It has been 500 days since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and 500 days since I’ve been struggling to text my friends an ‘okay’ without an exclamation mark to follow. Because, who knows? They might read my text when they’re not feeling their best and assume I’m not interested in their lives anymore. Maybe it’s just me overthinking or maybe it’s time we have a set of rules to help clear things up before they are even read. Enter tone indicators, a revolutionary communication tool—pioneered by and for gen Z—that speaks volumes on platforms you physically cannot.
Tone indicators are paralinguistic signifiers typically used to convey the tone of a text message. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, ‘tone’ is “a quality in voice that expresses the speaker’s feelings or thoughts.” You may be joking when you admit to wanting Harry Styles to run you over with a bus online. Sometimes your message may be intended as a tease or a threat. It could also be sexually suggestive or entirely Safe For Work (SFW). Either way, tone indicators are what change the meaning and the implication of your sentence on platforms you can’t verbally do so.
In this regard, the tool helps users convey their intent and emotions behind a piece of text they’ve posted online. Some examples include “/j” meaning the user is joking, “/srs” for serious, “/lh” for light-hearted and “/sx” for sexual intent.
Tone indicators are currently popular on both Twitter and Tumblr, with TikTok picking up on the tool for captions with more than three million views. On the two former platforms, tone indicators are used by gen Zers with overlapping interests in anime, K-pop, twee aesthetics, identity representation and a general sensitivity towards mental health and gender issues. “It’s a milieu where inclusivity is considered a paramount virtue,” The New York Times noted. All of these users equip tone indicators as part of their vocabulary in order to help others have better experiences online.
Although tone indicators can be used by and for everyone, they came about as a way for neurodivergent users to be able to understand tone through text. Neurodivergent (often abbreviated as ‘ND’) refers to a broad category of people with a range of neurological differences including autism spectrum disorder and dyslexia. Some neurodivergent people find it difficult to decipher the subtle cues associated with sarcasm or flirtation in particular and are therefore tone-indicator enthusiasts.
“But you don’t have to be neurodivergent to use them, or for other people to use them when they’re talking to you,” a website hosted on Carrd reads. “After all, tone indicators are a helpful tool for everyone.”
Tone indicators are typically used at the end of a relevant sentence. A forward slash is followed by the abbreviation of the intended tone. However, it is recommended to put tone indicators both at the beginning as well as the end of a post if the content might cause distress or alarm otherwise.
So what is a ‘relevant’ sentence to use tone indicators in? Well, tone indicators can be used anywhere over text be it personal chats, social media or even emails—absolutely anywhere the tone is ambiguous and hard to pick up on. But one disclaimer is to avoid using them as a joke. It defeats their entire purpose and strips a safe space from neurodivergent people. An example of this is a tweet by a random user which reads “I am the current President of the United States /srs.”
Also remember to include tone indicators in the original post instead of commenting “/j” or “/srs” after others have already perceived your tone of voice. It is also condescending if you use tone indicators in excess. Usually just one or two is enough, so avoid using them like a hashtag. Not all neurodivergent people need—or even want—tone indicators either. “They might feel as though they’re being condescended or infantilised,” the Carrd website reads. “People will often have it explicitly somewhere on their profile if they do want you to use tone indicators.”
Every person is different and perceives things differently. So make sure to respect their preferences before whipping out those forward slashes. And if you believe they might be useful to you and others around you, here’s a masterlist of tone indicators to add to your internet vocabulary today:
/j = joking
/hj = half joking
/s or /sarc = sarcastic / sarcasm
/srs = serious
/nsrs = not serious
/lh = light hearted
/g or /gen = genuine / genuine question
/ij = inside joke
/ref = reference
/t = teasing
/nm = not mad
/lu = a little upset
/nbh = nobody here
/nsb = not subtweeting
/nay = not at you
/ay = at you
/nbr = not being rude
/ot = off topic
/th = threat
/cb = clickbait
/f = fake
/q = quote
/l or /ly = lyrics
/c = copypasta
/m = metaphor / metaphorically
/li = literal / literally
/rt or /rh = rhetorical question
/hyp = hyperbole
/p = platonic
/r = romantic
/a = alterous
/sx or /x = sexual intent
/nsx or /ns = non-sexual intent
/pc or /pos = positive connotation
/nc or /neg = negative connotation
/neu = neutral / neutral connotation
Although tone indicators have been on a quest to make social media a better place, they are not a new concept. For ages, fellow redditors have been using “/s” to denote sarcasm in their posts. In 1575, a British printer named Henry Denham created a backwards question mark, “⸮”, which he dubbed the “percontation point.” It was meant to indicate rhetorical questions. In 1668, Anglican clergyman and philosopher John Wilkins proposed that ironic statements could be indicated with an inverted exclamation mark. Both failed to catch on during their times. Fast-forwarding 445 years, however, both the tones are now denoted by the use of “/rh” or “/rt.”
