West Elm Caleb Is Whatever
Dear god get me out of this matrix
I have made content about dating for a long time. I wrote a book about it, I really did. In fact I think most young women should really read it, not just a shameless self plug but an earnest plea to engage with your elders (me) who was extremely messy and reactive online and have, truly, learned so much.
All of my drawings look the same, a circle or a badly drawn trophy. Like a Rorschach test people would tell me who they saw. An ex, their mother, that guy they matched with on Hinge last week. “Did we all date the same guy?” people would comment. Sometimes people would be insistent that I named my cartoons. Who is this one about? Was this about my ex? Sometimes they’d tag him, just for good measure. My work is about patterns, not people: this is a slogan I would repeat often. But the slogan didn’t do much to satiate the hungry maw of people wanting details. Of wanting a person to blame. One person. A man, a name, someone to point to, to rally against.
A few years into making this content, my perspective started to shift. I had started with this insistence that awards for good boys was about men, and I saw quite viscerally what a happy accident I’d created: my thesis was genderless. It wasn’t even limited to dating. It was vast, sprawling, and limitless. I tried to expand it, talk about other things. It wasn’t as catchy as the stuff “men are trash” could be projected onto. That stressed me out so I simply stopped posting, and started using the newsletter, which you are now reading.
My point is that content about dating is very much part of the internet landscape, and it does extremely well. It’s fun! So many of us can relate! Love is hard! People do fucked up things; it can feel extremely, genuinely validating to know that other people have also had really shitty experiences in these realms. You are not alone!
But it’s a complicated terrain—one that often conflates ideas, or spawns reactiveness that may seem ill-fitted for the problem in question. I have always felt extremely uncomfortable about screenshot dating accounts, often with identifying details still included. It is even stranger when those running these pages are going into dating apps specifically to find things to post. In the quick proliferation of content about dating came a context collapse, and absolute meaninglessness to many words that did, once, mean things. “Accountability” or “toxicity” are real things, now flattened, used so often and with myriad meanings that they lose meaning. Men become the devil, ghosting is a cardinal sin. Lost in this vastness was any much-needed nuance to help guide us.
Which brings us to West Elm Caleb.
I’m off most social media, so I am parsing this phenomenon from what other people have written about it. Here’s how Today summarizes the situation:
"West Elm Caleb" is a viral nickname that was given to a serial dater on Hinge, a popular dating app. Women on TikTok gave him the moniker because his profile states that he works for the furniture company West Elm. The hashtag #WestElmCaleb started trending on TikTok ever since a few women realized they dated the same guy who treated them poorly.” That same article also notes, briefly, that “some TikTokers allege that Caleb has been sending them unwanted nude photos, sharing Spotify playlists that he's made for other girls and ghosting them after a few weeks of "love bombing," aka when someone you gives you a lot affection in a short period of time.”
Love bombing, ghosting, and being a repeat Spotify playlist sender—these things are annoying but not something that needs warning about. It happens. Only briefly does this article note that some people allege he sent nonconsensual nudes, which is quite different from ghosting. Does it merit this sort of awareness-raising campaign? I don’t know. What actually happened? I also don’t know. Importantly, a friend clarified for me that much of the Discourse seems to conflate the people who actually went on a date with him—who didn’t post pictures of him—with the masses of people who jumped in and decided finding this man was vitally important. That’s a crucial point that needs distinction. If the original video users (who most likely never expected their content to take off in this way) were simply relating an experience without identifying details, and The Followers took it upon themselves to find the person, what are we to do? How do you stop that? I don’t think you can, short of not posting in the first place.
Why, or how, did this undulating mob of frenetic behavior ever delude its own followers that this was productive; that this was justice? This is not a life-saving whisper network, this is social media. We are not safe here—no one is. The fact this video went viral in the first place should show you that. Content is not elevated to keep women safe; to keep anyone safe. It is elevated by what gets clicks, by SEO, by likes, by the ease in which brands can jump into the conversation. We are the product here: our attention, our experiences, our trauma. An unfortunate irony is that any real and immediate danger posed by this person is quickly drowned out by the co-option of the experience into something everyone needs a Hot Take about. Like me, right now. All of us are culpable, that’s the truth.
A Mashable article notes how the first woman to post about him said this: “if this video shows up on your For You Page and you happen to be dating a West Elm Caleb, consider yourself warned and keep your guard up."
In this, the warning seems to be that this type of person—A West Elm Caleb—is toxic. His behavior becomes a broad new term, a shorthand for something. But what? Our definitions of what he did, of what sort of action to take in response, of how to handle it, of what accountability should look like—we all have different definitions for these real things, and in a shared space, perhaps assume everyone has the same lexicon. But we don’t.
Short of Caleb self-flagellating down the street as though he’s in the Seventh Seal, what would true justice look like? What sort of penance, and how public, is expected of him? The apparent disregard for privacy by many users following the story is an atrocious side effect of conspiratorial thinking when it seeps into the drive to create viral content, to make something out of nothing, to make everything a story, everyone, into content. Just because it is about a real thing, a real person, does not mean this is effective and necessary behavior—in fact I would argue the opposite. Mostly, young women using the internet as a way to feel solidarity with each other is, in theory, a beautiful thing. But this is not solidarity, it is a weapon, aimed in an extremely bizarre, targeted direction.
A quick google shows that “West Elm Caleb” is on the redemption arc, which surprises me in a totally different way, and I have to question why the martyrdom comes so swiftly for him without interrogating the flattening impact of a mass of social media strangers deciding this person is evil. In some of these stories too, the takeaway is that we should blame the girls who posted this to begin with—that they are the toxic ones. What if it’s not so simple? What if we refuse to accept a simple binary? Caleb doesn’t have to be an angel for us to question this mob-sleuth-behavior and think it’s weird, to wonder why this sort of viral commotion happens, and if that undermines the severity of other serious issues people share their experiences with.
This story is not about West Elm Caleb, or the girls who dated him. It’s about the unpredictability of viral content. I don’t think the women who posted this to begin with wanted, or ever expected, this sort of reaction. And that’s shitty too. It is not simply People With Platforms who should consider the impact of what they post, because algorithms like those on TikTok elevate anything and everything that seems buzzy. Everyone is a celebrity, or at the very least, everyone is on the cusp of momentary celebrity at all times. You never know what is going to go viral. When I was on Twitter I would often try to craft good viral tweets and they always flopped, while my tweet asking “did a rooster write this” with a screenshot of a Google search for “rooster” still makes the rounds on Reddit and weird meme pages. We just don’t know, when we put this stuff out there, what the response will be. The horrifying thing is once it’s out there you can’t take it back. You have to contend with the reality that in telling your own story, you have inadvertently provided a thread for others to follow, that even if you personally very much don’t want random people on the internet to cling to, some always will, no matter how hard you try to cut the tether.
I don’t have any profound conclusions. I am not taking a side, nor do I think anyone involved is evil. In the rush to try and comprehend the phenomenon on display here—social media is toxic, TL;DR—so much of what I read has tried to impose a Good/Bad narrative on those involved. These platforms ask this of us, and in the aftermath, everyone is looking for someone to blame, someone to peg the thinkpiece on. The question should not be about who emerges the victor here, or who needs martyrdom, but about how we share our experiences, and if it's possible to find solidarity and/or accountability without it becoming a group experiment in doxxing strangers. Social media is beautifully connective, and also woefully public. Tweets and videos meant for locals become fodder for people across the world. We could go private, we could keep things in group texts, and perhaps that’s the best option.
With love and until next time,
Shelby (and Clem)