Imagine this: you are a college student planning a surprise visit to your long-distance partner at the school where he currently attends. You have planned the scene, and your shared circle of friends is there to assist you in putting it all together and filming the big reveal. When you walk into the room, he stands up to give you a hug, and everyone around you smiles. You choose to set the finished video to a song by Ellie Goulding that features during the most intense emotional scene of the romantic comedy Bridget Jones’s Baby. You upload it to your TikTok account.
On September 21, Lauren Zarras took this action, despite the fact that nothing else that took place afterward would go according to the plan.
Commenters on the video started making jokes almost immediately about the “bad vibes” they were getting from it. Someone else’s comment said, “You can FEEL the awkward tension bro.”
Upon entering the room, many people observed that Lauren’s boyfriend was already occupied with three other women on the couch when she came in. Someone other who commented on the post wrote, “Girl, he ain’t faithful.” “He embraced her in a way that suggested she was his aunt at the holiday meal.” “I’ve never seen somebody seem that relieved to see their partner before,” said the witness. It has a total of sixty million views as of Friday afternoon.
Lauren and her boyfriend, who is now famous over the internet as “Couch Guy,” had found themselves in a situation that is all too common: they had posted something online with the hope of eliciting a particular response, but instead, they received the opposite one. This phenomenon can take on many forms, such as the case of the college student who posted a clip of their newly released song only to be ridiculed for it, or the case of the spiritual influencer whose video about coincidences and manifestation turned him into a meme. Both of these examples illustrate how this phenomenon can take on a life of its own. Just the week before, a woman presented a story idea to the New York Times over a perceived snub from a colleague writer. She was probably under the impression that she would come off as appearing sympathetic; instead, she ended up being Twitter’s major character instead (never a good thing).
Naturally, embarrassing events have always been a source of amusement for the public throughout history. But the way in which the internet and normal people have collaborated to create viral moments out of ordinary people was perhaps pioneered ten years ago when Rebecca Black became the epitome of the stereotype of the spoiled rich kid with a bad vanity music video. Black’s video was a parody of a song that she had recorded for herself. The process of shaming can be sped up on platforms such as TikTok since even users with very few or no followers can quickly go viral on those platforms.
The actual source of poison in the discourse around Couch Guy, I would argue, is not the commentators but rather the many, many videos that break it down frame-by-frame with the zeal of true crime documentaries. The image stills of “Couch Guy,” whose name is Robbie, by the way, seemingly grabbing his phone from the girl next to him were referred to as “sus behavior” by BuzzFeed, while other creators claimed they could tell he was cheating because of a suspiciously placed arm and a black hair tie that appeared to be on Couch Guy’s wrist. A video was shot by a woman in which she cautioned Lauren that the females sitting on the couch “are not your friends” because they did not instantly stand up and hug her when she arrived.
Lauren, along with everyone else shown on the video, has adamantly rejected allegations that they engaged in questionable conduct. She stated this in one of her TikTok videos, “These remarks are getting crazy, and I don’t know why you guys are assuming so much about our relationship.” Couch Guy himself crafted one with the following inscription: “Not everything is true crime. However, his comment area is still filled with individuals stating things such as, “You can gaslight your girlfriend, but you can’t gaslight all of TikTok.”
Couch Guy’s roommate has stated that others in their dorm are trying to ask them about the video by slipping notes under the door and attempting to communicate with them. He says, “Y’all are so fucking scary sometimes, I can’t,” and I can’t believe it. A scroll through Lauren’s past TikToks reveals that commentators have flocked to each and every one of them, speculating as to when exactly they believe he “lost interest” in her and providing warnings such as “it’s like watching a soap opera and knowing who the villain is.”
This is quite unsettling to think about. The argument that “It’s on social media, thus it’s public!” is one that one may make in support of people’s freedom to openly question the video, and it’s a valid argument since it’s true. However, this rationale is only acceptable in the following circumstances: a) the person posting is a notable figure, such as a celebrity or a politician; and b) the stakes are at least somewhat significant. Both of these criteria are not satisfied by a seemingly healthy long-distance relationship between two college students, and at a certain point, it becomes nothing more than straightforward cyberbullying.
According to a statement made by Ryan Broderick in one of his most recent newsletters pertaining to internet culture, “Everyone on the platform thinks every piece of media submitted to the app is worth scrutinizing forensically.” “I believe that this began earlier this year with the gamified doxing of anti-vaxxers that were done by people like Sparks and @tizzyent, but it really got into high gear around the time that the Gabby Petito case was brought to light,” The same elements of mob justice and vigilante detective work that is traditionally reserved for, say, unmasking the Zodiac killer are currently being used against two average people.
Melissa Dahl, the author of the book Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, told me that it is natural for humans to take pleasure in this kind of content. “It’s our brains giving us a dose of exposure therapy,” she explained to me when I interviewed her for an article I wrote about what happens when ordinary people go viral a year ago. “Perhaps the same thing is happening for people who are drawn to cringe content, [maybe they’re] people whose deepest fear is being ostracised or made to look like a fool,” said the researcher. “Maybe people who are drawn to cringe content are people whose deepest fear is being made to look like a fool.”
Even more so during the pandemic’s slower months, humans have an insatiable appetite for idle chatter and the creation of drama where none exists. To speculate on the dating life of a superstar is not the same as speculating on the dating life of a random college couple who, regardless of whether or not they end up together, swear that they are content in their current relationship. The Couch Guy conversation has reached its third week at this point. It is time for everyone to stop bothering Couch Guy and whatever the unlucky soul is that ends up being the next Couch Guy on the internet.
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