The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Couch Guy to West Elm Caleb: Inside the making of a TikTok ‘villain’

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)
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In less than a week, a seemingly average, 20-something single man has become TikTok’s latest punching bag — with a hashtag of his own, millions of views and scores of videos decrying his name.

Enter West Elm Caleb.

A woman from New York posted a TikTok about getting ghosted by a man named Caleb after meeting on the dating app Hinge. Multiple people in the comment section began replying: “West Elm Caleb?” It turns out a slew of other women had a similar story with a “6′4, mustache, furniture designer,” as his dating app profile reportedly described. According to the videos, he “love-bombed” them — or initially demonstrated a ton of affection — only to ghost them after a couple of dates.

What began as a way for young women to share their qualms with West Elm Caleb — or any other not-so-kind date — muddled the line between support and ridicule, with hordes of commenters and content creators jumping onboard. Someone posted his address, phone number and workplace. A woman joked about heckling him at a coronavirus testing line that she heard he was waiting at. Calls have been made for him to “run out of the city.”

@kellsbellsbaby Reply to @jalmones #greenscreen ya this man ghosted me on Saturday and I found out through tik tok :-) anyways enjoy another sad dating story from me #nyc #fyp #dating #hinge ♬ original sound - kell

Before West Elm Caleb, there was the infamous Couch Guy and Sabrina Prater — people who went viral on the video-sharing app and whose stories were scrutinized by a throng of Internet sleuths. Through each iteration of what some experts have deemed “TikTok’s witch hunt effect,” the people who become a hashtag have been dehumanized into a meme and then left to pick up the pieces after the mob moves on.

“TikTok thrives on this witch hunt,” said Ryan Broderick, who writes the Garbage Day newsletter about Web culture. “We now are stuck in this cycle where every three to four weeks there is a new person that everyone’s is attacking and that’s why we can’t even get ourselves out of this cycle.”

The blueprint of a TikTok villain

The Gen Z-favored app announced last year it has more than 1 billion monthly users worldwide, spawning trends, scares, catharsis and congressional concern.

On TikTok, the creation of a villain begins the same way as any other trend, said Abbie Richards, who researches misinformation and disinformation on TikTok: An initial video goes viral. What makes it turn darker — than say, Starburst’s Little Lad dancing to the “Berries and Cream” song — is the allure of a bubbling mystery.

“There has to be some sparking event or video moment that gets people who otherwise weren’t aware of the situation to be intrigued about some relatively obscure person’s life,” she said.

With Couch Guy, his crime was seeming unexcited to see his long-distance girlfriend enter the room. For Sabrina Prater — a trans woman who posted a video of herself dancing in her basement — her “bad vibes” turned into accusations of her being a serial killer.

In the case of West Elm Caleb, it was the fact that timelines about his dates with different women seemed to collide. The enticement of a Spotify playlist he recycled and the notion that he was active on different dating apps all turned the 25-year-old’s life into “a frankly messed-up, crowdsourced mystery,” Richards said.

As views start picking up, a hashtag specific to the video pops up (the West Elm Caleb tag has already racked over 42 million views.) With TikTok’s features incentivizing challenges, trends and duets, creators — who might not even be directly related to the situation — will pile up with their content, Richards said. Brands jump in trying to make a profit out of it — for instance, one dating app made a digital billboard with Caleb’s dating profile. Hellman’s tweeted “West Elm Caleb thinks mayo is spicy.”

The result is a chain of memeification, where the person becomes a metaphor for something larger.

Why people choose to partake in this phenomenon often lies in the gray area between wanting to fit in and wanting to hold people accountable, Richards said. With West Elm Caleb being a “stand-in for sucky men,” it made it easier for women to go after a figure “that society doesn’t generally hold responsible” — those, she said, are “very legitimate emotions.”

It is also the case, she said, that participating in the trend gives people a sense of identity.

“You’re creating in groups and out groups,” Richards said. “And if you’re in on the joke, you get to be part of the group and feel like you’re participating in this group activity and it feels good.”

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The problem comes when belonging crosses into pitchforking.

On social media platforms that have been around for longer, such as Twitter and YouTube, “there’s some consensus about worthy targets having some form of power,” BuzzFeed News’s Katie Notopoulos wrote.

“But TikTok as a culture hasn’t gone through that process yet … I don’t think we’ve fully grasped exactly what the power of a TikTok mob,” Notopoulos noted.

The ability for something to go viral on TikTok is much higher than on other social media platform, said Casey Fiesler, a professor in the University of Colorado at Boulder’s information science department.

Unlike Instagram or Twitter, where access to content is largely dictated by the accounts a user follows, TikTok’s highly personalized algorithm fuels its “For You” feed and determines which videos appear on a person’s screen. Recommendations are based on followed accounts, videos that are liked or shared as well as a person’s own content. Trending sounds and hashtags can also generate greater engagement. All of these features make it easier for content to quickly amass thousands of views.

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Also, TikTok, which did not respond to a request for comment, is not necessarily designed for conversation — replies are hard to find and often buried. One of the women who initially posted about Caleb shared a video Thursday asking people not to dox him. But it was too late; the crowd eventually turned on her.

“The Internet has escalated quite a bit and I have been getting death threats on my socials,” she said in an email to The Washington Post.

For Broderick, this reverse-angry mob underscores not only the next TikTok trend, but the app’s capacity for creating a villain — borne out of a melting pot of vigilante justice and consumers steadfast on boosting their numbers.

“It largely has to do with the way TikTok functions and just sort of how the app works,” Broderick said. “There’s no real version of TikTok without that villain phenomenon.”

But what’s perhaps more concerning is that the crescendo of attention eventually turns into oblivion: a regular, non-celebrity-status person who possibly faced threats, who had to wipe themselves off the Internet and who has to deal with the aftermath of a tarnished reputation.

“People get so caught up in participating in the meme that they don’t necessarily stop to think about how it’s affecting the human beings they’re using for their entertainment,” Richards said. “And then they’re forgotten … I mean, has anyone checked on Couch Guy?”

Meryl Kornfield contributed to this story.

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