Life

How the Cry-Laughing Face Became the Most Divisive Emoji in History

It's been a decade since the "face with tears of joy" was added to smartphones. A lot has happened to it since then.
July 2, 2021, 10:13am
Laughing Crying Emoji Tears of Joy History
Photo: Alamy, collage by VICE

It’s hard to imagine a world before the cry-laughing emoji (or, as it’s officially called, the “face with tears of joy”). But for a long time, that was the world we lived in.

If you’re old enough to have used Blackberry or MSN messenger, you might recall that we only had a few little yellow faces to choose from. The geek with glasses. The sticky out tongue face. The unimpressed face with the raised eyebrow. The cry-laughing emoji? That didn't become a standard iPhone feature outside of Japan until 2011. And then, it appears, we were suddenly laughing and crying all over the place.

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It took only a couple of years for the cry-laughing emoji to become completely ubiquitous. In 2013, in an emoji power ranking in Complex, Brendan Gallagher wrote: “the Laughing Crying Face has almost reached a point of complete saturation. If someone finds something even remotely humorous, there is an 85 percent chance they will use this emoji as a form of punctuation.” 

But it hadn’t reached a point of complete saturation – yet. In 2015, the Oxford Dictionary crowned the cry-laughing emoji “Word of the Year”, stating: “😂 was chosen as the ‘word’ that best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015.”

In 2017, when Apple released data for the emojis most used by US English speakers, the cry-laughing face topped the charts. That same year, Facebook revealed that the emoji was also the most used on Messenger. Two years later, in 2019, the cry-laughing emoji was still by far the most used, followed by the red heart. And in 2020, an Emojipedia analysis of 650 million tweets found that, yet again, the little lolling face came out on top. 

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Based on data alone, the story of the cry-laughing emoji might seem relatively straightforward: emoji is released, emoji becomes popular, emoji remains popular. But we know that the trajectory of this particular emoji is far from simple.

In the ten years since it came out, it has become one of the most divisive emojis in existence. It’s the one used by internet trolls on Twitter. It’s the one used by Facebook mums and, according to Gen Z, ageing millennials showing their age. It’s also the one often used in a weird passive-aggressive kind of way: “you never come and visit 😂”. It's the one used ironically so often that it’s become earnest again. In the space of a decade, the cry-laughing emoji has lived countless lives, often at the same time. 

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To truly understand the story of this strange little laughing face, it’s worth zooming in for a moment, on the emoji itself. While it’s called the “face with tears of joy”, the emoji looks more like hysterical laughter. Two tears roll down its face. Its eyebrows are uplifted, in a universal expression of carefree-ness.

Richard Clay, Professor of Digital Culture at Newcastle University, thinks one of the reasons the cry-laughing emoji became immediately omnipresent is because it’s “highly legible”, regardless of the language you speak. “It works across cultures, and you can grasp the meaning in a split second,” he says. “We’ve all seen people crying with laughter, and it’s agonisingly delicious.”

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Most people I speak to tell me that when the emoji first came out, it was used in this relatively straightforward way – a replacement for typing out “haha” or “lmao”. Back then, in the early 2010s, “lmao” had already become semi-ironic; when you used it, it didn't mean you were literally laughing your ass off, it just meant something was funny. The cry-laughing face almost meant the same thing: it was never completely earnest, but not exactly layered with nuance either.

“It used to have a sarcastic tinge to it,” says Freddie, 32. Like, “that's so funny that it’s bad”. Amy, 26, agrees: “It was kind of self-deprecating, like poking fun at yourself.” One interviewee says that if you could translate it to an IRL sound, it would be a laugh-snort. As in: omg, what are you like

By the mid 2010s, the cry-laughing emoji had begun to evolve. In 2016, journalist Abi Wilkinson called it “the worst emoji of all”, writing in the Guardian: “There’s something about this particular character – with its broad, cackling grin and the performatively prominent tears of mirth – that just feels inherently mocking and cruel.” By that point, it had become the sort of emoji regularly used by Twitter trolls with Union Jacks in their bios. You could say anything, anything at all, and someone would reply with the cry-laughing emoji to get your blood boiling. 

Meanwhile, for those who weren’t so perennially plugged in – mums on Facebook, for example – the cry-laughing emoji remained an earnest expression of laughter. Mums started sending it to their kids or posting updates about how much wine they had imbibed last night. “What are you wearing 😂” typed a million mums in response to their daughters’ selfies. The cry-laughing emoji became theirs, too. 

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The emoji may have become viewed as basic or even obnoxious in certain online circles, but it remained popular among some millennials and even teens. A lot of people tell me they always found it overused and cringe, but at some point they started using it knowingly or ironically. “At first it was daft and I started doing it in an ironic way, then I started using it for real,” says Christy, 32. Jo, 28, says they started using it earnestly around 2017. In some ways, we can think of it as the Crocs of emojis: shunned, then ironic, then worn for real. 

Despite the emoji being used ironically, plenty of those who fit within the Gen Z bracket have simply ditched it entirely. “It’s something my parents and their friends absolutely love to send to each other, so it’s not fun to use anymore,” says Lucy, 23. “It kind of feels like it’s gone too far at this point – a victim of its own success, I guess. I mean, I can still be WhatsApping people my age and they use the emoji, but whenever they do, it makes me cringe, and I think to myself, ‘Why are you texting like that? We’re 23.’”

Others tell me they only use the emoji when communicating with older people. “I usually only use it when talking to 25+ year-olds on my work’s Slack,” says Selina, 23. Molly, 23, says similar: “I’ll use it when reacting to my bosses over Slack… Expressing emotions to older colleagues is a job in itself.” One girl tells me her Gen X colleagues are constantly using the emoji in work WhatsApps and emails. “It makes me feel like I’m on the clock,” she says. 

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If you take a look at the Emoji tracker right this second – which documents realtime emoji use on Twitter – the cry-laughing emoji will still probably come out on top. Despite claims the emoji has been cancelled, it’s obviously not going anywhere just yet. However, it’s worth pointing out that Twitter isn’t exactly a youth-focused app – it’s mostly used by people aged 25 to 34, so, millennials.

Over on TikTok, the largest demographic globally is those between the ages of ten and 19. And TikTok videos about the cry-laughing emoji are relentless. “I love and all but please i beg u no laughing emojis they've been cancelled,” reads one. “When they send the laughing emoji unironically,” reads another, with a video of someone running away. 

Dr Philip Seargeant, author of The Emoji Revolution, says that one helpful way of thinking about emoji usage is to compare it to slang. “People project cultural values on emojis, and then the way they use them becomes part of the identity they’re displaying,” he explains. In the same way Gen Xers might use words like “wicked”, certain emojis will stick to certain groups.

Many younger people have pointed to the skull emoji 💀 as a fresher incarnation of the cry-laughing emoji (as in, “dead”), or simply the straight up crying face 😭, which hasn't yet suffered the same fate as its happier cousin. Others tell me that smashing your keyboard (“sdfbfhf”) or a simple “lmao” does the trick better than any emoji. 

Ultimately, though, certain emojis will always go in and out of style. In future years, Generation Alpha will probably be ripping the piss out of the skull. Or maybe they'll bring the cry-laughing emoji back. “Fashion is cyclical. Emoji, like pop music, will eat itself eventually,” says Professor Richard Clay. “As long as people are laughing and crying, it’s got a future.”

Or maybe – like so many tenants of the tech graveyard – it'll slowly die out and become extinct and we'll all forget about this weird cry-laughing moment in history and never speak of it again 😂.

@daisythejones