Sofa Man, Lauren Zarras, and the TikTok drama, defined

Imagine: you, a college student, are about to surprise your long-distance friend at his own school. You choreographed the moment; Your mutual friends are there to help orchestrate and film the big reveal. You enter the room, he gets up to hug you, everyone smiles. They set the resulting video to an Ellie Goulding song set at the emotional climax of the rom-com baby Bridget Jones. You post it on TikTok.

Lauren Zarras did so on September 21st, although nothing that happened after would go according to plan.

Almost immediately, commentators started joking about the video’s “bad vibes”. “You can FEEL the uncomfortable tension, brother,” wrote one.

Many noted that when Lauren walked into the room, her boyfriend was sitting on the couch with three other girls. “Girl, he’s not loyal,” said another commenter. “He hugged her like she was his aunt at Christmas dinner.” “I’ve never seen anyone look so unhappy to see their girlfriend.” It had 60 million views on Friday afternoon.

Lauren and her boyfriend – now known on the Internet as the “Couch Guy” – had found themselves in a shared predicament: posting something online to get a certain reaction and then getting the opposite. There are all sorts of flavors of this phenomenon, from the college student who posted a clip of their newly released song just to be ridiculed for it, to the spiritual influencer whose video of coincidences and manifestations turned him into a meme. Just last week, a woman told the Times a story about perceived abuse of a fellow writer, presumably assuming she would come across as personable but then become the main character on Twitter (never a good thing).

Of course, embarrassing moments have wowed the public throughout history. But the way the internet has teamed up to create viral moments out of ordinary people was pioneered perhaps a decade ago when Rebecca Black epitomized the stereotype of the spoiled rich kid with a bad vanity music video. Platforms like TikTok, on which even people with few or no followers often go viral overnight, speed up the shampoo process.

The real toxicity within the Couch Guy discourse, I would argue, comes not from commentators, but from the many, many videos that break it down frame by frame with the fervor of true crime documentaries. BuzzFeed called the stills of Couch Guy (whose name is Robbie, by the way), who apparently took his cell phone from the girl next to him, “sus Behavior,” while other creators claimed they could see he was cheating on a suspiciously placed arm and a black hair tie that appeared on Couch Guy’s wrist. One woman made a video warning Lauren that the girls on the couch “aren’t your friends” because they didn’t immediately jump up to hug them.

Lauren – like everyone else in the video – has vehemently denied any shady behavior. “These comments are getting ridiculous and I don’t know why you guys think so much about our relationship,” she said on a TikTok. Couch Guy himself made one that read, “Not everything is true crime. Don’t be a parasocial sneak, ”but his comments section is still full of people saying things like,“ You can gas your girlfriend, you can’t gas the whole TikTok ”.

Couch Guy’s roommate has complained that people in her dorm are smuggling messages under the door trying to ask them about the video. “You guys are so damn creepy sometimes, I can’t,” he says. Scrolling through Lauren’s previous TikToks, commentators flock to each one, positing the exact moment he thinks he’s lost interest in her, and warnings like “It’s like watching a soap opera and know who the bad guy is ”.

Objectively, that’s creepy. “It’s on social media so it’s public!” one could argue in favor of people’s right to openly question the video, and that is true. However, this justification is only valid if a) the person who published the post is a personality such as a celebrity or a politician, and b) if there is even a little bit at stake. A seemingly good long-distance relationship between two college students doesn’t meet any of these standards, and at some point it’s just plain cyberbullying.

“Everyone on the platform thinks it is worth forensically analyzing every medium shared with the app,” wrote Ryan Broderick in one of his most recent newsletters on Internet culture. “I think this started with the playful doxing of anti-vaxxers that was done earlier this year by users like Sparks and @tizzyent, but in the Gabby Petito case it really got into high gear.” What happens is the same dynamic of Mob justice and vigilante detective work usually reserved for unmasking the Zodiac killer other than being used against two normal people.

In an article last year about what happens when ordinary people go viral, Melissa Dahl, author of Cringeworthy, told me: A theory of awkwardness that it is natural for people to enjoy this type of content; “It’s our brain that gives us a dose of exposure therapy,” she said. “Maybe the same thing happens for people who are attracted to creepy content, [maybe they’re] People whose deepest fear is to be ostracized or fooled. “

People love gossip and theater where there isn’t, especially during the quieter pandemic months. However, there is a difference between speculating about a celebrity’s dating life and a casual college couple who, whether they end up together or not, insist that they are happy now. We are now in the third week of the Couch Guy Discourse. It’s time to leave Couch Guy, and the unfortunate soul becomes the internet’s next Couch Guy on its own.

This column was first published in The Goods Newsletter. Sign up here to not miss the next one and receive exclusive newsletters.

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