Ben Sixsmith

‘West Elm Caleb’ and the vindictiveness of a social media feeding frenzy

‘West Elm Caleb’ and the vindictiveness of a social media feeding frenzy
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The saga of ‘West Elm Caleb’ will make you wish that you had never used the internet. It will make you wish that you had never heard of the internet. It is the sort of thing that would make Ted Kaczynski feel vindicated, if his prison guards forced him to look at social media as some kind of esoteric punishment.

I will keep the background short and sweet, or, rather, short and sour. On TikTok, last week, various women in New York uploaded videos about a young man, Caleb, who had both ‘love bombed’ and then ‘ghosted’ them — or, in other words, made it seem as if he was intensely attracted to them and then disappeared into the night. (‘Love bombing’, I gather, is meant to refer to the extravagant displays of affection that abusers will rain down on their targets after violating them, but who are we on social media if not some kind of victim?) Young Caleb even had the gall — allegedly, at least — to meet two different women on the same day. Truly, if this were the 1800s he couldn’t go the toilet without fearing that a dad might burst through the door.

Yet these are not the 1800s, for better or worse. Welcome to dating in the 21st century, ladies. Caleb sounds like a cad but if you want casual dating, don’t be too surprised when people treat you casually as well. I sympathise with people who expect commitment, or at least consideration from others, but that isn’t always the case. At least one of the women who was hyperventilating about Caleb's ‘audacity’ exposed her own hypocritical attitude when she admitted, in passing, that she had planned to add him to her ‘arsenal’. Women are heavily favoured by the demographics of dating applications and seem in some cases to want all of the affirmation and none of the disinterest.

So far, so sordid. What is striking about this case, however, is how much of the internet rallied around to ruin the life of an insensitive but ultimately unexceptional man. Videos spawned videos and memes spawned memes as people saw the chance to be involved in a good old fashioned witch hunt. Caleb had his name, face and job exposed for all to see. Journalists hassled his employers. Even brands, smelling a chance for viral marketing like sharks smell blood, got in on the action. Hellman’s, the mayonnaise manufacturer, thought it would be clever and funny to upload a tweet saying ‘West Elm Caleb thinks mayo is spicy.’ Imagine the average Hellman's customer trying to make sense of that.

In 2015, Jon Ronson published his book So You've Been Publicly Shamed. Drawing on cases such as that of Justine Sacco, who was monstered online for publishing a well-meaning joke about HIV, Ronson warned of the obnoxious tendency for online lynch mobs to savage random people on social media under the guise of principled moral outrage.

The strange case of ‘West Elm Caleb’ demonstrates that not only can the victims of such cancellings be random people but that they do not even have to consciously contribute to the public space. (It is an easy but correct point to make that if a woman was in Caleb’s place, the backlash would be swift, violent and full of cries about misogyny.)

There is no easy way of ending this phenomenon. Attention, and self-righteousness, are far too tempting for people not to get involved in ruining some poor sod's life. I would like to believe that a brand such as Hellman’s would get some egg-based condiment on their face for participating but even that might be optimistic. Still, we should try to resist the urge to join a chase when blood is in the air, and begin to criticise those who do. Perhaps with enough of a critical response it might seem like less of a convenient means of gaining status and entertainment.

Meanwhile, do not date people and then disappear. It degrades your partners and it degrades yourself. Perhaps with a more open attitude you might realise that you want a second date, and a third, and a fourth. But whatever you decide to do in your private life, promise me this: do not date people who might rant about your evening on social media. You can tell them by their tone and the whites of their eyes.