For some portion of each day, I scroll through Tumblr, that social network blogging platform whose five pillars, according to YouTuber Dan Howell, consist of “aesthetic, fandoms, social justice, memes, and porn.” I have always felt old for Tumblr, an outsider, though in that kingdom of visually pleasing, transformative, justice-oriented hilarious porn, I am in the majority. The 2015 U.S. Mobile App Report indicates that approximately 69% of Tumblr users are between 18 and 34 years old, i.e. that clutch-your-pearls, thinkpiece-launching subgroup, millennials. In a way, it makes sense that I assume myself older when actively, albeit anonymously, surrounded by my peers. To be a millennial is to be perpetually, situationally young—haunted by youthful Facebook photos, infantilized in the media—and to be constantly fighting the designation even as, in some ways, I conform.
Tumblr is a vast and amorphous galaxy in a vast and amorphous online universe. What is the position of my solar system? I have no idea. I do have a blog, but I don’t use it for much more than reblogging zoomed-in details from Van Gogh paintings, Tintin panels, striking people, dramatic weather, prairiescapes, architecture, and photos of lights on strings. I initially conceived of this as a collection of my sources of inspiration, but these days it could probably be summed up most succinctly as #aesthetic. Some blogs I follow are in line with mine, and some huddle around the fandom pillar (though they are hardly free of social justice, memes, and porn). These serve up daily helpings of Hannibal, of Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, and of One Direction, and it was in these blogs that I began, last summer, to notice a trend. In a kind of online-bound, contagion-based version of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, it was everywhere.
“HE IS SO SMOL.” #smol bean “A tiny smol.” “Smol bab.” #too smol too furious
For just under a year, I have been considering “smol.” It is doled out effusively, though consistently. The vast majority of smols on my dashboard refer to adult men, people who exist in the real world. I can offer up a quick definition—smol adj. tiny and cute, especially birds, mammals, and adult male celebrities—but it is a definition of theoretical smol, not practical smol. It is smol at rest, not smol in action. Some of the smol men I encountered last summer on my Tumblr dashboard were shorter, tinier, yes, objectively small in some context. But I quickly came to realize that smol’s relationship to small is not teh's relationship to the. Smol is not a cutesy misspelling, or it is not only that. Smol serves a more than merely descriptive function. Smol neutralizes with fondness. Smol is reductive for the greater good. Smol takes these grown, male strangers and renders them pocket-sized. Or bite-sized.
The rhetoric of smol is the rhetoric of stealth empowerment. Even as I am bemused by this tendency to scale male celebrities down so they fit in a cotton ball-padded to-go cup, I am delighted by what I perceive to be the result of this shrinking. Smol upends traditional power dynamics—patriarchal, class-based, age-based, etc.—between celebrity and fan, but also troubles the heterosexist belief that all male celebrities’ fans are female and looking to break off a piece. You want to wrap a smol man in a sweater and rock him to sleep, you don’t want to fuck him. Or you do, but only after, together, you’ve climbed the lower stages of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. The point is, you have the upper hand over this smol man, but he in turn has become more than Elvis hips or Mick Jagger lips.
That isn’t to say that the impulse behind smol is always parental or big-siblingly, noble, or even intentional. In her humor piece, “If Justin Bieber Were My Terrible, Golden Son,” on the now defunct The Toast, Mallory Ortberg, comes perilously close to introducing the rhetoric of smol to the mainstream, writing, “If Justin Bieber were my nightmare son, I would cradle him to sleep every night in the soft crescent of the moon, and I would gun-murder any star that orbited too close to him.” She tags the post “#nurturing someone into the grave.” I think of cute aggression, the feeling of wanting to squeeze an adorable, chubby baby, hard. Sometimes smol has a lot in common with these impulses. Sometimes smol is an assertion of power through love.
Sometimes smol is neither of these things. Smol is a complex concept, a moving target that resists easy articulation. Because of this and because of its context—online, on Tumblr, purview of young, sometimes female, fans—it is unlikely to become enshrined in the lexicon. Like all internet-speak, smol will fade (perhaps it has already begun to fade) but, unlike most internet-speak, I will miss it. Smol is its own aesthetic, its own meme, its own porn. It’s fandom in the streets but social justice in the sheets. Smol is a rescue mission.
If my corner of Tumblr has anything uniting it, it is the sense of being not entirely straight. In this context, I see smol operating alongside other Tumblr effusions such as The Onion headline, “Beautiful Cinnamon Roll Too Good For This World, Too Pure,” which has achieved meme status as a descriptor for sweet people for whom we would go to war. All over my corner of Tumblr, male celebrities, smol or otherwise, are “my son,” “my child,” “my baby.” I suspect that smol, and its rhetorical neighbors, may be particularly empowering to those segments of fandom (asexual fans, queer female fans) whose attraction to a male celebrity may not be so easily explained away or dismissed as sexual attraction. Instead, smol is an invitation to participate, an expansion of an ill-defined community, a progressive re-approach.
Smol has no synonyms, at least none that capture the full range of meaning and effect. Dear comes close, with its noun/adjective flexibility, and its form-mirroring-function brevity of spelling. “Cherished by someone,” offers Google, this millennial’s quick and easy dictionary, in the partial definition. Reading this definition, I feel a swoop in my heart, a melancholy feeling of wanting. I ache, a little. How much of smol, I begin to wonder, is a hope for warmth? In bundling up these smol men, in holding them close, do we bundle ourselves, hold ourselves?
Another thing they say about millennials: we’re lonely. I want to question this finding—are we actually more lonely or are we just more likely to admit to loneliness?—even as I fight my impulse to reach back and hold tight to the outline of “cherished by someone.” The instant gratification of talking to my friends in Japan, California, Baltimore, Michigan would be nothing to the feeling of being held by them: hugged and taken care of and seen. Wrapped in a sweater. Popped in a teacup. Carried around in a handbag. Fed and watered and sung to at night.
The radical nature of smol is that it is able to contain loneliness and longing alongside power and authority. It admits an existence full of contradictions. Born on a coded, anonymous platform, it is deeply human.
Jackie Hedeman is a former grant writer and current grad student. Her work has appeared online in Watershed Review and The Manifest-Station, on stage with Available Light Theatre, and is forthcoming in The Offing and 1966. Jackie is the Reviews & Interviews Editor for The Journal, the literary journal of The Ohio State University, and is a contributing editor at Partisan. Find her on Twitter @JackieHedeman or at jacquelinhedeman.com.