West Elm Caleb's Trial by TikTok

·8-min read
INDIA - 2022/01/24: In this photo illustration a Tiktok logo seen on displayed a smartphone. (Photo Illustration by Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
INDIA - 2022/01/24: In this photo illustration a Tiktok logo seen on displayed a smartphone. (Photo Illustration by Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)


On Jan. 14, Kate Glavan posted a now-deleted vlog lamenting a string of unsuccessful first dates to her thousands of TikTok followers. "All were failures. Haven't gotten contacted by any of them," she said of her dates in a video. But Glavan eventually shifted gears to a more positive note. She said she had another date with a man she nicknamed "Midwest Boy" set for the next day . . . and he seemed promising. "It seems like we got some potential," she said. "The suitor is taller than me, knows what maca powder is, stable work stuff, and we're going to hang tomorrow." Glavan and her followers - along with the rest of the world - would soon learn another nickname for Midwest Boy: "West Elm Caleb."

Who Is West Elm Caleb?

In subsequent videos (which Glavan also deleted) on Monday, Jan. 17, and early Tuesday, Jan. 18, Glavan mentioned very little about her date with Midwest Boy, aside from tentative plans to see him again on Wednesday, Jan. 19. "What if he just f*cking ghosts me? Knock on wood," she joked to her viewers. "He won't. He's texting me right now; we're fine." This was before she'd heard about West Elm Caleb.

Glavan shared in another deleted Jan. 18 video that she'd been tagged in a post discussing someone called "West Elm Caleb." It was through this revelation that Glavan pieced together a timeline and realized another woman, Kellie (@kellsbellsbaby on TikTok), appeared to have been seeing Caleb just before Glavan - down to the day. Kellie, too, posted a series of TikToks about her experience dating West Elm Caleb. In her videos, which also contain a number of apparent text exchanges between her and someone named Caleb, Kellie claims to have matched with Caleb on Hinge and dated him for about six weeks . . . until he allegedly ghosted her.

"What made this snowball is that more people who had the same experience saw this video and then started making more videos about their experience. My assumption is that one of the reasons that could happen is because of the way that TikTok really did show someone exactly what they needed to see."

The growing interest in West Elm Caleb spawned even more accounts from other women claiming to have matched with, texted, and dated West Elm Caleb - some of which contained more serious accusations. However, it is important to note that West Elm Caleb has not been accused of any crime and, therefore, will remain unnamed in this publication. In a now-deleted video, TikToker Kate Pearce recounted her alleged experience texting Caleb, who she claims "love-bombed" her and then ghosted her, along with other disturbing claims. POPSUGAR reached out to Caleb for comment on Pearce's allegations, as well as Glavan's and Kellie's claims, but did not hear back by the time of publication.

How West Elm Caleb Became TikTokers' New Mystery to Solve

"What made this snowball is that more people who had the same experience saw this video and then started making more videos about their experience. My assumption is that one of the reasons that could happen is because of the way that TikTok really did show someone exactly what they needed to see," Casey Fiesler, PhD, JD, assistant professor of information science at University of Colorado Boulder, tells POPSUGAR. "On TikTok, creators get the advice to make relatable content . . . This was the relatable content, even if whoever posted originally probably didn't expect that to be the case."

United by the widespread experience of dating awful people, TikTokers flooded the comments of these and more videos with their dating stories, gossip, and warnings about their own versions of West Elm Caleb. But as the reach of these videos - many of which contained screenshots of Caleb's Hinge profile, alleged text exchanges, and apparent apologies from him - expanded, so did the number of people eager to uncover any new details in the mystery of Caleb, no matter how minute, no matter how revealing, and no matter how accurate. The discourse eventually ignited a collective mission to crack Pandora's Box wide open: who was this West Elm Caleb, what did he do, and why did seemingly everyone know his name, his height, where he lived, and where he worked?

The answer is simple and impossibly complicated: social media.

"There are a few things going on here. One is that sort of collective mystery solving that happens quite a lot online, whether that was the sort of video investigation into Couch Guy, or people trying to figure out what happened to Gabby Petito," says Fiesler. With the Couch Guy "investigation," thousands of TikTok users analyzed milliseconds of a video and relentlessly accused the man in the original video of cheating on his long-distance girlfriend despite several rebuttals from the man and his girlfriend.

