You may have been browsing Twitter recently and seen the story of an impeccably cute romance between two strangers on a flight from New York to Dallas. A woman and her boyfriend asked another woman if she would switch seats on the plane so that the pair could sit together. Apparently, they even joked that her new seat partner ‘would be the love of her life’. What followed was a Lifetime Movie-primed tale of sharing the armrest, gossiping about fitness, doing the pre-requisite social media follow back, and going to the bathroom at the same time.
We know the intimate details of this story because every step of it was documented by the woman who asked for the seat switch, Rosey Blair. She made sure to include photographs of the blossoming romance in progress via Instagram. She gained tens of thousands of Twitter followers as a result and was even invited onto NBC’s Today to milk her 15 seconds of fame further. Many theorized that the event didn’t actually happen and was engineered to go viral as part of a promotional stunt. That didn’t stop everyone from reporting on it, from Bustle to Slate and beyond. The original tweeter even cheekily asked Buzzfeed for a job.
The so-called #planebae at the centre of this story has embraced his newfound viral status. Euan Holden grabbed these increased media opportunities with both horns. Already, he’s appeared on an array of talk-shows and giddily built up the manufactured romance, despite the noted silence of the other involved party. His Instagram account has conveniently increased with the thirst traps and vague platitudes on living your best life. For his plane neighbour, the unwilling participant in someone else’s viral moment, she has chosen to avoid the limelight. Her own social media has gone dark, and I have seen multiple reports that she’s been doxxed. Head back to Holden’s Instagram and you’ll find plenty of people calling her a whore.
I have struggled to see the whimsy in this viral moment, which did little but remind me that some of us have different standards for privacy than others. I watched as Holden and Blair launched head-first into their new burst of fame, seemingly unaware of the insidious implications of how they got there in the first place. Even with one half of the equation welcoming their newfound meme status, one could not ignore how the other side of the story tried to exclude themselves from the narrative. The totes adorable love story takes on a sourer taste when you add doxxing, slut-shaming, and the scorn of millions that nobody ever asked for.
I’m hardly the first person to point out the way social media dehumanizes its users and breaks their complex nature down into bite-sized commodities. The most frivolous and inexplicable things can become viral hits, sending their subjects across websites, television and advertising. That 30-second burst of fame can be mined for profit long after the general populace who made you has forgotten you ever existed. Nora Ephron famously said that everything is copy, but how does that change in a world where most people have various social media accounts, high-quality cameras on their phone, and internet access almost everywhere?
This plane romance demonstrates how those crumbling boundaries of privacy and self-determination have made way for the unwitting commodification of our lives. Making yourself go viral has its own repercussions and issues we don’t tend to think much of at the time, but at least you’re the one controlling that narrative. Acting as the chief puppeteer to people who have no awareness of your schemes is downright dangerous. An unforeseen burst of rudeness could lead to you being publicly shamed by anonymous masses; an argument you have in public with someone you love may end up the latest aggregated saga on Buzzfeed; a mere conversation you have with a stranger on a long-haul flight might suddenly evolve into a fairy-tale projected upon the blank canvas of yourself by opportunists looking for cheap thrills. The worst part is that it can all be justified away as ‘a joke’ or ‘an unexpected change’. People may even say that you asked for it, that your public life has no right to privacy because someone somewhere has a camera phone.
Watching Blair and her boyfriend try to use their viral moment as a springboard for their respective careers has left a churning sensation in my gut. It’s no surprise that she asked for a gig from Buzzfeed, given the way the site has made a mint from viral fame. Given how heavily rewarded she has been from this moment, regardless of the dark shadow it could end up creating, one wonders if she’ll start to see her day-to-day interactions as fresh opportunities for more viral moments. Those tens of thousands of new Twitter followers won’t stick around if she has nothing else to offer beyond one cute story. Imagine being in a café and seeing Blair with her phone out and wondering if she’s writing about you. Did she surreptitiously take a picture of you while you messily ate a brownie or talked loudly on your phone about the gossip of the day? If she goes viral with your life, are your private details secure enough so that, should you be doxxed, you’ll be safe?
As much as our society seems disdainful of wannabe celebs, it still loves a Cinderella story involving ‘normal people’ who find fame and fortune through unexpected means. A viral moment is the speediest form of democratizing fame that we have: If you like them, you retweet. It allows us to get through the cycle way quicker than we’d ever imagined, and of course, that has its obvious downsides. People get doxxed, their lives are obsessively scrutinized, and any indiscretions, minor or otherwise, become the headlines that revive the backlash. These people can never be viewed as more complex than ‘universally adored new star’ or ‘most hated person on the internet. This is a cycle that hurts way more for those whose existences on and offline are already marginalized. Women have it hard enough on the internet without having to worry that a wannabe Buzzfeed writer is turning a conversation on a plane into the ultimate fairytale that will lead to you being doxxed. Imagine how much that woman would have to endure had she been a woman of colour, who are easily some of the most frequently attacked figures on social media with the least amount of public support.
It’s easier to believe that the internet is still this intangible concept that has no effect on the real world. People like Blair can view it as a marketing opportunity or brand exercise and treat everything they put onto it as just words. The people on the plane can be characters in our fantasies, but no matter how hard you try to control that narrative, it is not yours. The seeming innocence of your actions will not exist solely in that status. Your self-promotion gimmick will have a shelf life shorter than the average viral tweet.
The problem with stories like this is that it’s not enough for us to remember the ethical murkiness of them. We can tell ourselves repeatedly that we’d never do something like this, but what are the chances that we would see someone else do it and choose not to hit the retweet button? Blair knew that story would get her attention because the internet is painfully predictable, as are we all. It takes one person to craft a viral moment but thousands of others to make it a reality. Perhaps it’s time we thought twice about our part in this cruel game.
(Header image from Getty)