West Elm Caleb was good for Tiktok and bad for everyone

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Screenshot: @kellsbellsbaby/TikTok, @meemschou/TikTok

If you live in New York, on the internet, or somewhere in between, you’ve probably heard the story of West Elm Caleb: a tall, handsome white man, presumably working for furniture supplier West Elm, who has obviously been making the dating app Hinge his playground for the past… months? weeks? Time flies so fast on social media, it’s impossible to say at this stage!

As the traditions going, Caleb casually dated multiple women at once, sent several of them the same Spotify playlist he “personally” created for them, allegedly sent at least one unsolicited dick pic, and ghosted almost all of these women at some point. Soon after, many of those women he dated or had contact with in the greater New York area started sharing their stories about him on TikTok. Acknowledging each other’s anecdotes, the women connected with each other and exchanged data, publicly. What followed was nothing short of a storm of viral outrage that quickly saturated nearly everyone’s TikTok feeds in New York and outside, before inevitably spreading to Twitter and a certain number of media, Buzzfeed and Microphone at rolling stone.

I’m not here to defend the behaviors of West Elm Caleb, or the many TikTok users who have syndicated against him — each side has enough allies already. In fact, the spread of this story has gotten so out of control that defenders on both sides have been compared to angry mobs, and I don’t entirely disagree with that assessment.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking lesson of this saga is that capitalism and the insidious algorithms of social media can extract profit and influence from almost any situation, even the once private disappointments of our love and sex lives. TikTok’s algorithm, while mostly mysterious, isn’t entirely an enigma: we know it recommends based on location and tells you who in your phone book is on the app as well. And, of course, it’s also fueled by outrage, morbid curiosity and a thirst for dirty tricks. All of these factors likely catapulted the West Elm Caleb saga into social media hell.

In today’s social media landscape, these are undeniably hugely profitable forces: just days after West Elm Caleb went mainstream, some of the TikTokers and social influencers who shared their first Caleb stories are reportedly already generating lucrative revenue. . sponsorships with vibrator companies. There is nothing, apparently – not even the deep-rooted traditions, friendships and supports that have long helped women survive in dating – that cannot ultimately be exploited and commodified for profit.

The reality is that mass outrage on the internet regularly creates dangerous situations for users like doxxing and targeted harassment, and it keeps happening because social media platforms, brands, and influencers are taking advantage of it. As Ryan Broderick pointed out in its Garbage Day newsletter:

“TikTok has built a witch-hunting machine and doesn’t really care what people do with it. Its users have been trained to follow hot topics, forensically analyze other people’s content, and iterate and endlessly remixing to create an online influence that is now directly linked to real personal wealth and success.

As some of the TikTokers who originally shared their Caleb stories did I tried to explain, more than their acts of internet storytelling and connecting with other women to support each other, what snowballed into a viral media sensation was the sleuthing and doxing carried out by their followers, and the how quickly prominent media outlets picked up the story. It’s easy to understand the massive appeal of a tale like this – many people have met their own West Elm Caleb at some point, and relatable stories often have the power to go viral due to the momentary catharsis. that they provide even to the most casual. spectator.

But the reactionary culture we are witnessing in real time clearly has its pitfalls, if not dangers, and the Internet Embedded Culture Newsletter pointed out that we should all ask ourselves to what extent the public spectacle can meaningfully address interpersonal harm: “I hope he feels genuine remorse and makes a satisfying apology to the women he hurt.” But I don’t know if 15 million other people should be included.

Ultimately, we need to foster a way of talking about disrespectful and harmful dating behavior that doesn’t create an entire industrial complex. The only winners here are the TikTok and vibrator companies. As momentarily cathartic as it may have seemed to pile on an undeniably hurtful man, I’m not convinced that Caleb’s “victims” were truly helped or healed by the situation that has since unfolded.

Shared support systems and women’s information networks have always been key to caring for each other amid the minefield that is modern dating, but these systems also require a certain degree of maturity and thoughtfulness. . For them to truly, truly serve us, we need to recognize that we’re all adults, and there are plenty of unglamorous but non-abusive experiences we’re going to have in our love lives. The nuanced, multi-layered conversations around these women’s experiences are necessary for us in the age of dating apps. TikTok’s voyeuristic algorithm and the militant, ambitious culture that drives many of its users clearly make it a counterproductive, and sometimes dangerous, platform for having these conversations.

At the end of the day, the real villain in this sprawling epic about modern dating extends beyond one particular West Elm employee. Buried under a seemingly endless “For You” TikTok page and another Internet outrage fiasco, the most insidious predators appear to be TikTok and capitalism – and in particular, the algorithmic tools at their disposal to exploit viral conflict at profit-making purposes.

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