Ghosting is shitty behaviour, but the ensuing trial-by-internet of an IRL person is shittier still
Look, anyone who knows me personally knows I am loath to write a defence of a man who has demonstrated behaviour generally ascribed to the archetype of a fuckboy, but the targeted attack of said man – better known by his internet-given moniker West Elm Caleb – has got way out of hand. What started as a light-hearted take on an unfortunate, but not uncommon dating story posted to TikTok has since spiralled out into a hashtag that now has 32.9 million views at the time of writing, sparking endless Twitter threads, articles, NFTs (I wish I was joking) and even suggested PR marketing strategies. As women across NYC figured out they were all talking to the same 6”4’ guy who designed furniture for West Elm and routinely ghosted them all, #WestElmCaleb became shorthand for every shitty behaviour ever exhibited by a man, while a rabid trial-by-internet turned the real Caleb into a pariah of NYC dating overnight. Set upon by a relentless mob who exposed photos and personal details in their pursuit to get him fired or worse, even I – whose own fumble through the minefield of London dating has me teetering on the precipice of misandry – felt for the poor bastard at the eye of the storm.
Therein lies the crux of the problem with the furore surrounding West Elm Caleb, that he – as many seem to have forgotten – is an IRL person. Through narratives constrained by character limits and three-minute videos, the real Caleb has been flattened and fed back to an audience thriving off this concept of West Elm Caleb, a kind of softboi everyman and thus an easy metaphor for all mens’ dating sins. Powered by an algorithm that loves to sleuth, TikTok mobilised as it would to catch a cheater or report a true crime story, unionising the girls of NYC against one common enemy. Girlboss energy run amok, the “yasss queen” vibe of the posts and comments actively encouraging the harassment of an otherwise unremarkable guy was alarmingly dissonant. In our urgency to make like the girls of John Tucker Must Die who “don’t get mad, get even,” by orchestrating the downfall of the film’s titular fuckboy, we are ignoring that this isn’t actually a movie, and what we say and do has real-life repercussions. The same guilt those girls feel when they realise devising the calculated heartbreak of an albeit dishonest, but ultimately human person who will, like all of us, make mistakes is what should be in our minds – as well as contextualising this against the ways the world has changed since the film came out.
Made in 2006, when Facebook and Twitter were still in their infancy, and when Instagram and TikTok were barely a blip in their creators’ minds, none of the hijinks and attempts at public humiliation in John Tucker would have the permanence and reach they would now have. West Elm Caleb’s behaviour, while bad, should be understood as symptomatic of a wider dating hellscape misshapen by apps and social media – forces that have similarly skewed our perception of “just” punishment for him. TikTok, where this story originated, is a platform built on our increasing performance of reality, where users are positioned as creators, adopting “TikTok voice” (an even more deranged evolution of YouTuber voice) to narrate clips of situations played for maximum entertainment value. In this, there is no room for nuance: humour is parroted verbatim, morphing into misinformation at best, malign intent at worst. “I don’t give a fuck if this man lives or dies,” @kateglavan jarringly “jokes” at one point while delivering her own West Elm Caleb receipts, later posting a video to clarify her tone. People with no connection to the original situation are presented on the same For You Page, with little to no context, feeding the app’s insatiable appetite for “tea” or drama without much thought for the IRL implications. This dystopian presentation of “fact” doesn’t help to hold people accountable for their actions, it just further destabilises the landscape where we should be able to learn by trial and tribulation. Navigating the pitfalls of knowing someone intimately is hard enough without our young, dumb mistakes haunting us forever online
Kristen Roupeian’s 2017 viral New Yorker short story “Cat Person” is an early precursor to this. Despite being 4,000 words, Alexis Nowicki’s 2021 follow-up Slate article “Cat Person and Me” showed there was more to the original story that galvanised women in recognising and sharing their own experiences of bad sex with older men. Prompted by its uncanny likeness to her own life, Nowicki confronts Roupeian’s autofiction account of a relationship with “Robert” (“Charles” in Nowicki’s piece) and gives us an insight into the real-life Robert/Charles’ reaction to being the subject of a story that “sent the internet into meltdown.” “Am I a slimeball?” he asks Nowicki via text, echoing West Elm Caleb’s own alleged response to his own drama. Both are marked in that this is the only direct input they have on their narrative online – Robert/Charles because he died unexpectedly in the years between their conversation and her article. Posthumously detailing a man who struggled with his social anxieties and insecurities while showing generosity to his friends and family, Nowicki’s account is a reminder of the complex nature of humanity often sidelined by our thirst for a sensationalised story. Its purpose, to add nuance after the fact, sadly also demonstrates how, try as you might, attempts to edit or retract statements never travel as far as the initial damning video or piece, such is the way these algorithms promote outrage or negativity without discernment since it all registers as engagement, hateful or otherwise. Bleakly, the snowball of doxxing, death threats, and other disgusting behaviour that spills forth from the darkest corners of the internet doesn’t stop. No matter what you do, there will always be someone that wants to read things at their lowest common denominator, who will bay for blood regardless of the severity of the perceived “crime.”
In an age of “cancellation”, we can’t be naïve to the way the internet works anymore, especially when we use it to document something as interpersonal and subjective as dating. At least in the use of pseudonyms, both Roupeian and Nowicki are able to muse on this complicated relationship in the safety provided by a degree of anonymity. By all means, drag your own West Elm Calebs in the group chat between friends, or – failing that – find anonymous solidarity in sharing your communally crappy experiences on submission accounts like @beam_me_up_softboi. You can even ask the internet, if you still have to, through “Am I The Asshole?” Reddit threads. There are ways to hold people accountable for their actions or find a kind of closure and healing through the commonality of our interactions with the West Elm Calebs of the world that don’t involve setting an internet mob on them, or weirdly commodifying the situation into opportunities for product placement. This mentality forgets we are all struggling at varying degrees in our search for human connection and acceptance, even before the dimension of trial-by-internet is added to it. New to a big city, with the cockiness of youth behind him, West Elm Caleb would probably have learned his lesson in time like all of us do, without the need to drag him on a world stage. He, like all of us, deserves a safe space to be messy and learn from mistakes, because isn’t that what dating is all about: fucking up and forgiving? What place do we, collectively, have to judge how “justice” is served in something so personal? Live, laugh, love, and let go. The world is ending anyway, West Elm Calebs or not.