The tragic death of Gabby Petito is a much more serious example of online mystery-solving - one that highlights the pros and cons of the spotlight social media can shine on these cases (at least when they center cisgender white people). At the height of the case, TikTok was flooded with theories, tips, comments, and accounts, some of which proved vital. In its final update in the Gabby Petito case, the FBI credited the public's role and tips as "invaluable." Netflix's documentary Don't F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer tracks how a group of committed internet sleuths helped catch one of Canada's most awful murderers. Another Netflix docuseries, Trial by Media, explores the many ways the media as a whole has played a role in, and even affected the outcome of, famous court cases from the past few decades.

Misinformation and Mob Mentality Fueled the Public Trial of West Elm Caleb

The benefits of these social media campaigns - whether that's a key tip in an investigation or the collective solidarity for women who deal with sh*tty dating experiences and violated boundaries - aren't without equally significant, if not worse, downfalls. In the Petito case, TikTok coverage grew so quickly, it made sussing out relevant information from mountains of videos presenting theories, opinions, and unconfirmed details as fact almost impossible.

"Mob mentality is particularly dangerous in this case, as it is not focused against a group, product, or way of life, but instead directed at hating on one individual human."

"Inherent to the concept of any social media [platform] is its ability to supply users with a self-curated global broadcasting network, where thoughts, ideas, beliefs, interests, critiques, information (including #FakeNews) - or even a 'public trial' of an individual, organization, or group - can be shared, promoted, and judged without limits, jurisprudence, or fact-checking," says Don Grant, PhD, executive director of outpatient services for Newport Healthcare and president of the American Psychological Association Division 46 (Society For Media Psychology & Technology).

Even stories as seemingly trivial as West Elm Caleb's or Couch Guy's present a catch-22. While both situations offered women the opportunity to commiserate over, and even warn each other about, dating certain people, each situation elicited a sort of mob mentality that, in West Elm Caleb's case, resulted in disproportionate repercussions, like videos revealing where he worked, where he lived, his full name, and calls for him to be fired from his job - much more serious than a few videos calling him out.

"Mob mentality describes how humans adopt disingenuous behaviors and follow trends based upon their peers/circle of influence or emotional state, rather than their own beliefs, morals, codes, needs, or rational thought," says Grant. "Mob mentality is particularly dangerous in this case, as it is not focused against a group, product, or way of life, but instead directed at hating on one individual human."

Fiesler notes that, despite the likelihood that the original video posters never anticipated the response to their West Elm Caleb videos, "[with] something like this, the bigger it gets and the more people get involved, it's inevitable that someone's going to get involved who's going to take it too far." In West Elm Caleb's case, "too far" looked like harassment, doxxing, threats, and the release of other private information never intended for the public to see.

Assessing the Aftermath of Unchecked Internet Vitriol

Glavan later posted a video denouncing the resulting internet mob, circulation of West Elm Caleb's personal information, and the continued dissemination of misinformation. And, as they've recognized the rapidly spiraling response to West Elm Caleb's actions, other TikTokers who posted about him have taken down their videos, too. Unfortunately, much of the damage is already done. "My worry with . . . the dangers of misidentifying someone or misidentifying what someone has done [is] it's so hard to walk back from that," says Fiesler. "It's so hard to correct that, and it has the potential to ruin lives."

Its lasting effects on someone's reputation and livelihood aside, mob mentality can pose very real threats to someone's mental well-being, too. "Harassment is associated with increased risk of anxiety, depression, self-harm, isolation, adoption of unhealthy avoidant behaviors, and post-traumatic stress disorder," says Grant. "Doxxing can also create anxiety, stress, and duress for the victim and potentially lead to self-harm or addictive-based coping mechanisms as an attempt to escape the situation."

This certainly doesn't excuse West Elm Caleb's alleged actions nor does it discount their effects on the women claiming to have dated him. And the overarching calls for people to date respectfully and to never, under any circumstance, send unsolicited explicit content make sense. However, serious harassment and doxxing lodged at Caleb, a private citizen, as this maelstrom spiraled unchecked shouldn't be written off as collateral damage, especially when this proverbial trial by TikTok is missing a key element in any case: Caleb's side of the story.

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