JSYK – just so you know…

Social media abbreviations not as widely understood as you might think

Lee Langford

With WTF making it into the Merriam Webster dictionary recently, it’s clear that love them or loathe them, social media abbreviations are here to stay.

So, ICYWW (in case you were wondering) whether it is safe to start peppering your own social output with abbreviations, Harris Interactive is HTH (here to help). We used SocialLife, our social media tracker, to investigate whether UK social media users actually use and understand the myriad of acronyms that appear in their feeds, interviewing 3,000 representatives aged 11+ in April 2015.

Harris Interactive tested 12 common social media abbreviations.

LOL (Laughing Out Loud), OMG (Oh My God), WTF (What The F*ck), LMAO (Laughing My Ar*se Off), TBH (To Be Honest), FFS (For F*ck’s Sake), ROFL (Roll(ing) On the Floor Laughing), IMO (In My Opinion), YOLO (You Only Live Once), NSFW (Not Safe/Suitable For Work), FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), ICYMI (In Case You Missed It).

Across the board, what our research uncovered is that the majority of social media users do not tend to use many abbreviations. LOL stands out at the top of the pile with 52% admitting they use this themselves and the vast majority (90%) understanding what it means – or at least believing they do. However, LOL is the only abbreviation used by over half of the audience and five from the list are understood by only half or less.

The prevalence of acronyms that involve words that might potentially offend (WTF, LMAO along with the milder OMG) could be viewed as a sign of prurience or perhaps a desire to shock – but only up to a point.

The least well-known abbreviations in our list include a couple that might surprise those who work in professions that use social media day-to-day. For example, just one in five social media users understand what FOMO signifies and only half recognise the term YOLO.

As is typically the case, younger social media users are much savvier in their use and awareness of acronyms with 11-24 year olds typically using four or more of the 12 listed abbreviations themselves compared with 45+ year olds who tend to use just one (typically LOL or OMG).

There are also clear gender differences with women favouring LOL and OMG to a greater extent whereas men tend to use a wider range of acronyms including IMO and NSFW.

But actually, the terms we use are more likely to be a function of the sites we visit with the more obscure acronyms in our list typically three times more likely to be used by regular Snapchat and Instagram users than by those who confine their use to Facebook or LinkedIn. Twitter users sit somewhere between the two extremes with heavier use of TBH and IMO to help get their messages across in 140 characters.

The clear message to any organisation or individual planning to use abbreviations in their social media communications is ‘understand your audience’ to ensure that your content will be understood. Whilst some terms are now mass market, many others that might be assumed to have salience, mean absolutely nothing to the majority of the social media using population.


  • Abbreviations
  • Social Media Trends
  • Social Media Usage