The internet has been set ablaze over the drama surrounding "couch guy." That's the nickname given to college student Robbie McCoy, who was the subject of a surprise visit by his long-distance girlfriend Lauren Zarras — which she caught on video and posted to TikTok, where it has reached viral fame with over 60 million views.
But as the video has swiftly become the subject of criticism by thousands of viewers — who believe the 20-year-old boyfriend wasn't excited enough to see significant other — many are left wondering why strangers on the internet have become so invested in the drama.
As Zarras, who goes to a different college, was welcomed into McCoy's apartment by friends, her boyfriend was sitting on the couch with three young women.
"Robbie had no idea," Zarras captioned the video, referring to McCoy's evident shock.
And while it was likely meant to capture a sweet moment, the young couple is now at the center of controversy as people painstakingly analyze the young man's body language and expression, debate whether he has been cheating on Zarras and even re-enact "surprise fails" with the viral hashtag #couchguy.
"It’s just crazy to me," Zarras, while appearing on Barstool's Tea with Publyssity podcast, said of the commotion surrounding the 25-second clip.
According to Pamela Rutledge, director of the California-based Media Psychology Research Center, the obsession isn't all that crazy. In fact, it's an example of the phenomenon known as "parasocial relationships," in which "someone feels they know a (usually) celebrity because of the investment in time the person spends watching, commenting, interacting about the parasocial object," she tells Yahoo Life.
"People form them to celebrities they see often, and even fictional characters. It is perceived as a relationship and generates some emotional attachment, even though it is one-sided," Rutledge continues, noting how this applies to the "couch guy" controversy. "People are activated by the video and making their own interpretation of it as if they knew him, had context or were physically there."
While celebrities are usually the subjects of such relationships, as Trevor Noah also pointed out in his "couch guy" commentary on The Daily Show, relationship expert and author of Relatable: How to Connect with Anyone, Anywhere (Even if it Scares You), Rachel DeAlto explains that these attachments have extended to strangers on social media. "We've hit a completely different tier of it because of accessibility," she says.
Who is “couch guy” and why is he taking over TikTok? pic.twitter.com/ZiGbRnlVQk
— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) October 5, 2021
The history of parasocial relationships is rich, as the concept was coined by a pair of sociologists back in 1956 in response to the "new media" at the time — radio, television and movies — which presented an illusion of intimacy that differentiated from the face-to-face connections that people were used to at the time. According to the study, this sense of false intimacy could be likened to "a character in a story who comes to life." As politicians, actresses and royalty began to use these forms of media, they became people that onlookers formed attachments to.
"We all watched Princess Diana get married and it was like we were all part of the wedding," DeAlto explains. The same phenomenon explains the immense grief felt at the time over her death, and even today. "There's so many times in history where we've done this already. And it's just a natural part of our psychology to be invested in these people."
This behavior extended beyond public figures with the onset of social media, as it provided a window into the lives of everyday people who began to share details of themselves and their relationships. Even with a less-than-one-minute clip such as Zarras's, audiences become engaged with the content and the people within it. They even feel compelled to relate their own experiences to it.
"The viewers are invested in their interpretation and how that meaning makes sense to them, reaffirms their worldview or worries, or increases their self-image by 'sharing their wisdom,'" Rutledge explains. "It’s not about the couch guy. The couch guy TikTok video is, therefore, more like a Rorschach test of the viewer’s self-esteem, perspective, experiences and fears."
DeAlto explains that this reaction is likely what made it go so viral.
"The people that initially became very invested in that and probably blew it up with their comments and shares and all of the things that make the algorithm tick were projecting something that they experienced," she adds. "We'll see a trigger from our past in a short clip like that, and project everything that happened to us upon it."
The over-126,000 comments on the video certainly square with DeAlto's analysis.
"Girl. I was in a relationship like this and I did not believe anyone that said anything to me," one commenter wrote. "Please look at this video frame by frame."
Another responded, "My high school long term boyfriend cheated on me SEVEN times before I finally put together all of the sketchy and questionable moments."
Others shared what they think they would've done in Zarras's situation.
"If I walked in and my boyfriend was sitting next to three girls and doesn't even bother jumping on me to say hi, I'll just leave how I came in," one said.
Some even tried to assure Zarras that she should take the advice of the strangers who became invested.
"Babe we ain't judging a relationship, just reading the room," someone wrote. "I'd ignore it if it was a few people saying it but its literally 16k people, run bestie."
In the time since posting the video on Sept. 21, both Zarras and McCoy have defended their relationship by reasserting space between themselves and the audience. "We're far from besties," Zarras responded to a commenter. McCoy posted a video to his own account, writing, "Not everything is true crime. Don't be a parasocial creep."
Neither Zarras nor McCoy responded to Yahoo Life's request for comment. During her podcast appearance, Zarras assured onlookers that the relationship is solely between her and McCoy. "We both know what happened, we know our relationship. So we’re both trying to take it as positive as possible and we’re both able to look at the comments and honestly laugh about them cause some of them are so crazy," she said.
And while DeAlto encourages people posting content online to be "more self-aware of the potential" investment that audiences can have in what's shared — as "that aftermath is not predictable," she says of viral fame — she remains focused on teaching users to approach social media differently.
"Maintain a perspective that you don't know everything. The video is 20 seconds long. So we don't know everything. We don't know context. And it's not our place to judge," DeAlto says. "If people are in inviting opinions, that's one thing, but that was a video that was intended to share what she thought was a sweet moment. And then it was taken in a different direction."