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September 23, 2023

The hard lessons of TikTok’s viral ‘West Elm Caleb’ saga

The hard lessons of TikTok’s viral ‘West Elm Caleb’ saga

I recently tried to explain to the students in my Online Communities class, most of whom are younger than Google, a time before we were constantly talking to strangers all over the world. Finding people “like you” had literal, physical limitations. But now, from the Facebook group where my dad talks about classic cars to Black Twitter to LGBTQ youths’ finding community and support on Tumblr, the ease with which we can connect to people who share our interests, values or identities is staggering. But with connection have also come division, polarization and a surge in harassment and other toxic behavior online. We can be connected to anyone, everyone — for good and for bad.

What happens when social media does its job connecting just the right people but then brings in the wrong people, as well?

The strange case of the “West Elm Caleb” moment on TikTok highlights this complicated, powerful dynamic well. What happens when social media does its job connecting just the right people but then brings in the wrong people, as well? For a platform like TikTok, where the spread of content is hugely unpredictable, there are risks to unexpected virality. This might mean internet sleuthing identifies the wrong perpetrator; viral, baseless claims lead to police involvement; or we get to the point where the punishment outweighs the crime, since the more people who are brought into the fray, the more likely that fray will include doxxing, death threats or worse.

The story begins simply enough: Through social media, a group of women who didn’t previously know one another discovered that they may all have been dating the same man. Their shared anecdotes quickly went viral, as did the very real person the internet identified as the common denominator: a New York furniture designer named Caleb who works at West Elm. The tale of a serial dater who allegedly “love bombed” women, sent unsolicited intimate pics and then would “ghost” dates without explanation took over TikTok.

Whisper networks of women are ubiquitous. In the thick of the Me Too movement, as related to tales of repeated sexual assault by powerful men, there was a great deal of discussion about both these networks’ power and failures. Quiet warnings help many people but exclude others, particularly those who are vulnerable and at the fringes of the networks. You can imagine very good arguments for this kind of network to scale, for the warnings to go out to everyone who needs them and for there to be real accountability and consequences for the people who deserve it.

The early spread of the story of West Elm Caleb looked much like a whisper network — without the secrecy, but still intended as a warning. However, as the videos spread to millions of people outside New York, news articles began to appear in rapid succession and everyone weighed in — from Hellmann’s Mayonnaise to TikTok itself — West Elm Caleb also seemed to become a metaphor for something bigger than himself. A symbol of everything that is wrong with the online dating scene and of men who aren’t held accountable for bad behavior, regardless of the severity of that behavior. As NBC News’ Kalhan Rosenblatt wrote, it seems like “Everyone has a ‘West Elm Caleb.’”

The real Caleb was also swiftly doxxed, in the sense that his full name and photo have been plastered across the media sphere, and it’s likely that, based on online comments, there were plenty of phone calls to West Elm (that don’t appear to have resulted in his losing his job). This serves as an example of how the internet scales punishment, as well, a contrast to when a whisper network might have resulted in a name’s being scribbled on a bathroom wall.

West Elm Caleb has been compared frequently to Couch Guy, the boyfriend of a TikToker who appeared in her video and was subsequently accused of cheating on her by many of the millions of strangers who watched the clip. This led an army of internet sleuths to pick apart the video for forensic evidence, and even actual body language experts weighed in. Couch Guy (whose real name is Robert) recently wrote about the aftermath of this experience, citing Monica Lewinsky and Sabrina Prater (who was the subject of even more harmful, baseless TikTok speculation) and cautioning against digital pile-ons, especially for people who aren’t public figures. But there isn’t any actual evidence that Couch Guy or Sabrina Prater did anything wrong, in contrast (allegedly) to West Elm Caleb or one of the most famous cases of online public shaming: Justine Sacco.

So did Caleb — or any of these people — deserve the emotional and sometimes professional consequences of a digital pile-on? There is no question that this growing trend toward collective sleuthing and call-outs has led to forms of accountability. Just this week, a financial adviser from Merrill Lynch was arrested and fired after a video circulating on TikTok was alleged to show him berating and physically assaulting teenagers working at a smoothie shop.

However, the line between justice and unreasonable punishment can be a challenging one to draw. I find it unlikely that the women who first spoke out about Caleb were out to destroy his life. And regardless of what impact this actually has had on his life, even for those who think West Elm Caleb’s punishment was extreme and inappropriate, it’s not hard to sympathize with the desire of women to warn other women about potentially shady men.

A common quip about TikTok is that the algorithm knows everything about you within minutes: your age, your hobbies, your job, your sexuality. There is some truth to this; the recommender system that fuels the “for you” page on TikTok is amazingly good at showing you what you want to see. Ina study, LGBTQ TikTok users expressed how this eerie accuracy feels simultaneously validating and invasive. I therefore find it unsurprising that a video made by a woman in New York about a bad dating experience was pushed onto the feeds of other single women of a similar age in New York who had also had bad dating experiences. TikTok connected just the right people.

The problem is that as the affordances of social media bring more people into the fray, the more likely it is that some of these people will take things too far.

The degree of disagreement over the fate of West Elm Caleb demonstrates exactly why these are hard problems to solve. They also involve, like most issues that implicate both the good and the bad of social media, a tangle of human flaws and technological flaws. The best we can do is to try to take lessons from these situations so we can work on both in the hope of enjoying more of the wonderful, connecting, powerful kind of social media without as much of the harmful kind.

Casey Fiesler

Casey Fiesler, Ph.D., J.D., is an assistant professor in the department of information science at University of Colorado Boulder. She researches and teaches in the area of online communities and technology ethics. You can also find her talking about this topics on TikTok at @professorcasey. 

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