At first, it seemed like harmless fun, a plotline directly lifted from female buddy romcoms like The Other Woman or John Tucker Must Die: a group of women discovered, via the power of social media, that they had all been dating the same man. West Elm Caleb, as he soon came to be known, was said to be a 6’4″ 25-year-old furniture designer for the upscale furniture brand who had a very specific MO: after matching with various women on dating apps and then showering them with compliments, he would summarily ghost them. It wasn’t until a creator made a video about another 6’4″, New York city-based Caleb that women started banding together and sharing their own experiences with West Elm Caleb on TikTok, which ranged from the absurd (Caleb apparently sent multiple women the same moody Spotify playlist), to the more serious (one woman alleged that Caleb sent an unsolicited dick pics).
West Elm Caleb quickly became a metaphor for single women’s dating struggles, with people across the country banding together in solidarity with the women calling him out for his alleged bad behavior. Within just a few days, however, the West Elm Caleb narrative spun out control. People in TikTok video comments started calling for him to be fired from his job, spamming the brand’s Instagram account; brands ranging from sex toys to rival dating apps to mayonnaise also started profiting off Caleb’s misfortune by alluding to the story in social posts and ads. What had started as a harmless, fairly local trend calling out a bad date rapidly metamorphosed into a mass harassment event, and the women who had initiated the trend largely watched helplessly as they saw their videos take on a life of their own.
One of these women was Leah, aka @jewishbrat, a TikTok creator who requested her last name be withheld to protect her privacy (a courtesy that, in TikTok comments, was not extended to West Elm Caleb, who was repeatedly doxxed). In an interview for Don’t Let This Flop, Rolling Stone‘s podcast about TikTok and internet culture, Leah tells co-hosts Brittany Spanos and Ej Dickson that she had matched with Caleb a few months ago and hit it off with him, only for him to later tell her that he had forgotten her number — a fairly standard narrative in New York City dating, and one that didn’t leave much of an impact on her. “It was a neutral, fine experience for me,” she says. “It didn’t feel great he didn’t remember me, but that’s kind of the casual dating scene and how it works.”
When Leah saw #WestElmCaleb was going viral on TikTok, she found it amusing and made a video recounting her experience with him. “I was more just trying to say, ‘Oh my god, how small is the New York dating scene?'” she says. But as the trend blew up and her video started getting more and more views, she began to be disturbed by the tone of the comments. “They started getting meaner and more aggressive,” she says. “[It] happened so quickly and I was like, ‘OK, I need to say something.’ This is not going in the direction I want it to go. Like, we can make a joke about the fact that he didn’t remember who I was. That was funny. But then it just wasn’t funny anymore.”
After Leah saw New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz’s TikTok video criticizing the West Elm Caleb trend, she decided to take down her videos about him. “The more I was listening to her, I had moments of reflection where I was like, ‘It doesn’t matter how big I’m blowing up, because morally this isn’t the right thing to do,'” she says. “I wanted to make something funny. I wanted to talk about dating in a productive manner and talk about these bad behaviors. It wasn’t productive. It was just destroying someone’s life.”
Leah’s experience going viral has led her to be critical of some of the other creators who have left their own Caleb videos up, and were approached for career opportunities such as dating reality show roles or sex toy sponsorships as a result. It has also led to her contemplating the role that TikTok plays in amplifying content that, whether purposefully or not, targets private individuals for harassment. She compares the fervor over West Elm Caleb to that over Couch Guy, a college student who briefly captured the internet’s attention when he appeared in an awkward video where his girlfriend came for a surprise visit; and, more worryingly, Sabrina Prater, a trans woman who became the center of transphobic TikTok conspiracy theories speculating she was a serial killer.
“Moving forward, I am going to be very, very cautious about the information that I share about other people. It’s not me,” she says. “I don’t think I would want someone to do the same to me, and I think about that a lot. I was like, ‘This could have been me. I didn’t do the same behaviors. I didn’t send unsolicited photos, but this could have been me getting in this trouble.'”