If you’re like me, and many other social media users, you already know more than you need to know about “West Elm Caleb.” But in case you don’t — or in case you’ve already forgotten — he’s a tall twenty-five-year-old furniture designer for the West Elm company in New York City, handsome despite a questionable mustache, meeting and dating other young people through dating apps. He tended to approach women enthusiastically at first, then would abruptly ghost them (rude or relatable, depending on who you ask, but not unusual). He was dishonest about the fact that he was dating multiple women (regrettable but not newsworthy). He sent at least one unsolicited nude photo (a vulgar misstep, but also common). He sent them the same Spotify playlist (a creativity fail, especially since he’s an art school graduate).
All of this is known because a couple of the women who dated him made TikToks about the experience. In response, the internet lost its shit.
The women’s TikToks seem weirdly intense, as they breathlessly narrate one completely ordinary outrage after another. At one point, with an astonished expression, one influencer, Kate, says, “Here’s where it gets twisted!” Watching it, I expected some kind of Bluebeard reveal — at least one body, maybe? It turns out he’d had sex with another TikTok influencer the morning of his date with Kate.
For these and other startlingly banal crimes, Caleb has been condemned all over the internet as “abusive” and a “predator.” The world knows his full name and what he looks like. Noting that his identity was public, Kate said in one of her videos about him, “I don’t care whether he lives or dies.” Outraged internet users have been contacting his employer and trying to get him fired. The backlash has also been intense: internet users equally outraged on Caleb’s behalf have harassed the TikTok women, and many more have been using screenshots of their videos to make fun of them. Both groups are engaging in depraved mob justice.
Caleb obviously hasn’t gotten the hang of courtship, but that’s hardly unusual for a twenty-five year old, and his behavior wasn’t criminal or even seriously morally askew. But the women are also quite young, and they don’t deserve the vilification they’re getting either. Caleb’s dates didn’t encourage the rest of the internet to dox him. In fact, to her credit, one of the TikTok women, Kate, posted a follow-up condemning the vituperative internet response and the campaigns against Caleb, making clear that while she thought his dating behavior was “shady,” she didn’t want him to lose his job. She said she posts TikTok videos about her dating life often and had just been venting, not trying to ruin his life.
Neither Caleb nor the women, nor even the internet mob, are the real villains in this scenario.
What’s unhealthy and morally depraved about the #WestElmCaleb scenario is the way large corporations exploited all these human failings and appetites at once, taking minor human drama and giving it potentially catastrophic scale and consequence. It’s likely that the women found each other’s TikTok videos algorithmically because they were in Caleb’s contacts, a reminder that the most private aspects of our lives are just data for social media companies. Worse, major media outlets like the New York Post have published Caleb’s real name with his photo (we’re obviously not linking to that).
Brands got into the act, as New York Times reporter Taylor Lorentz noted on Twitter. TikTok itself tweeted about the drama, drawing still more attention to it. Hellmann’s tweeted, “West Elm Caleb thinks mayo is spicy.” A dating app even exploited the story, advertising on TikTok with the #WestElmCaleb hashtag and putting up a billboard in Manhattan reading: “Red flags: 6’4, mustache, furniture designer.” All these corporate shoutouts added to Caleb’s unsought fame, and, most likely, to the harassment of all parties.
It’s human to pursue sex and to do so badly and stupidly, especially as a young person; to vent about people who inexplicably don’t want us; to long for more from others than they can provide, and to be curious, gossip about, and judge everyone else’s behavior. It’s also human to make up nicknames like “West Elm Caleb” for the people who have offended us, and to warn others about them, whether out of public-spiritedness (as one TikTok user put it, “Looking out for the New York City girlies”) or revenge. There’s nothing exceptional or especially wrong in any of that. These impulses are boring, silly, wonderful, heartbreaking, and engrossing.
What makes the West Elm Caleb saga so dystopian, and alarming, is the canny capture of all these desires by capital, for profit. Brands don’t exist to bring justice for the women of TikTok; they exist to maximize exposure in order to maximize profits. Caleb became a pop-culture phenomenon because it was profitable for many different brands to make him into one. And the scale of this story is ultimately what’s so troubling — and abusive — about it.
Maybe in a few weeks the West Elm Caleb saga will seem fun and silly and all the main players will have moved on, eventually unscathed. I hope so. But it seems unlikely that Caleb can easily recover from so much notoriety, and while the women have had slightly more control over the narrative, so much abrupt attention and public hostility — especially from angry men — seems terribly perilous for them as well. While TikTok — and all social media — can be richly creative, sometimes even fruitfully radical, it’s scary that we keep finding new ways to entrust more of our intimate lives to massive capitalist enterprises that exist only to exploit us, entities that are indifferent to the mental health, reputations, and livelihoods of ordinary people.
The least we can do is blame the right malefactors — the capitalists exploiting our most basic desires — and extend some grace to Caleb, Kate, the chattering masses, and even ourselves.