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'West Elm Caleb' embodies what people resent and fear about online dating

After a story about a bad date went viral on TikTok, other people came forward with their own stories. Some experts say the experiences are emblematic of a broken dating scene.

Everyone has a "West Elm Caleb."

That's the person who, after matching on a dating app and enjoying the ebb and flow of banter, showers a first date with compliments and good vibes, only to disappear without so much as a text the next day.

The experience is so familiar that when one person shared their story on TikTok about a tall and handsome man who took them out only to ghost them later, dozens chimed in, saying they, too, had been loved and left by "W.E.C." The hashtag went viral, with more than 16 million views as of Thursday. TikTok even tweeted about the phenomenon, although it later deleted the tweet.

The bad etiquette, considered by some to be par for the course in New York City's dating scene and on the dating apps, has sparked a conversation about the toxic traits men and women endure trying to find love — especially online.

Situations like being "love-bombed" by a date only to be ghosted have become a norm when it comes to connections made online, leaving many to resent the scene altogether.

Some experts say the experiences are emblematic of a broken dating scene.

Yue Xu and Julie Krafchick, the co-hosts of the podcast Dateable, said that among the many issues that come with online dating, one of the most flagrant is a lack of accountability.

So posting on a platform like TikTok and commiserating about someone who appears to be a serial bad dater can feel like a way to hold people responsible for their behavior.

"In today's world, with the dating apps as the primary vehicle, especially during the pandemic, there's this anonymity that allows people to do things — if your aunt sets you up with someone, you're not going to ghost that person. But a rando on Tinder? Why not? There's no one that's going to catch you," Krafchick said.

Xu said that, in New York City, where the date from the original viral TikTok post took place, the dating scene is particularly fraught when it comes to accountability. She said the ability to date in the city's five boroughs means your date in Manhattan will most likely never run into your date in Queens.

"New York is the prime spot for doing this," she said. But "it happens everywhere."

The scorn of the bad dating behavior bonded a group of women who all say they went on dates with “West Elm Caleb,” which led the moment to go viral.

Some said they had gone out with him only to never hear back. Others said that they matched with him on an app and that conversation simply petered out. Some described people in their own lives who reminded them of the man in question.

As the online debate raged, a growing wave of anger directed at “West Elm Caleb” evolved into a discussion of whether such stories are being blown out of proportion. The internet’s propensity for piling on people who go viral for what some people consider tame transgressions has been front-of-mind for some social media watchers, echoing the situation around “couch guy.”

The toxicity of the online dating scene is universal not only to all locations, but also to all genders, Xu said. However, she added a caveat.

"Women are so much better at hiding their tracks," she said. "Dating multiple people, leading them on, going on dates that overlap — it's just modern dating."

Although the bad behavior is frustrating to those in the dating scene and has caused many looking for love to become jaded, Xu and Krafchick said the "West Elm Caleb" saga led to a moment of community.

As the stories spread, not only were TikTokers able to warn one another about a potential heartbreaker, but they also commiserated over past bad dates they'd been on.

Krafchick and Xu suspect that the shared experience and sense of frustration are what led the hashtag to take off.

"I think a lot of people can identify with the 'Caleb' of their life. If you look on TikTok, there are married women ... making TikToks about this," Krafchick said.

I think a lot of people can identify with the ‘Caleb’ of their life.

— Julie Krafchick, co-host of the Dateable Podcast

In addition, two parties are responsible for a date's going well, not just one, Xu and Krafchick noted.

Many women who posted videos on TikTok identified red flags, such as being "love-bombed" on the first date. Xu and Krafchick said it's important for people to recognize the red flags early on and to communicate their boundaries.

"If we can take control of our own dating behaviors and say, 'These are my boundaries, my expectations, my values,'" Xu said, "then you can filter out the 'Calebs' of the world."