West Elm Caleb and the rise of the TikTok tabloid

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(THE TALK) Can you believe Makayla was dropped by Bama Rush? Do you think Couch Guy cheated? Did you see Gabby Petito’s last post before she disappeared?

Unless you spend a lot of time online, you might not recognize these names. But on TikTok, their stories have been sensationalized, memeified, hashtagged, and remastered.

The latest is “#WestElmCaleb”. Women took to TikTok to share their experiences of being spiked with affection, carried away, and eventually ghosted by a New York City-based designer named Caleb, who became a role model for the worst aspects of online dating culture.

Together, these stories represent the birth of what I call the “TikTok tabloid,” where users collectively produce and dramatize stories like an investigative gossip roll. Traditional tabloids put celebrities and public figures in the harsh limelight. But the TikTok tabloid is aimed at ordinary people.


How did we get into the age of the TikTok tabloid? As someone who studies digital consumer culture, I see it as a result of the dynamics of social surveillance: the use of digital technologies to keep a close eye on one another while producing online content in anticipation of seeing it.

Shocking! Exclusive! Scoop!

Tabloid journalism is not new. Popular tabloids like Stars, Sex, Scandals, and Murders have been culturally guilty pleasures since the early 1900s.

In the US, early tabloids like The Daily Mirror and New York Daily News ushered in an era of sensational reporting. These newspapers were particularly popular with working-class readers who enjoyed the speculative shenanigans of high society.

In the 1970s, glossy tabloids like People and Us Weekly took over with exclusive behind-the-scenes stars and human-interest stories. Tabloid journalism migrated to the small screen in the 1990s with TV shows like Hard Copy and Inside Edition.

And in the 2000s, the internet brought 24/7 celebrity gossip with clickbait headlines to sites like TMZ.com and PerezHilton.com.

Earlier eras of tabloid journalism were characterized by highly curated content with a focus on the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The brokers of attention were editors, publishers, paparazzi, journalists, and publicists. Tabloids filtered information to the masses, and the masses in turn influenced celebrity behavior.

But now we’re seeing a new iteration of tabloidization unfolding in real-time on TikTok, where digital technologies are enabling everyday consumers to play the roles of armchair pundits, investigative reporters, digital paparazzi, talking heads, and celebrities themselves.

Observe and be observed

Traditional tabloid journalism is based on the surveillance dynamic of “many watching the few”: an obsession with a relative handful of select stars and scandals. Emerging tabloid TikTok relies on the dynamic of social surveillance, or “the many are watching the many” — a network of everyday people watching and being watched.

According to media scholar Alice E. Marwick, social surveillance is defined as “the ongoing wiretapping, scrutinizing, gossiping, and investigating that constitutes information-gathering by people about their peers, exemplified by the social digitization normalized by social media.”

Classic views of surveillance envision a prison state—a Big Brother-style panopticon in which a guard in a tower can watch prisoners in cells, but the prisoners in the cells cannot see into the tower.

In social surveillance, anyone online is both a guard and a prisoner, constantly consuming online content and producing content for others to see.

This always-on dynamic works to drive behavior. Everyday people have the power to orchestrate what other users see, read and believe – not just about traditional celebrities, but regular everyday people as well.

In the case of Gabby Petito, who went missing in September 2021, TikTokers theories about her disappearance based on her recent Instagram post and Spotify playlists, claiming to be mentally haunting her and striving to be the first to know reported breaking news about #GabbyPetito.

Such deep immersion into people’s private lives for public entertainment is a feature of social monitoring that is only further accelerated by TikTok’s interactive features.

“Like for part two”

TikTok’s unique features and storytelling culture make it the perfect social media platform for turning everyday people into fodder for tabloid-style reporting.

First, the interactive features of the platform allow TikTokern to contribute collaboratively to the TikTok tabloid in real time. TikTokers can reply to comments directly with new videos, curate and track content via hashtags and sounds, merge videos with other content, caption them for context, and use a green screen effect – just like a real news studio.

Second, TikTok’s algorithm serves content to users based on a combination of their interests and what seems to be generally trending. Watching a few videos about West Elm Caleb simply triggers a stream of West Elm Caleb content on the For You Page, or #FYP: the TikTok version of the front page news.

Third, storytelling practices on the TikTok platform mimic exclusive reports, hot takes, and cliffhanger media. TikTokers present compelling stories to viewers, with caveats such as liking for part 2 or by publishing their content in a sequel. These stories then take on a life of their own and become culturally embedded memes.

Social media can be a useful accountability mechanism. On Twitter, for example, users expressed outrage at racist actions by the Central Park Karen and found solidarity in sharing experiences of sexual harassment by the #MeToo movement.

But where platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook allow users to tell stories, TikTok allows users to create full-fledged narrative rabbit holes. A nugget of content can be collectively transformed into an epic drama.

The promise and the danger of the public

The TikTok tabloid is democratizing access to fame while fueling America’s cultural penchant for gossip.

The TikTok tabloid may seem funny and frivolous – an entertaining live-action, participatory role-playing version of TMZ playing in real-time. But this form of public shaming and internet sleuthing can have a dark side.

The constant barrage of sensational news can impact well-being, especially for those most directly affected. In November 2021, Sabrina Prater unknowingly made the cover of the TikTok tabloid when her profane dance video became conspiracy theories of being a serial killer. She later released a tearful video asking for the emotional attacks to stop.

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Unlike traditional celebrities, few everyday people have publicists, spin doctors, and social media managers who can help them manage the stress of being in control.

Who manages the public images of people who have not decided to become public figures?

It would be easy to say that they should just stay away from TikTok. But it is not that easy. Social surveillance ensures we all have the potential to be headlines — beholden to the TikTok tabloid trendsetters.

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/west-elm-caleb-and-the-rise-of-the-tiktok-tabloid-175485.

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