Stop smirking, this is no laughing matter! This week for Throwback Thursday, Boost Media journeys through the history of LOL on the internet to uncover 3 new digital marketing insights.

 

LOL rose from the geeky obscurity of early internet messaging boards about 25 years ago to become so ubiquitous your grandma might use LOL as a Scrabble word today. How did this happen and what can marketers learn from it? To find out, we unscientifically surveyed a statistically insignificant sample of early dot commer Silicon Valley types. This is what we learned.

 

Disruptive brands create new vocabulary

“We used LOL in the 90’s but it was more popular in the early 2000’s when mobile phone text messaging really took off. If you recall, back then you had to type using the number keys.” ~Early Silicon valley 20 something year old tech geek

 

As times and technologies change, we need new language to evolve with it. Message boards, instant messaging and text messages typed on number keypads demanded that we invent new shorthand like “LOL.” This is a good reminder that if you are a disruptive brand creating new products and services you are unwittingly in the business of creating new vocabulary. Whether you like it or not, this vocabulary is part of your marketing because it influences the way customers think about your products and services.

 

To take off, trends require exclusivity without high barriers to entry

“One [netspeak] term that died but was very important: ROT13. If you wanted to type something that was NSFW (not safe for work) – you ROT13’d it. (rotated 13 characters over for every letter) You had to type a special command (ROT13) to decode it.” ~Pioneering engineer of the first Palm Pilot and early employee at Yelp!

 

As fun as ROT13 sounds, it is not commonly used in language today. It had too narrow a use-case and it was complicated to execute. As Malcolm Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point, some degree of exclusivity is required for trends to catch on. If the cool kids do it, everyone else will follow. But not when its too hard to copy “the cool kids,” which in this case were the tech geeks. LOL took off when ROT13 didn’t because LOL was short and catchy, made sense in the context of technological changes of the day, filled a specific need of helping people interpret humor from text and at the time, using it made people feel “in the know” as a savvy internet user. It was exclusive, but was easy enough to start using for those new to netspeak.

 

Meaning dilutes with broad usage

Let’s be honest, LOL is completely meaningless today. If you are “laughing out loud” you have to write out “actually laughing out loud.” At best, LOL attempts to convey “I’m joking or being sarcastic.” Is there a lesson here that brands should resist the evolution of language associated with their brand to avoid becoming meaningless? No. Language changes overtime and that is normal. The challenge is to influence the vocabulary surrounding your brand so that it develops into something specific even if the specific meaning changes over time. “Horse power” is still a relevant term even though we no longer use horses for transportation because the term has adjusted to mean something that is both specific and relevant to our times. Today, with Apple Pay and other digital payment systems, we may be moving away from a world where physical “wallets” are necessary. But decades from now, we may still refer to them as “digital wallets” keeping the term alive although with new meaning.

 

LOL’s history teaches us that it is important to develop vocabulary to help consumers make positive associations with your disruptive industry and that the vocabulary needs to grow and evolve with the business in a way that maintains specificity and relevance.

 

We will BRB for #TBT next week. TTYL!


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