So, if you were looking for a concrete set of rules to guide clarity for online communication all along, this is it. If people still misunderstand you, be patient, explain and move on. If you spot someone using it as a joke, however, remember that Twitter is testing downvote buttons on tweets for a reason.
There is a new generational war on the horizon—and this time, it’s between millennials and gen Zers. In the last year or so, the two generational cohorts have been clashing on social media. But why would two generations, so close to each other in age, suddenly turn against one another?
Well, in case you’ve missed this, millennials and gen Z are taking it to TikTok to roast each other and point out their differences, with the hashtag #millennialvsgenz currently sitting at over 8.4 million views on TikTok. This all started within the last year and so, when gen Zers suddenly decided they do not wish to be associated with millennials anymore.
“Tired of boomers bunching gen Z and millennials together, because I personally don’t want to be associated with people who still think that Harry Potter movies are a personality trait,” states @mayalepa in a viral TikTok from this summer. The TikTok got many mixed responses, with some finding it funny—others, not so much. Since then, this generational rift has only deepened.
A lot of gen Zers on the internet think that millennials aren’t cool. And now, they are going after things that are synonymous with, or dear to the millennial generation. According to gen Z, wearing skinny jeans is no longer cool, and it makes you look old. Neither is wearing your hair in a side part, mentioning your Harry Potter house (they especially dislike it when people identify as Hufflepuff), using the words ‘doggo’ or ‘adulting’, liking coffee, Buzzfeed quizzes, and even using the 😂 emoji (🤣 this one too). Yes, even the emojis you use can define you and your social life, or so it seems.
In return, millennials are making fun of gen Z for other reasons—doing TikTok dances all day, everyday, adding sparkle emojis to their sentences for ✨emphasis✨, and taking selfies when crying (I am personally guilty of this one), to name a few.
In many ways, this generational rift is really reminiscent of the boomer versus millennial trope, and it seems like we step into a new culture-generational war every other decade or so. Remember when the fragile housing market and the fact that many young people can barely afford to live was blamed on millennials buying too much ‘smashed avocado and coffee’? Millennials were deemed as lazy, soft, and ungrateful by the older generation, whereas boomers were deemed as unempathetic, stuck in their old ways, and selfish. And neither generation has ever really found a common ground, and thus, the ‘OK Boomer’ meme was born.
It’s almost like life imitates art in this scenario. Gen Z and millennials clashing over their generational tropes really shows we have come full circle. But the thing is, unlike millennials being understandably angry about the boomer generation often trying to shift blame on issues that affect the younger generations specifically (such as the economy or climate change), us, gen Z, don’t really have any real reason to want to drift apart from the millennial generation.
In fact, as much as both gen Z and millennials may hate to admit this, there are more similarities between us than we might think. Both generational cohorts are extremely internet and tech-savvy—millennials may have spent their early years watching The Lion King off a VHS tape, and they might remember having a flip phone before having an iPhone, but just like gen Z, they spent a significant amount of their lives in the same digital age, on the same apps. We grew up watching similar movies and caring about similar causes. So much of the culture that we consumed and are still consuming intersects that it is difficult to establish such a strong difference between us.
In fact, millennials and gen Z are so close to each other in age, that there is an entire merging sub-generation between the two, called zillennials. A zillennial is typically someone born between 1994 and 2000—they may feel like they were a bit too young to relate to millennial ‘adulting’ struggles, but are made to feel like they are way too old for TikTok (16-year-olds on TikTok who refer to people over the age of 21 as ‘old’, I am looking at you). A zillennial, thus, would have strongly engaged with both cultures—you were there when skinny jeans became cool, and you embraced it. You loved using the 😂 emoji. You probably even took a Buzzfeed quiz determining your Harry Potter house. And you enjoyed laughing at how smashed avocado is the root of all our problems.
We associate so much of our identity with the generation that we come from, that it’s almost like sometimes, we make being a millennial or a gen Z our entire personality. And to some degree, that makes a lot of sense. We go through global, collective experiences that ultimately shape the trajectory of our lives—and thus, shape culture. Take the 2008 financial crisis and its impact on the millennial generation; how do you think the housing market jokes began? Similarly, for gen Zers, TikTok may have never become what it is today if not for the COVID-19 pandemic.
So it’s really not fair of us to come after an entire generation who may associate so much nostalgia and love towards their cultural tropes, even if these may seem outdated. And my fellow gen Zers—we are not getting any younger either. I, for one, can not wait to be roasted by the future generation of today’s children. What will they make fun of? Our TikToks? The way we dress? We’ll have to wait and see, but it will happen without a doubt.
Level Up classes brought to you by your favourite creators
Access to weekly Challenges with big rewards from brands
Deep Dives on exclusive insights into industry professionals, movements and cultures
20% of all profits go directly into commissioning community members