Imagine: You, a college student, are about to surprise your long-distance boyfriend at his own school. You’ve choreographed the moment; your mutual friends are there to help you orchestrate and film the big reveal. You enter the room, he gets up to hug you, everyone’s smiling. You set the resulting video to an Ellie Goulding song that plays at the emotional height of the rom-com Bridget Jones’s Baby. You post it on TikTok.
This is what Lauren Zarras did on September 21, although nothing that happened after would go according to plan.
Almost immediately, commenters began to joke about the video’s “bad vibes.” “You can FEEL the awkward tension bro,” wrote one.
Many noted that when Lauren entered the room, her boyfriend was sitting on the couch with three other girls. “Girl he ain’t loyal,” said another commenter. “He hugged her like she was his aunt at Christmas dinner.” “I’ve never seen someone look so unhappy to see their girlfriend.” As of Friday afternoon, it had 60 million views.
Lauren and her boyfriend — now known internet-wide as “Couch Guy” — had fallen into a common predicament: posting something online in an attempt to garner a certain reaction, then receiving the opposite. There are all kinds of flavors of this phenomenon, from the college student who posted a clip of their newly released song only to be ridiculed for it, to the spiritual influencer whose video about coincidences and manifestation turned him into a meme. Just last week, a woman pitched a story to the Times about a perceived slight from a fellow writer, presumably under the belief that she’d come off looking sympathetic, but then ended up being Twitter’s main character (never a good thing).
Of course, embarrassing moments have delighted the public throughout history. But the way that the internet has colluded to create viral moments out of normal people was perhaps pioneered a decade ago, when Rebecca Black became the epitome of the stereotype of the spoiled rich kid with a bad vanity music video. Platforms like TikTok, where even people with few or no followers often go viral overnight, expedite the shaming process.
The real toxicity within the Couch Guy discourse, I would argue, comes not from commenters but from the many, many videos dissecting it frame-by-frame with the fervor of true crime documentaries. BuzzFeed called the image stills of Couch Guy (whose name is Robbie, by the way) seemingly grabbing his phone from the girl next to him “sus behavior,” while other creators claimed they could tell he was cheating because of a suspiciously placed arm and a black hair tie that showed up on Couch Guy’s wrist. One woman made a video warning Lauren about how the girls on the couch “are not your friends” because they didn’t immediately jump up to hug her.
Lauren — as well as everyone else in the video — has vehemently denied any shady behavior. “These comments are getting ridiculous and I don’t know why you guys are assuming so much about our relationship,” she said in one TikTok. Couch Guy himself made one that read: “Not everything is true crime. Don’t be a parasocial creep,” yet his comment section is still full of people saying things like, “You can gaslight your girlfriend, you can’t gaslight all of TikTok.”
Couch Guy’s roommate has complained of people in their dorm sneaking messages under the door and trying to ask them about the video. “Y’all are so fucking creepy sometimes, I can’t,” he says. A scroll through Lauren’s previous TikToks shows commenters flocking to every single one, positing at what precise moment they think he “lost interest” in her and giving warnings like, “it’s like watching a soap opera and knowing who the bad guy is.”
This is objectively creepy. “It’s on social media, so it’s public!” one could argue as a case for people’s right to openly interrogate the video, and that is true. But this justification is only valid when a) the person posting is someone of note, like a celebrity or a politician, and b) when the stakes are even a little bit high. A seemingly fine long-distance relationship between two college students does not meet either of these standards, and at a certain point, it’s just straight-up cyberbullying.
“Everyone on the platform thinks every piece of media shared to the app is worth analyzing forensically,” wrote Ryan Broderick in one of his recent internet culture newsletters. “This, I believe, started with the gamified doxing of anti-vaxxers done by users like Sparks and @tizzyent earlier this year, but really kicked into high-gear around the Gabby Petito case.” What’s happening is the same dynamics of mob justice and vigilante detective work typically reserved for, say, unmasking the Zodiac killer, except weaponized against two normal people.
For a piece last year on what happens when ordinary people go viral, Melissa Dahl, author of Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, told me that it’s natural for humans to delight in this sort of content; “It’s our brains giving us a dose of exposure therapy,” she said. “Maybe the same thing is happening for people who are drawn to cringey content, [maybe they’re] people whose deepest fear is being ostracized or made to look like a fool.”
Humans love gossip and creating drama where there is none, even more so during the quieter pandemic months. There is a difference, though, between speculating on a celebrity’s dating life and a random college couple who, whether or not they end up together, insist they’re happy right now. We’re now on week three of Couch Guy discourse. It’s time to leave Couch Guy, and whatever unfortunate soul becomes the internet’s next Couch Guy, alone.
This column first published in The Goods newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get newsletter exclusives.
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