West Elm Caleb Was an Algorithmic Trap

In the endless scroll of TikTok's For You page, the real predator was always capitalism and its ability to mine heartache for money.

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West Elm Caleb Was an Algorithmic Trap
Screenshot:@kellsbellsbaby/TikTok, @meemschou/TikTok

If you live in New York, on the internet, or somewhere in-between, by now you’ve probably heard the story of West Elm Caleb: a tall, handsome, white man presumably working for furniture purveyor West Elm, who, by all accounts, has made the dating app Hinge his playground in recent… months? Weeks? Time moves so quickly on social media, it’s impossible to tell at this point!

As the lore goes, Caleb casually dated multiple women at once, sent several of them the same Spotify playlist he made “personally” for them, allegedly sent at least one unsolicited dick pic, and ghosted nearly all of these women at some point. Shortly thereafter, many of these women that he dated or had contact with in the greater New York City area started sharing their stories about him on TikTok. Recognizing one another’s anecdotes, the women connected with each other and exchanged data, publicly. What’s followed has been nothing short of a viral outrage storm that swiftly saturated the TikTok feeds of nearly everyone in New York and outside of it, before inevitably spreading onto Twitter and a number of media outlets, from Buzzfeed and Mic to Rolling Stone.

I’m not here to defend West Elm Caleb’s behaviors, nor the numerous TikTok users who have unionized against him—each side has enough allies already. In fact, the spread of this story has gotten so wildly out of hand that defenders of both sides have been compared to angry mobs, and I don’t entirely disagree with that appraisal.

Perhaps the most harrowing lesson of this saga is that capitalism and insidious social media algorithms can extract profit and clout from nearly every situation, even the once-private disappointments of our dating and sex lives. TikTok’s algorithm, while primarily mysterious, isn’t totally an enigma: We know it recommends based on location and tells you who in your phone book is also on the app. And, sure, it’s also fueled by outrage, morbid curiosity, and a lust for the dirty deets. All of these factors were likely what catapulted the West Elm Caleb saga into social media hell.

In today’s social media landscape, these are undeniably wildly profitable forces: Just days after West Elm Caleb went mainstream, some of the TikTokers and social influencers who shared their initial Caleb stories had reportedly already copped lucrative sponsorships with vibrator companies. There’s nothing, apparently—not even the deep-seated traditions, friendships, and supports that have long helped women survive dating—that can’t ultimately be mined and commodified for profit.

The reality is that mass internet outrage routinely creates dangerous situations for users like doxxing and targeted harassment, and this continues to happen because social media platforms, brands, and influencers stand to profit. As Ryan Broderick points out in his newsletter Garbage Day:

“TikTok built a witch hunt machine and doesn’t really give a shit what people do with it. Its users have been trained to follow trending topics, forensically analyze each other’s content, and endlessly iterate and remix to build online clout that is now directly linked to actual personal wealth and success.”

As some of the TikTokers who originally shared their stories of Caleb have tried to explain, more so than their acts of storytelling on the internet and connecting with other women to support each other, what caused the story to snowball into a viral media sensation was the sleuthing and doxing carried out by their followers, and the swiftness with which prominent media outlets picked up the story. It’s easy to understand the mass appeal of a tale like this—many people have encountered a West Elm Caleb of their own at some point, and relatable stories often have the power to go viral because of the momentary catharsis they provide to even the most casual onlooker.

But the reactionary culture we’re witnessing in real-time clearly has its pitfalls, even its dangers, and the internet culture newsletter Embedded points out that we should all question the extent that public spectacle can meaningfully address interpersonal harm: “I hope he feels genuine remorse and offers a satisfactory apology to the women he’s hurt. But I don’t know if 15 million other people need to be part of it.”

Ultimately, we have to foster some way to talk about disrespectful and harmful dating behaviors that doesn’t create an entire industrial complex. The only winners here are TikTok and vibrator companies. However momentarily cathartic it may have felt to pile on an indisputably hurtful man, I’m not convinced Caleb’s “victims” were really helped or healed by the situation that’s since unfolded.

Women’s shared support systems and information networks have always been essential to care for each other amid the minefield that is modern dating—but these systems also require a degree of maturity and thoughtfulness. In order for them to really, actually serve us, we have to recognize that we’re all adults, and there are many unglamorous but non-abusive experiences we’re going to weather in our dating lives. The nuanced, multi-layered conversations around these women’s experiences are necessary for us to have in the age of dating apps. TikTok’s voyeuristic algorithm and the militant, pile-on culture that drives many of its users clearly render it a counterproductive, sometimes unsafe platform to have these conversations.

At the end of the day, the real villain of this sprawling epic on modern dating extends beyond a particular West Elm employee. Buried beneath a seemingly endless TikTok “For You” page and yet another internet outrage fiasco, the more insidious predators appear to be TikTok and capitalism—and in particular, the algorithmic tools at their disposal to mine viral conflict for profit.

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