The Changing Online Language of Hearts

The Changing Online Language of Hearts

The Changing Online Language of Hearts

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The way to show a heart – the universal symbol of love – has changed on the internet over the years, thanks to new technologies.


Sheera Frenkel, who reports on social media from San Francisco, watched dozens of videos on how to make <3 shapes for this article.

Take your middle fingers and bend each down to the bottom joint at a steep angle. Next, take your index fingers and arch them to touch. The rest of your hands fold out of sight.

The resulting shape – a heart – is unmistakable. And for Gen Z, it’s become one of the few cool ways to express love online today.

Since people have gone online digitally, there are ways to show love, with the heart being the most universal. The distinctive symbol of curves and points originated in the 14th century when Italian physician Guido da Vigevano wrote a treatise on the dissection of a heart and drew it in the now familiar shape.

The way people make hearts and the mediums through which they are shared have changed as new technologies have emerged. In the late 1800s, operators of the first electric telegraphs used Morse code to send love messages to each other by typing in the word “heart”.

At the dawn of the internet age in the 1990s, heart-like images constructed with letters and numbers began to spread through AOL chat rooms. In the 2010s, a red heart was one of the first emojis developed.

Over the past decade, as social media has become increasingly visual with photos and videos, teens have used their hands and bodies to shape heart symbols to post on Instagram and TikTok. The way they bend their wrists, fingers and joints has become increasingly complex as they search for unique ways to say “I love you”.

“It’s hard to say ‘I love you’ without it cringing,” said Quinn Sullivan, 21, a student and TikTok creator from College Station, Texas. “We are always looking for a new path.”

Here’s how the language of hearts has changed online over the years.

In AOL chat rooms in the 1990s, text dominated. So people have found ways to make hearts out of the keys available on their keyboards.

Two crucial symbols were the symbol < and the number 3, which together formed a heart emoticon <3. Keys had been used since the days of typewriters to represent the symbol, said Parker Higgins, an artist and activist who has studied the history of text encoding.

AOL also popularized a new type of art made with standard text, such as semicolons, commas, and dashes, to create images known as ASCII (pronounced ass-key). These images could represent a shrug of the shoulders, ¯_(ツ)_/¯, or a rose, @>—>—, in one line. But they could also take dozens of lines to depict elaborate hearts with arrows piercing them or woven roses.

Teenagers had to be aware to successfully cut and save these hearts, and new ones were constantly being created, Mr Higgins said. “People would copy and iterate over the versions of the hearts by putting them in their away posts or AOL profiles,” he said.

As mobile phones became popular at the start of this century, emojis – small images that can appear alongside text – were born. Among the first to be drawn is a red heart, created in 1999 by a Japanese artist, Shigetaka Kurita.

Heart emojis only became widely available in 2010, when a software team at Google requested that emojis be recognized by the Unicode Consortium, a non-profit organization that works like the United Nations to maintain the text standards on computers. Once the group recognized the emojis, they became widely available on mobile devices and were quickly adapted by social media companies like Facebook.

Today, the red heart is one of the most popular emojis. It was the second most used in the world in 2019 and 2021, according to Unicode Consortium polls, beaten only by the “crying/laughing” face, which teens have since said isn’t cool. (The consortium does not have a survey for 2022.)

“The red heart is the most OG emoji,” said Jennifer Daniel, head of the Unicode Consortium’s emoji subcommittee. “We now have lots of variations, like blue, green, and purple hearts. We have broken hearts and Cupid’s hearts. But the red heart emoji has a distinct meaning that conveys something lovely across the world.

There are now acceptable ways to show hearts on social media — and ways that aren’t. This is often determined by your age.

“If you want to know roughly how old someone is, but don’t want to ask them directly, ask them to make a heart shape with their hands,” said social media influencer Julia Carolan, 25. from New York, in a TikTok video last year.

Over the next 21 seconds of the video, Ms Carolan demonstrated that if someone formed a heart shape with all the fingers of both hands, it meant that person was “a millennial…an adult”. Only Gen Z, she said, make hearts using only the middle and index fingers, as if it were a secret code.

The video, which has been liked more than 40,000 times, is one of hundreds on TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and other social media sites discussing the proper way to make a finger heart.

“The funny thing is, I can barely do Gen Z hearts with my hands. Maybe it’s because I’m almost a millennial myself,” Ms Carolan said in an interview. “The thing now, with TikTok and these videos, is you really show off your face and your body. Whatever you do, especially if it involves showing love, you need to feel authentic.

In some areas, people have their own way of creating hearts to post on social media. In parts of Asia, for example, hearts are formed by placing the thumb and index finger together in a pinching motion.

Every year brings a new, trendy way for teens to create heart shapes to post online, said Mr. Sullivan, the creator of TikTok.

“Part of it is the exclusivity, especially in the beginning, of a small group of people knowing what the new hand symbol or movement is,” he said. “The moment it gets too big, it becomes cringe.”

But what is old can also become new again. There’s been a resurgence of “vintage hearts” in videos recently, like the <3 emoticon, Sullivan said.

“Like anything vintage, it comes back,” he said.


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