The Meta Guide #7: Online Witch Hunt for a New Internet Villain and the Many Faces of Dolly Parton
A week ago, no one had heard of West Elm Caleb. Now the internet hounds have put a target on his back and are chasing him with all their might. What happened? Several New York women discovered through the short film app TikTok that they had all dated the same man who had a strange approach. The “news” broke after jewelry designer Mimi Shou posted a warning on TikTok about a certain Caleb’s dating practices.
Soon his timeline was filled with the comment, “It’s not the West Elm Caleb, is it?” Although he turned out not to be the same person the Internet is currently so obsessed with, he sparked an online witch hunt. He was born a new internet villain.
For the past two years, Sander Duivestein has been hiding in the world of deepfakes, fake news, conspiracy theories, influencers, virtual personas, Gen Z, memes, cryptocurrencies, NFTs, Web 3.0, virtual reality and the metaverse. This resulted in the book really fake outlining how the fake and the real are intertwined and how the fake might be worth more than the real. At De Metagids, he refers weekly to Marketingfacts about the impact of the Metaverse on our economy and society.
We now know that Caleb is 25 years old, 6 feet 3 inches tall, wears a mustache, and works as a furniture designer for the West Elm brand (hence the nickname). To the ladies he had his eye on, about half of New York if reports are to be believed, he initially bombarded them with a sea of compliments (“love bombs”), made a special Spotify playlist for they. they seem to be the same every time), and then after a series of dates they drop like a brick by not being heard at all (“ghosting”).
Videos about West Elm Caleb have now been viewed more than 120 million times. The hashtag #westelmcaleb was not only limited to TikTok, but also took on a life of its own on other social networks. Traditional media outlets like the New York Times, The Washington Post, and Rolling Stone magazine also pay attention to the latest internet drama. Journalists even harassed his employer for a story and several brands, such as Ruggable and Uno (from the card game), connected with his announcements about the craze.
Caleb’s story is not isolated, it resembles that of another meme, that of the Couch Guy. Here, too, TikTok and its users played an unusual role. A video showed how Lauren surprised her boyfriend Robert, with whom she had a long-distance relationship, with an unexpected visit. At first glance, nothing seemed wrong, were it not for the fact that her boyfriend was sitting on the couch with several ladies when she arrived. The 19-second video was first shared among his 200 followers, who rated it positively.
Soon the outsiders began to get involved in the discussion. “Girl, he’s not loyal.” “Red flag! He didn’t jump off the couch excited.” And, “If my husband sat on a couch full of girls, he would walk out the door.” It led to “the most intense forensic investigation since the Kennedy assassination,” according to talk show host Trevor Noah. Every frame of the film was subjected to extensive analysis, even body language experts got involved in the debate. The entertainment value of the meme was considered more important than the feelings of the people involved behind it.
TikTok is the new story
By liking, sharing or commenting on something, the user feels involved and believes that they have the right to interfere with it. The brief, visual nature of TikTok gives users an even stronger sense of being a part of the story unfolding in front of them. Traditional gossip channels like Story and Prive, but also RTL Boulevard put celebrities and public figures in the spotlight, TikTok turns its attention to Jan in the cap. In the case of TikTok, she does not stop at a single focus. The underlying algorithm is programmed to prioritize and distribute sensational and emotional content at lightning speed, giving the protagonist the feeling of standing on the illuminated center step of a football stadium filled with people whooping and screaming.
A character is made online, an avatar, a symbol of unknown people, from which a narrative is elaborated that is dramatized en masse. In this way whole (visual) story worlds are set up, in which you can get lost thanks to the underlying algorithms. As if you were all playing an online adventure game, without taking into account the possible consequences for the protagonist or antagonist of the story. Man is no longer the end, but the means.
West Elm Caleb and Couch Guy’s TikTok drama shows once again that when underlying algorithms blow up our personal problems into bite-sized, overrated shows, we lose sight of the real-world consequences. Media critic Neil Postman (1931–2003) warned of this in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985): “When a nation is distracted by trivialities, when cultural life redefines itself in a continuous round of entertainment, when the public serious in a sort of baby talk, when ultimately a nation becomes an audience and its government a circus act, a nation is at high risk: cultural death is a real possibility.
Test by TikTok
West Elm Caleb has become a universal symbol of the bad date we’ve all had. Everybody has an opinion about it and some get a commercial benefit from it. The fact is that this is a real person of flesh and blood, who has not asked to appear in the digital panopticon of TikTok. Since then, Caleb himself has taken all of his social media profiles offline and seems to have gone with the northern sun. Of course, the aggrieved ladies have every right to express their displeasure at the way they have been treated, it is not a license for the internet mafia to launch an online hate campaign against someone whose biggest flaw is that they don’t communicate well. Holding someone responsible is different from deliberately destroying someone’s life.
We are also familiar with this phenomenon in the Netherlands. For this we only have to look at Yvonne Coldeweijer’s juice channel. She has turned her business model into turning gossip into profitable memes. She even she is the proud owner of a Telegram channel, where the hard core of her espionage army he pays 10 euros a month to keep up with his latest sensational gossip.
Online, we’ve created a payment culture where confrontation is no longer required. Before the Internet court you are primarily guilty, the proof of innocence is too late in advance. The internet mafia is not looking for the truth, they just want to be entertained. How far that “entertainment” goes, became clear from the flare incident that recently took place in front of Deputy Prime Minister Sigrid Kaag. Blinded by his own mythological trap and encouraged by viewers on his live stream, 29-year-old suspect Max van den B. went to tell a story with a lit torch. Kaag called these events “threatening and terrifying.”
TikTok is tabloid, court and executioner in one. It’s an almost deadly combination. Finally, in line with the previous trend in the TikTok verse, a series of beautiful ideas from Dutch soil:
- The BOOS broadcast shows the power shift in media land. “Transparency and ethics seem to be winning over machismo and throbbing glamour. […] Broadcasters face the task of giving wide reach to the new media culture, of which Hofman is an exponent, if they want to attract new generations of media users. A media culture that values transparency and ethics over charm and stardom. In which a live broadcast in some corner of the Internet can win against an audience of millions who on Saturday night, from the sofa, linearly look at the appearances of others.
- On Twitter, Proportion often beats Reason. “If Instagram is the social media for athletes and models, LinkedIn the platform for racing tigers, and Facebook the channel for cat and kitten photos, then Twitter is the portal for the eternal know-it-all. Nowhere are phenomena like whataboutisms (comparisons meant to expose the hypocrisy of others) and virtue signaling (demonstrations of your own moral correctness) as rampant as in this app. Anyone who wants can be surprised every day on Twitter about the opinion of others and feel ‘hot’ above it with a witty comment. It immediately reminded me of a compilation singer Dolly Parton once put out about herself.
- Your reality is not mine: how technology and digital culture are destroying our reality. “What is a shared reality does not only depend on the material reality that we can study by discovering underlying mechanisms. It also depends on the sociocultural reality that we can study by observing how our reality is socially constructed and how these constructions determine our vision of material reality. […] Not only our shared facts, but also our shared fictions are shattered. […] A world without shared reality and without shared fiction is a world without binding contract. In such a world, society can fall apart into increasingly different groups that face each other in the face of life. These are exactly the points I mentioned in my previous Meta Guide #6. we move from Post-Truth to Post-Reality. It is also the underlying premise of our Real Fake book.
- Digital detox. The Dutch philosopher Hans Schnitzler spoke at length in this Tegenlicht broadcast. The core question is: “What is our own responsibility for the poisoned living environment of online society?” Recommended! Also read his book Wij Nihilisten.