Bad Dates Turn Out to Be Excellent on TikTok

In December, Rachel Wilson was 45 seconds into a first date at a Buffalo wings restaurant, she said, when her suitor left to move his car and never returned. He sent a text from the getaway vehicle: “sorry just wasn’t feeling it :(.”

Stunned, she deleted his number and went home. Then she cracked a hard seltzer, opened her phone’s camera and filmed a TikTok video recounting the evening — starting from the point when her friend persuaded her to go and ending with a joking plea that men at least finish the date before ghosting.

“You said if the date ended badly I could use it for content,” Ms. Wilson reminds her friend, who is off camera.

The video accrued tens of thousands of views overnight. Four days later, inspired to keep the ball rolling, she made another about the same date. It’s since been viewed 4.2 million times. (Her other videos, which are often about dating but also incorporate her hair routine, her cats and her friends, typically have much smaller viewership.)

“I feel like that video blowing up was my little reward,” Ms. Wilson, 28, said in a phone interview.

Rewards are hard to come by in the realm of online dating. It can be an exhausting pursuit with no guarantee of success. But in a corner of TikTok known occasionally as #DatingTok, niche content creators can reach potentially millions of viewers by divulging details about their dating lives — especially the pitfalls. This TikTok fare usually includes bits of sardonic commentary on the state of dating apps as well as earnest chronicles of breakups and healing. A mid-20s male is typically the villain.

For the young women who make these videos — and they’re usually young women — the prospect of going viral offers a small form of retribution, and comfort.

“That’s the allure of social media, right?” said Ms. Wilson, a student in North Carolina. “Those tasty little dopamine hits you get when people talk to you on the internet.”

Some creators have leveraged the content into sizable followings and sponsorships.

“It did start with a heartbreak,” said Mariah Grippo, 29, over the phone as she drove to the office in New Jersey where she works as a brand director for a small jewelry company.

Ms. Grippo began posting on TikTok at the end of 2021 after the abrupt ending of an almost-relationship, and the videos performed better than she expected. She made a deal with herself — post at least twice a day to draw a following — and it worked. Today she has more than 100,000 followers, a vast majority of whom are women, she said, and she now teams up with companies like Tinder. “I’m just a hurt person,” Ms. Grippo said. She said she filmed her videos from bed and shared the kind of relatable experiences “girls want to hear.”

#DatingTok began attracting more attention in late 2021 and early 2022, around the time the internet became acquainted with West Elm Caleb, a man whose Hinge profile has been etched into many single, 20-something women’s memories (and on the side of a building in New York, courtesy of a dating app, for a time).

In January 2021, Mimi Shou, a jewelry designer and content creator, posted a TikTok video about her travails involving a man named Caleb, who she said never reached out after, by her definition, a great first date. Women flocked to the comments section, sharing their own horror stories of “love-bombing” and ghosting at the thumbs of a man named Caleb who said he worked at West Elm.

Though Ms. Shou’s story was about a different Caleb, whose identity she never made public — and though she said her goal was not to retaliate against him — the tale set off a wave of viral videos, highlighting the idea that TikTok could be a forum for righting dating wrongs.

Ms. Shou, 28, said she had also been inspired by the subsequent West Elm Caleb, and in addition to her usual comedic bits, some of which involve poking fun at the finance bro archetype and her misguided attraction to it, she decided to dig a little deeper. “I realized people want to discuss the hurt they’ve had and make sure they’re not alone,” she said. “So I started talking more about dating advice and my own experiences.” She now has more than a dozen brand partnerships, she said, and considers content creation her full-time job.

On #DatingTok, where, in the app’s parlance, “main characters” rule and videos are “story times,” weaving a compelling tale — sometimes over several episodes — is crucial.

“So I just went on a second date with a guy, and he got me flowers,” Mackenzie Duffy, a creator in Florida with a modest following, told viewers in January. She talks briefly about their park picnic and then inserts a cliffhanger: “I’m going to stitch this when we’re either in a relationship or he absolutely obliterates my self-esteem.” (Stitch is a creation tool that allows users to add new content to an existing video.)

Spoiler alert: Five dates later, he ghosts her, behaving “like a child,” she says in the update video. Over the next week, the TikTok reached hundreds of thousands of people, far more than her normal viewership of about 1,000.

Ms. Duffy, 25, began regularly sharing about dating and mental health on TikTok in 2021 on the heels of a breakup, as a form of catharsis and with the hope of building a community. Her second-date video was originally intended to be optimistic. “I felt hopeful in a way that I hadn’t for a long time,” she said.

So, things didn’t go as planned. But the updated video allowed her to recast herself in the narrative of her life. Unlike the West Elm Caleb saga, many of these stories feature a female lead, and while their heartbreakers may be characters too, they’re usually unnamed. “I don’t want anyone to know that it’s like, Joe from Tampa who’s breaking my heart,” Ms. Duffy said. “This is about me.”

Still, some creators hope men are listening, and heed what may be an implicit warning in many of these videos.

“Men are aware right now that they could get thrown to filth on the internet and completely shaded by anybody they date,” Ms. Grippo said. “It might cause them to be more alert in their actions, maybe a bit more intentional.”

Both she and Ms. Duffy have dated men who have told them that they tune into their content.

“Whenever they say, ‘hey, I saw your TikTok,’ I say, ‘well, are you going to learn anything from it?’” Ms. Duffy said.

Ms. Shou, who said she had noticed male viewers among her audience, posted a video in May providing an example of a respectful breakup text.

These TikTok users are aware that one viral video is not going to fix the discontents of online dating; nor will it necessarily catapult a TikTok career (and not everyone has aspirations to pursue the life of an influencer, either). But there may be value in videos going viral, outside of making money and an opportunity to scold ghosters.

Ms. Wilson, who recently went on another first date, said her new supporters had made it feel worthwhile to share the story of the 45-second date — “the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever posted to TikTok.”

People wanted to hear how the new date went, she said. “And that just makes me feel warm and fuzzy.”

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