Who Is the Real Victim in the 'West Elm Caleb' Saga? | Opinion

2022 has its first cultural touchstone. If you spent any time at all on TikTok recently, you will have encountered the "West Elm Caleb" saga, which amounted to a week-long witch hunt by a large group of spurned single women commiserating over the man who had ghosted them. It turned out that a 25-year-old, mustachioed, New York furniture designer had dated a number of women whom he'd met on the HINGE dating app, and after multiple fabulous dates, compliments, and romantic Spotify playlists, had disappeared on each without a trace. The women found each other due to similar TikTok confessionals and went on to identify their disappearing Lothario. Within a week, Caleb's crime had inspired over 108 million views.

West Elm Caleb may be new. But the phenomenon he grew out of is not. It's an all too familiar format, a narrative of self-victimization followed by a "villain" in need of punishment. The cultural fallout of the MeToo movement facilitated this now common practice of women "calling out" men in online spaces for actions deemed corrosive to progressive ideals. And yet, the perceived infractions are often relatively minor, at least to the average person, crimes that seem too abstract to warrant the level of outrage on display.

What, after all, was Caleb's great crime? He ghosted—meaning he struck up a rapport with someone, charmed her, and then disappeared.

But this type of hyped-up crime is typical of the new mores. In the last decade, digital pop-feminism has armed women with new language, tropes and categories to express frustrations about men in almost every aspect of our lives, from professional life to dating to sex and relationships.

These new mores didn't appear in a vacuum. They sprung up as part of a culture built on enshrining the "online voice" as an important reservoir of feminine power, to be used to inflict "social consequences" on men in ways we may otherwise feel inhibited in the real world. But it has a self-perpetuating effect; the distinction between real cases of systemic inequality and minor social infractions are easily blurred in the digital realm. And attempts to parse through the nuances or raise concerns about the seeming over-reliance on "calling out" are often met with derision, or worse—accusations of acting against women's social influence.

And it's here that we see progressive feminism's Faustian bargain, where the incentives of social media are marketed, categorized and commodified—but under the guide of an antidote to sexism, like the anti-Caleb women sharing their stories. What this pose disguises is the fact that social media is a digital consumer marketplace with inbuilt mechanisms designed to extract maximum attention, trapping us in addictive emotional cycles that keep us hooked—and hooked on narratives of our own victimhood.

And therein lies the major hypocrisy of social media-driven feminist movements: They claim to be a reservoir of power for women, while ignoring that the commodification of our social alienation by tech companies creates the incentive for us to "lean in" to our most hostile impulses.

The single women who flock to platforms like TikTok, seeking a sense of justice for their injured pride and disappointed expectations, are driven by the same incentive structure that creates the "poor etiquette" they experience with men on dating apps. It's the incentive to view other people in the same way you would view any other product or venture.

These women are usually young and still forming, and instead of taking their romantic disappointments as learning experiences to grow from, they are encouraged by the attention economy to seek solace in emotional exhibitionism and calls for revenge disguised as justice. They are encouraged to use MeToo language to disparage male targets for minor social offenses while soaking up the capital the attention economy provides them.

No doubt, it's true that being ghosted is incredibly upsetting and inspires self doubt. But it's also common in a dating realm where commodity psychology is the norm. The term "ghosting" emerged from the culture of dating apps along with other trendy words used to bemoan the commonplace "bad etiquette" that thrives on apps that encourage self and other commodification. From "ghosting" to "breadcrumbing" to "catfishing" to "love-bombing," attempts to label the dysfunction that these environments foster are endless—as endless as the parade of new dating apps that pop up every week.

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Stock image. Getty/iStock

We are collectively experiencing a paradigm shift engineered by the logic of our economic system that is working to reduce all social relations to a menu on a screen. Algorithmic intelligences are making us to believe that true compatibility is based on superficial interests and curated personality quirks.

It should come as no surprise that this produces hostility. App companies benefit from people who remain trapped in transient, volatile cycles, and they thrive by fueling the same social chaos they claim to remedy.

The consumer-driven conventions of the digital realm encourage us to obfuscate the personal responsibility we have for our own psychological vulnerabilities, especially the ones that make us more susceptible to the dysfunction of others, and this pattern significantly impacts young women. There's no need to self-analyze or take responsibility for the ways we seek connection when there are massive social incentives to project inner turmoil through social aggression, witch hunts and the indignity of public self-victimization.

West Elm Caleb's saga launched a MeToo style global trend where women divulged similar unsatisfying encounters, some even going as far as attempting to share private information about alleged "ghosters." But it also underlined a deeper truth: that women who use dating apps are unconsciously bemoaning the abjection of existing in a digital market.

We've become Tinderfied by the dating culture, reduced to sustaining ourselves on micro-doses of novelty and transient engagement.

In such a climate, isn't ghosting truly the lesser crime?

Angie Speaks is a cultural commentator and Cohost of Low Society Podcast.

The views in this article are the writer's own.