If you exist in a specific but growing corner of social media, you may already be sick of hearing about West Elm Caleb, although the social media fervor that thrust him into the zeitgeist only started on Monday. Caleb is a New York City furniture designer who was allegedly dating multiple women simultaneously—until their shared interest was exposed on TikTok. What resulted was a John Tucker Must Die situation in which women on TikTok united to take him down. It’s fitting for the current boom in early 2000s nostalgia, though in this case the new girl in town recruited to break the jerk’s heart was not Brittany Snow but an extremely willing, participatory crowd on a social media platform.
While the internet is debating whether Caleb really is a “Hinge villain” or if doxing has just become normalized (or both), the gushy center of this prickly lollipop is the quintessential side effect of TikTok’s design: collaborative play, and all the good and bad that can come of it. Ultimately, users don’t care about West Elm Caleb. They care about the West Elm Caleb cinematic universe.
West Elm Caleb is an avatar of a real person, “a universal concept,” as one TikTok user put it, and a Trojan Horse containing our worst impulses manifested online. In a TikTok commenting on the “mass campaign with millions of views to essentially ruin [Caleb’s] life” New York Times tech reporter Taylor Lorenz said it was the secondary discourse beyond the original women who posted about dating Caleb that she found especially horrifying, the people urging a mass cancellation event and, essentially, harassment. It’s reminiscent of the “couch guy” situation, in which a public appraisal of a private figure becomes fodder for brands and internet sleuths.
The behavior surrounding the West Elm Caleb phenomenon—like that of “couch guy”—makes more sense when viewed with an understanding of what causes participation beyond Caleb’s takedown and the discourse on morality. Alongside TikToks of women talking about dating him, and men like him, are TikToks within this cinematic universe. There’s the fictional mobilizing of women to protect “New York City girls” from the man; the pretend sleuthing for the playlist he sent women he dated; the imagining of running into him at the gym. Even the Empire State Building’s account jumped in with a joke about dating in the city, narrowing eyes at the mention of West Elm Caleb.
World-building is an essential part of TikTok’s success, and these videos represent the platform’s unique ability to be a place of collaborative play. Some of the most successful, and fun, TikToks revolve around synergistic make-believe—the most charming example of which was the Ratatouille musical users created in spontaneous parts in 2020. In an academic paper evaluating the app, University of Southern California researcher Ethan Kurzrock describes TikTok as a vehicle for “intensified play” within a “virtual play structure,” a digital experience that “corresponds to physical playground experiences.”
This rowdiness is seen on platforms like Twitter as well, to a less evocative degree. If Twitter is a stand-up attempting to outwit the last roast of a main character, TikTok is an improv troupe, ready to “yes and” a contribution and take it to the next level. It creates visual fan-fic: It’s not just dunking on one guy named Caleb, it’s becoming the waitress eavesdropping on his date or the West Elm PR person trying to manage the situation. People put themselves into what was once a story involving a small group of real people who experienced real things and instead push the story forward in whatever way is most witty. It’s why TikTok is where you can find some of the most imaginative content created on social media, and why you can quickly lose control of the narrative.
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In the 2020 paper “TikTok and the ‘Algorithmized Self’” researchers argue the platform is different from other social networking sites (SNS) because it’s less about connecting with a network of friends and more “a site for public performance heavily built on intrapersonal engagement” while creating content for a trending algorithm. “While similarly egocentric and concerned with the performance and management of self-identity, TikTok rewrites the mechanisms of this process through a design that guides users in a different direction than other SNSs,” they write.
Essentially, it’s a digital sandbox that invites make-believe. “The unplanned back and forth motion between creators makes the app an incredibly social playground,” Kurzock writes. “TikTok users play and perform in simulated characters and settings … This video creation app is an escape from reality.”
And it’s an escape from reality when many of our typical opportunities for adult play—this is literally playing, using your free time to do something whimsical—are interrupted by the pandemic. In January 2018, TikTok had 55 million global users. As of September 2021, it had more than 1 billion. Its rise is in part because it’s entertaining, a more positive place than Facebook.
Because platforms present an opportunity for people to continuously figure out how they want to configure them, the exact use of TikTok is always shifting—and it can be many different things at the same time. What’s happening with a situation like West Elm Caleb is seemingly people using the platform to share with a microgroup (women in New York City who may have or may eventually date Caleb) and provide information like they would on other more intimate social networking sites, like Facebook. They aren’t making music-backed tracks with special effects like the TikToks evaluated by Kuzrock in his cinematic study. They’re making front-facing, confessional, and intimate videos.
But the introduced topic—West Elm Caleb—still becomes the subject of imaginative play. That part of TikTok still enters the chat. While Kuzrock’s study excluded front-facing confessionals, TikToks in this format still become cinematic by nature of the platform and how it encourages users. These videos are performance, too—only with higher stakes.
This is not to say TikToks should be confined to lip syncs but to acknowledge that, as one of the first posters of West Elm Caleb put it, “if you leave it up to the TikTok gods” you are actively participating in a system that supports mass participation and interpretation. The intimacy groomed through phrases like “it’s story time,” “bestie,” and “let’s get into it” is false. You’re providing material for a remix, even if that material is the personal details of your, or another’s, life. If you post, there’s the possibility—even inevitably—of mass participation.
This can be really fun, and it can also damage an individual. There’s a saying that every day there is one main character on the internet. The goal is to not become this person. Before he was West Elm Caleb this person was Caleb, someone who was seemingly a dick when it came to dating, but also whose photo is now spread without his consent and whose workplace is now barraged by mentions of the whole debacle. In the digital sandbox, you play—playing with the material, playing detective, playing the Paul Revere of the New York dating scene.
On Thursday, an ex of West Elm Caleb posted her own TikTok, criticizing how far people are taking the situation and saying “you need to remember that there are actually human beings behind your screen.” But TikTok is designed to capitalize on your attention, to entertain. This means transforming the real to the unreal at the pace the crowd demands and turning the private into performance.
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