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Stop canceling normal people who go viral

It’s making the world a shittier place. West Elm Caleb is only the most recent example.

Six hands with fingers pointed accusingly at one another. Getty Images/iStockphoto

What’s worse, ghosting someone you met on a dating app or calling up that guy’s workplace and demanding he be fired for ghosting someone on a dating app? This is a question that nobody in the world should ever have to think about, but is unfortunately the kind of question that we must ask ourselves every time a random person is anointed as the internet’s main character.

What I’m talking about, in this case, is a guy known as “West Elm Caleb,” a 25-year-old who works at West Elm and does not seem like a very fun person to date. On TikTok, multiple women have accused him of ghosting, sending unsolicited photos of his dick, and scheduling several dates in the same day. If you have ever been a single 25-year-old in New York City, this kind of behavior is, while certainly not great, hardly uncommon.

But what happened next followed the same exact pattern as everything that has gone viral on TikTok ever. Millions of people became invested in this (niche! not very interesting!) drama because it gives us something easy to be angry or curious or self-righteous about, something to project our own experiences onto, and thereby contributing even more content to the growing avalanche. Naturally, some decided to go look up the central character’s address, phone number, and workplace and share it on the internet.

@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

You do not need me to tell you that the punishment does not exactly seem to fit the crime. What started at the level of juicy group chat drama has exploded into a national conversation, bypassing all measures of scale and scope. The same has happened with other people who have been the target of such dynamics — Sabrina Prater, for instance, the trans woman who was accused of being a serial killer for posting a video of herself dancing that supposedly had “bad vibes,” or Couch Guy, whose crime was seeming unexcited to see his girlfriend enter the room in a TikTok video.

“It’s on social media, so it’s public!” one could argue as a case for people’s right to act like forensic analysts on social media, and that is true. But this justification is typically valid when a) the person posting is someone of note, like a celebrity or a politician, and b) when the stakes are even a little bit high. In most cases of normal-person canceling, neither standard is met. Instead, it’s mob justice and vigilante detective work typically reserved for, say, unmasking the Zodiac killer, except weaponized against normal people.

In other words, it’s cancel culture in its creepiest form. And thanks to algorithms that prioritize engagement above all else, the stuff that gets people riled up the most is what floats to the surface. West Elm Caleb is only the latest example of many to come.

The case of Couch Guy

Imagine: You, a college student, are about to surprise your long-distance boyfriend at his own school. You’ve choreographed the moment; your mutual friends are there to help you orchestrate and film the big reveal. You enter the room, he gets up to hug you, everyone’s smiling. You set the resulting video to an Ellie Goulding song that plays at the emotional height of the rom-com Bridget Jones’s Baby. You post it on TikTok.

This is what Lauren Zarras did on September 21, although nothing that happened after would go according to plan. Almost immediately, commenters began to joke about the video’s “bad vibes.” “You can FEEL the awkward tension bro,” wrote one.

Many noted that when Lauren entered the room, her boyfriend was sitting on the couch with three other girls. “Girl he ain’t loyal,” said another commenter. “He hugged her like she was his aunt at Christmas dinner.” “I’ve never seen someone look so unhappy to see their girlfriend.” As of Friday afternoon, it had 60 million views.

Lauren and her boyfriend — now known internet-wide as “Couch Guy” — had fallen into a common predicament: posting something online in an attempt to garner a certain reaction, then receiving the opposite. There are all kinds of flavors of this phenomenon, from the college student who posted a clip of their newly released song only to be ridiculed for it, to the spiritual influencer whose video about coincidences and manifestation turned him into a meme. Just last week, a woman pitched a story to the Times about a perceived slight from a fellow writer, presumably under the belief that she’d come off looking sympathetic, but then ended up being Twitter’s main character (never a good thing).

In an essay for Slate, Couch Guy — real name Robert McCoy — wrote that he was “the subject of frame-by-frame body language analyses, armchair diagnoses of psychopathy, comparisons to convicted murderers, and general discussions about my ‘bad vibes.’”

Embarrassing moments have delighted the public throughout history. For a piece on what happens when ordinary people go viral for the wrong reasons, Melissa Dahl, author of Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, told me that it’s natural for humans to delight in schadenfreude. “It’s our brains giving us a dose of exposure therapy,” she said. “Maybe the same thing is happening for people who are drawn to cringey content, [maybe they’re] people whose deepest fear is being ostracized or made to look like a fool.”

But the way the internet has colluded to create viral moments out of normal people was perhaps pioneered a decade ago, when Rebecca Black became the epitome of the stereotype of the spoiled rich kid with a bad vanity music video. Platforms like TikTok, where even people with few or no followers often go viral overnight, expedite the shaming process.

The real toxicity within this sort of discourse comes not from viewers but from the web sleuth dynamics that play out afterward. BuzzFeed called the image stills of Couch Guy seemingly grabbing his phone from the girl next to him “sus behavior,” while other creators claimed they could tell he was cheating because of a suspiciously placed arm and a black hair tie that showed up on Couch Guy’s wrist. One woman made a video warning Lauren about how the girls on the couch “are not your friends” because they didn’t immediately jump up to hug her.

@thinksplendid

Like are they ALL supposed to be earth signs? #couchguy

♬ still falling for you - audiobear

Lauren — as well as everyone else in the video — has vehemently denied any shady behavior. “These comments are getting ridiculous and I don’t know why you guys are assuming so much about our relationship,” she said in one TikTok. Couch Guy himself made one that read: “Not everything is true crime. Don’t be a parasocial creep,” yet his comment section is still full of people saying things like, “You can gaslight your girlfriend, you can’t gaslight all of TikTok.”

Couch Guy’s roommate has complained of people in their dorm sneaking messages under the door and trying to ask them about the video. “Y’all are so fucking creepy sometimes, I can’t,” he says. A scroll through Lauren’s previous TikToks shows commenters flocking to every single one, positing at what precise moment they think he “lost interest” in her and giving warnings like, “it’s like watching a soap opera and knowing who the bad guy is.”

Humans love gossip and creating drama where there is none, even more so during the quieter pandemic months. There is a difference, though, between speculating on a celebrity’s dating life and a random college couple who, whether or not they end up together, insist they’re happy right now. There are real-world consequences that can get scary quickly. It’s time to leave West Elm Caleb, Couch Guy, and whatever unfortunate soul becomes the internet’s next reluctant main character, alone.

Update, January 21, 3 pm ET: This story was originally published on October 12, 2021, and has been updated to include details about West Elm Caleb.