To be alive today is to understand that tiny corners of the internet can, at any given moment, explode with very little warning to become a volcano of red, hot, highly contentious content.
A gold and white dress that might also be blue and black, for example. And more recently, Bad Art Friend, the New York Times article about one woman’s kidney donation, a Facebook post and the subpoenaed gossipy group texts.
And then of course, Couch Guy, the TikTok clip that’s become the subject of viral cheating speculation since it was posted to the platform on September 22.
For those born before 2005, a recap: A US woman, Lauren Zarras, decided to film herself surprising her boyfriend at college. In the video, when she enters the room, her boyfriend can be seen, seated on a small couch, next to three other young women. As he makes eye contact with said girlfriend, he immediately bows his head, puts down his drink and appears … a little underwhelmed to see her. If the phrase “I guess?” was a person, it would be this guy. He slowly rises to hug her and the clip ends.
This clip – lasting no longer than 20 seconds – has since been viewed 61 million times and counting. The reason is the inscrutable nature of the guy’s reaction, which viewers – for we are all viewers, now – interpreted as far too low-key.
Why did he not display the behaviours we’ve come to expect from filmed content? Where were the tears? The hands over the mouth, followed by the long, drawn out “OOohhhhh myyyyy goddddd??!!!” Where was the Ryan Gosling patented move of picking up and spinning around the girlfriend? Couch Guy gave us none of these and so the internet jumped, as swiftly to suspicion.
Though Couch Guy, also known as Robbie, did protest, along with his girlfriend, that there was nothing untoward, the footage had already gone viral and was being combed for clues, and with it, came questions. Is he cheating on her? If he is cheating, is it with one or two or three of the ladies on the couch? Did one of them throw his phone back to him when his girlfriend arrives? Did he have a woman’s hairband on his wrist? These questions, in their literal millions, have been hotly debated.
It’s a familiar social media merry-go-round. Last month, slow-motion footage from the Venice Film Festival of actor Oscar Isaac looking over to his co-star Jessica Chastain on the red carpet had a similar response. While promoting their TV series, Scenes from a Marriage, Isaac can be seen playfully sniffing her armpit. At normal speed, it looks like two old friends goofing around (the actors met at university). But slowed down it appears as if Isaac wants to ravish her with his eyes. As they are both married – to other people – and Isaac, in his tux, resembled a professorial George Clooney, the internet went bananas. The five-second moment was so thoroughly analysed and so widely shared, Chastain had to issue an explanation on morning television.
“Because of reality TV and social media and podcasts, we’re used to getting insight – or perceived insight – into people’s lives and figuring out their drama,” says Sydney psychologist Samantha Symes. We’ve always had strong opinions about people’s behaviours, but we’ve never had this kind of access or intimacy before.”