by Manon Haar 


– For Wikipedia’s definition of YOLO click on the picture –

#YOLO” – Excuse for young people to do dumb shit. Usually followed by “OOPS” when they turn 40 and have not amounted to anything. – User on Urban Dictionary

I can’t remember when I first listened to someone shouting “#YOLO” – maybe on a party some years ago when everybody was in a good mood and some people got a little bit too enthusiastic. #YOLO is an acronym for “You only live once” and is often used to say that one should enjoy life at every moment which can eventually mean that you have to take risks to have fun. But I often get the impression that most people don’t really know what exactly #YOLO stands for. Jimmy Kimmel’s team did a pedestrian investigation to ask people passing by to define what they think #YOLO means.

As we can see there is massive confusion around #YOLO, so we’ll give it a try and follow Jimmy Kimmel’s investigation to find out more about it.

When I searched the internet for more information on this keyword it revealed that variations of the phrase have been in use for more than 100 years, even the German writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe used “one lives but once in the world” 1774 in his play “Clavigo”. It really became a popular catchphrase among the Youth in 2011 with the song “The Motto” by the Canadian rapper Drake. Since then it is often used in youth culture and music scene.

We mostly find to ways in which #YOLO can be used – the ironic (examples 1 and 2) and as as a way to be nonchalant about doing really idiotic things (examples 3 and 4):

Yolo 1

Yolo 2Yolo 3

Yolo 4

Can we just have an ordinary party like some years ago? No, we can’t! Because we only live once and so – “Oh my god!” – it has to be party of the year! And if it’s not the party of the year (it pretty sure won’t be) we will still make everybody else feel like that they have missed the party of the year. We post everything on our social network profiles and of course we don’t forget the hashtag #YOLO. This behavior creates the impression that our lives are so extraordinary and thrilling – we must be super cool to hang out with. #YOLO creates the feeling of belonging to an open-minded group, who shares the same opinions and experiences similar things in life. And as I just pointed out it also turns the most ordinary things in life into a big adventure. But it is this always good? The Washington Post call #YOLO “The newest acronym you’ll love to hate”. What would happen if everybody from now on would not think about consequences his actions may cause? Our society would neither think about the climate change nor care about politics and democracy. It would be the death of sustainability and commitment. So we can see that #YOLO can also cause an insecure social system if we take it too far. To emphasize this danger in an ironic way the band The Lonely Islands produced a song together with Adam Levine and Kendrick Lamar which sums it all up pretty well.

As I pointed out before the acronym #YOLO is often used as an expression to challenge yourself, go beyond your personal (mental) borders, and have an adventurous time with a bunch of your best people. The hashtag #YOLO has become one of the most used on Twitter and Instagram in the last years and in 2011 it turned out to be elected the Youth word of the year in Germany (“Jugendwort des Jahres 2011”). People using “#YOLO” seem to become a connected group, they feel to somehow belong together and that they experience similar things in life. So as we can see it is again an expression used just by a part of the society, especially the youth, and others are automatically excluded.

#YOLO is the youth’ answer on our society which creates a high amount of pressure on all of us. We hear all the time that everything has to be better than before. In my opinion #YOLO generates a space to flee from all the great demands the society is expecting especially from the younger generation. Today we can already see that it will be our generation that has to pay for the debts our parents and grandparents left us – environmental and social for just to call out two aspects. I think that many young people therefore feel the need to break out of this circle. Maybe they feel worthless and that they are just one of millions. #YOLO proclaims that it is still the individual that counts should be taken as worthwhile as the society as a whole. With this keyword as your lifestyle you can live your dreams, have the courage to try new things and make the best out of every moment. But we should be aware of the fact that #YOLO is always just a few steps away from letting our social system collapse. If we just take the individual seriously we will run the risk of losing our value system that we are proud of. And what will happen to things like the intergenerational contract that plans on the younger generation to take care of the elders? “Hey, #YOLO!”

But one cannot deny that #YOLO really is one of the most popular words among the international youth scene, it is a phenomenon already holding on for at least some years. I am curious about how long it will make it.Yolo 6

Annotated bibliography:

1. To get a first impression on what people are thinking about #YOLO I warmly recommend the Urban Dictionary. It includes serious as well as ironic definitions and shows the wide range of opinions on #YOLO. Most of the entries are personal statements and written in common language. That makes them easily accessible for everybody and also emphasizes how #YOLO as a keyword is very emotionally loaded.


2. As we read #YOLO exists in the common Youth language since 2011. For its 1-year-birthday the editor Nate Jones takes us on a flashback how and why #YOLO happened to us. Because although we might think that Drake with his song “The Motto” introduced us to #YOLO and made it spread the world it is actually much older with its origins starting with nobody else than the Germans Goethe and Austrian Strauss. He explains the mainstream phenomena in an entertaining, short-winded way.


3. Of course we can see #YOLO also very critical like for example The Huffington Post once did in a story. It points out how dumb it is to use #YOLO because we can also do stupid things without an extra acronym for it. Do we really need a catchphrase that legitimates and encourages us to this reckless behavior? The author even comes it the conclusion that we would do America (and probably the rest of the world) a huge favor for never ever using it again.


4. When slang words enter the Youth language it always increases the gap between young and old. The Boston Globe therefore tries to explain the “youthful slang craze” to its readers. It gives a flashback but also asks the paradox and illogic within the #YOLO behavior – because of course we only live once (this does not include Jesus)! So isn’t it actually crazy to take all this risks to give your life an extraordinary touch? We should not only act like living once, we should also live every day of our life.


5. Language is an awesome way to express ones feelings – don‘t you think? And so there are of course much more ways to define the “#YOLO way of life” by using not only an acronym but actually whole words and sentences. Hard to believe that’s possible? Well, here is a list of what else you can say when you want to point out how extraordinary, risky and adventurous your life is and still want to think of yourself as an educated person.



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