“West Elm Caleb” has ceased to be a person. He’s no longer a tall man with a mustache who has been accused of being a toxic, serial dater by a gaggle of women in New York City. Instead, the power of TikTok’s incredibly specific algorithm has turned him into a spectacle and a symbol: a stand-in for all the crappy men who have genuinely and truly hurt the women they’ve dated over the years. The thing is, though, that one person cannot and should not bear the brunt of the shame for the behavior of an entire group. But that is a nuance social media’s mechanisms are not built to recognize.
The whole event is built on a case of mistaken identity, a metaphor that is perhaps almost too on-the-nose. Last week, a New York–based jewelry designer and influencer named Mimi Shou posted a short, jokey TikTok about getting ghosted by a man named Caleb. That Caleb is not the infamous West Elm Caleb—but West Elm Caleb was invoked in the comments section by other women so many times it became like Beetlejuice. Say his name enough, and there he’d be—or, at least, there would be another woman saying, “I dated him, and he did those things to me, too.” (West Elm Caleb works for West Elm, hence the nickname.) Shou then posted a follow-up TikTok about West Elm Caleb, as a warning to other women. Soon after, another TikTok creator, Kate Glavan, posted a video saying she’d gone on a date with Caleb—the West Elm version—the same day he’d woken up in bed with a different woman. More and more women started joining the TikTok chorus telling similar anecdotes about this man. Stories about ghosting and “love-bombing,” a term for being overly affectionate in a way that was ultimately disingenuous, started cropping up by the handful. Just like that, TikTok had unfurled a real-life John Tucker Must Die reboot, a film that is almost certainly already in the works after this week.
If you’ve ever dated using “the apps,” you’ll know these are not terribly unique experiences. That doesn’t make them any less stinging, but this behavior is straight out of a modern-day dating textbook. (It seems only fair here to out myself as a person who has been both the ghosted and the ghoster. I’m not proud of it, but that’s reality.) The story of West Elm Caleb, however, moves from one about bad date clichés to something darker when two women on TikTok allege Caleb sent them unsolicited pictures of his penis. Receiving an unsolicited dick pic isn’t pleasant, to say the least. If you haven’t experienced the specific awfulness that is having digital genitalia that you did not ask to see shoved in front of your eyes, I’m happy for you. As a female journalist on the internet and, frankly, a woman who owns a cellphone, I’m no stranger to the ways in which these images are weaponized to make a person feel powerless.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this—all of it—and I’m genuinely not sure what punishment I’d like to see levied against the people who have done this to me. It’s disgusting behavior, but the question of what would really constitute “justice” in these situations feels like it would have to be personal and specific. Instead, a man known only to the majority of us as West Elm Caleb is on trial with a jury composed of the entire internet.
The hashtag has racked up nearly 30 million views in just a matter of days. Caleb’s personal information, from his hometown to where he lives now, has been blasted across the internet. At least one woman on TikTok claimed to have tracked him down to a COVID testing line. I cannot say for certain, but knowing what I know about the internet, I would wager a decent bet that emails and phone calls have been placed to both his employer and his mother about his supposed bad deeds. What we find ourselves with is a situation where the scale of the reaction greatly outmatches that of the catalyzing behavior. “I wish there was a space to say that someone—who’s not a public figure, just a guy—can be guilty of incredibly shitty behavior and doesn’t deserve worldwide public shaming where that wouldn’t be received as a defense of the behavior,” Kate Lindsay wrote in her newsletter, Embedded, on Thursday. I also find myself seeking this space.
Having a black-and-white opinion about what kind of punishment is warranted in this situation would make it easier for me to participate here, sure. A specific group of people on the internet would have my back, and another group would think I was dead wrong. But what is happening with the West Elm Caleb saga doesn’t fit so easily into any one punitive category. Instead, it lies somewhere in between the two sides: If a person who has been accused of doing bad things is never given the chance to grow and stop doing bad things, what good does that do any of us? And by contrast, if a person who is accused of doing bad things is never held to account, how will we, societally, move to a place where people stop doing those things entirely?
Offering up anecdotes about people sending me unwanted pictures of dicks feels like some feeble attempt to signal that you should hear me out because I have lived experience, like I’m subconsciously trying to protect myself against the very same internet pile-on that Caleb is currently experiencing. Anybody who spends a decent chunk of their days online knows that a mob is always looming, after all. The desire for protection is really what the entirety of West Elm Caleb was always supposed to be about anyway—women keeping other women, and themselves, safe from bad actors and actions. Caleb getting his comeuppance for whatever he did to these women was always, at best, a second-tier goal. In this way, the West Elm Caleb TikTok community has fallen into the same trap that has ensnared many whisper networks of the past. The so-called Shitty Media Men list, which circulated among women in New York City’s media industry back in 2017, was originally intended as a handbook, noting which men in the business to avoid and why. Once the list was made public, the alt-right twisted it until it became utterly useless to the very women it was built to help. Lulu, a 2013 dating app where women could leave ratings and reviews of men they dated, didn’t take long before it became a complete cesspool.
After she posted her video about Caleb on TikTok, Kate Pearce told Slate there were only a half-dozen videos about him. At that point, it genuinely felt like sharing her story on the platform was a way to connect with women who had shared the same experience—not encourage people to brandish their pitchforks and go searching for him. The end goal, ideally, was heading other New York women off at the pass. (Pearce, who says she received two unsolicited photos, said she has been overwhelmed by the scale of the response and blowback against not just Caleb, but also her personally. She does not, however, believe he should lose his job.) But what happened after six videos became 600 became 6,000 was that the community grew beyond the limitations of a group of people who actually needed to be involved—well beyond the select group of women Caleb had actually dated. The West Elm Caleb community now consists of every single person in the world, whether they know about it yet or not—many of whom feed on internet drama without consideration for the very real people who star in it. (TikTok itself tweeted and later deleted a joke using the West Elm Caleb hashtag.) That small group of women are the only ones who get a say in the matter of what Caleb does or does not deserve. That power has been taken away from them, once again.
For more on “West Elm Caleb,” listen to the latest episode of ICYMI, Slate’s podcast about internet culture.