back to the people?

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic and founder of WordPress, poses for Protocol at his home in Houston, Texas.
Photo: Arturo Olmos for Protocol

In the early days of the pandemic, Matt Mullenweg didn't move to a compound in Hawaii, bug out to a bunker in New Zealand or head to Miami and start shilling for crypto. No, in the early days of the pandemic, Mullenweg bought an RV. He drove it all over the country, bouncing between Houston and San Francisco and Jackson Hole with plenty of stops in national parks. In between, he started doing some tinkering.

The tinkering is a part-time gig: Most of Mullenweg’s time is spent as CEO of Automattic, one of the web’s largest platforms. It’s best known as the company that runs, the hosted version of the blogging platform that powers about 43% of the websites on the internet. Since WordPress is open-source software, no company technically owns it, but Automattic provides tools and services and oversees most of the WordPress-powered internet. It’s also the owner of the booming ecommerce platform WooCommerce, Day One, the analytics tool and the podcast app Pocket Casts. Oh, and Tumblr. And Simplenote. And many others. That makes Mullenweg one of the most powerful CEOs in tech, and one of the most important voices in the debate over the future of the internet.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.


Spoiler alert: We’re already in the beta-metaverse

300 million people use metaverse-like platforms — Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft — every month. That equals the total user base of the internet in 1999.

A lot of us are using platforms that can be considered metaverse prototypes.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

What does it take to build the metaverse? What building blocks do we need, how can companies ensure that the metaverse is going to be inclusive, and how do we know that we have arrived in the 'verse?

This week, we convened a panel of experts for Protocol Entertainment’s first virtual live event, including Epic Games Unreal Engine VP and GM Marc Petit, Oasis Consortium co-founder and President Tiffany Xingyu Wang and Emerge co-founder and CEO Sly Lee.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.


Lyin’ AI: OpenAI launches new language model despite toxic tendencies

Research company OpenAI says this year’s language model is less toxic than GPT-3. But the new default, InstructGPT, still has tendencies to make discriminatory comments and generate false information.

The new default, called InstructGPT, still has tendencies to make discriminatory comments and generate false information.

Illustration: Pixabay; Protocol

OpenAI knows its text generators have had their fair share of problems. Now the research company has shifted to a new deep-learning model it says works better to produce “fewer toxic outputs” than GPT-3, its flawed but widely-used system.

Starting Thursday, a new model called InstructGPT will be the default technology served up through OpenAI’s API, which delivers foundational AI into all sorts of chatbots, automatic writing tools and other text-based applications. Consider the new system, which has been in beta testing for the past year, to be a work in progress toward an automatic text generator that OpenAI hopes is closer to what humans actually want.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories