Wuss poppin’: The crying-laughing emoji’s digital, emotional versatility

People put emojis of various emotion into a machine, which spits out the laugh-crying emoji
Graphic by Annie Wu

This summer, I went through a small, short crisis. It was a tumultuous week where I struggled with everything you could think of on a rising junior’s plate — my internship, my encroaching post-grad career and personal issues simmering on the back burner. 

Worrying about these problems swirled a jungle juice of uncomfortable emotions together, threatening to gush over the surface. How could I express all the helplessness, desperation and hollow laughter without exercising too much effort? 

It was so simple, yet enlightening. The crying-laughing emoji was my answer.

An incredibly flexible tool, the crying-laughing emoji can channel both ends of the happy-sad spectrum. The emoji you attach to your friend’s name when you tag them in a funny meme on Facebook? The crying-laughing emoji. 

Your reaction to your laptop crashing right before you can submit that assignment due in one minute? The crying-laughing emoji. 

The millennial generation expressing the increasing likeliness of World War III and the destruction of the Earth? An entire string of the crying-laughing emoji.

The emoji’s fluidity makes its official name, “Face with Tears of Joy,” feel much too constrained. Whether those tears derive from joy or humiliation, or if that open-mouthed smile is genuine at all, is up to the user and receiver. 

But perhaps one simple emoji isn’t enough to bear all the burdens of a complicated soul — not even when they appear in a chain of three or form the entirety of a paragraph. To compensate, its offshoots, often poorly edited renditions of the original emoji, aim to maximize the emoji’s versatile potential.

For example, one notorious edit crops the eyes of the flushed face emoji and pastes them over the original crying-laughing emoji, creating a disfigured laughing face with teardrops that nonsensically fly across. 

Its lifeless eyes, knit eyebrows and preserved laugh make for a concerning, if not unnerving combination. It no longer represents joy or irony, but rather something deeper. Something more primal. 

Sometimes the emoji itself isn’t deliberately edited. A popular version of the crying-laughing emoji is a simple, low-quality photo of a deflated crying-laughing emoji pillow. 

It’s just as soulless as the edit above, but you get the impression that whoever uses or circulates this photo has genuinely given up, stripped of the energy to even rage. It’s almost poetic — you get all of this meaning from a naturally occurring pillow aimed at kids and/or middle-aged moms. 

Based on its memetic capacity, it seems clear that the “Face with Tears of Joy” might better serve as, say, the “Face with Tears of Exasperation and Hopelessness.” Why? 

The answer is simple: Young, internet-savvy people are exasperated and hopeless. The internet blesses us with the ability to spread apathetic humor and express emotions without being judged. This kind of humor gives us clout. 

But the crying-laughing emoji and its subtext also curse us. Nowadays, technology can make it so much easier for us to worry, which in turn makes us feel exasperated and hopeless. 

We follow people who we can’t help but compare ourselves to. We hear about events, culture and policies that personally affect us. But we’re also so wide-reaching that we cannot individually solve them.

The platform of media comes with a cost of being surrounded by so many other people with their own vulnerabilities, along with the possibility of seeing things that hit too close to home. We empathize, truly, but many times we can’t do anything. 

So we cry-laugh at things that simultaneously intrigue and paralyze us as we scroll down our feeds. And with the convenience of the keyboard, we can cry-laugh at the click of a button.

The crying-laughing emoji doesn’t encompass everything that’s bad in digital media, of course, but it plays a part in exacerbating despair. For what it’s worth, the emoji does inspire genuine laughter, and despite its memes, it can still be used without all the layers of irony. 

With its emotional accessibility, it’s no surprise that the crying-laughing emoji has a history of influence — it was declared the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year in 2015. And as the most-used emoji on iOS and Twitter as of 2019, it has cemented itself as the double-edged sword of the digital age, and I don’t think its mark on pop culture will end anytime soon.

Nadya Siringo Ringo SC ’21 is a dual cognitive science and media studies major from Jakarta, Indonesia. She’s very passionate about pop music, video games and the Enneagram.

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