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The dark side of ‘Plane Bae’ and turning strangers into social media content

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Thrusting random people into viral fame can be a messed-up thing to do

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

iAt first, it seemed like a charming reprieve from Twitter’s perpetual parade of horribles: a cute, deftly narrated romance story that blossomed on a transcontinental flight. It all started here.

Actress Rosey Blair and her boyfriend spun an adorkable story about what they perceived to be a budding love affair between the two, and Twitter was entranced. I scrolled through the tweets with a smile, letting myself get caught up in what felt like a made-for-TV drama. Then I realized that was precisely how I was treating these very real people. My stomach turned as I considered how I’d feel if every twitch of my arm, half of my conversation, and even my bathroom usage were all narrated, without my knowledge, for a swelling audience of several hundred thousand people online.

The story’s charm disguises the invasion of privacy at its heart: the way technology is both eroding our personal boundaries and coercing us in deleterious ways. To some, the story from that flight to Dallas already has a happy ending. The mystery man revealed himself on Twitter as former soccer player Euan Holden and gave Blair permission to share his Instagram and reveal his name. He has eagerly taken a liking to his newfound social media fandom and embraced the moniker of “Plane Bae,” even appearing on NBC’s Today to bask in the attention. Surely, this is the ultimate consent and the final proof that people like me are just being buzzkills about a fundamentally innocent story.

But look closer. What about the mystery woman? She’s clearly been far more reticent, declining an interview for the Today segment and asking that her full name not be revealed. It’s hard to avoid the impression that she’s being dragged into the public eye nonetheless. Respondents to the original thread, in thrall to the “love story” and eager to thwart Blair’s half-hearted attempts at anonymizing the pair, soon found and shared the woman’s Instagram. Holden embraced the choice that had been made for him; his companion clearly hasn’t. She’s since taken her Instagram offline after receiving some harassing comments, at least one of which was related to Blair’s speculation about what happened when the pair simultaneously got up to use the restroom (and Holden’s cheeky comment that “a gentleman never tells” when asked about it). Of course, the sexual implication is something he’d be praised for, while the woman is attacked.

This is the problem with ex post facto consent being used to justify these sorts of invasions. What if it’s not given? The world floods into your life anyway. What had been private is now uncontrollably crowdsourced. Your consent becomes a trifling detail in a story about you that suddenly belongs to everyone else. It doesn’t matter otherwise. Multiple news outlets, including ones as far away as Australia, picked up the tale of Holden and his seatmate as their “human interest” story of the day. But if that consent had been withheld, social media denizens would have extended the drama anyway, invading the lives of two people who were singled out for celebrity on a whim. As with so much else that is mediated by the internet, the medium’s dissociative effects prevent us from centering the humanity of the people involved.

It was, after all, the digital equivalent of must-see TV. “Have not been this riveted since the final episode of Lost, and this *didn’t* piss me off! Amazing!” wrote one Twitter user in reply to Blair’s thread. “Please @TheEllenShow have a look on it! We need to know more about this happy end,” wrote another. Blair should be credited, if nothing else, with spinning the relatively unremarkable behavior of two strangers into such a simple but compelling story. The problem, of course, was that she was telling a story about two people who had no idea they’d been cast as leads in a riveting story for thousands of strangers. That cinematic element wasn’t lost on Blair, who told ABC’s Good Morning America, “It felt like, honestly, being in a movie, and [my boyfriend and I] were the two best friends.”

There’s another unfortunate dimension to this whole saga that mimics the coercive effect of public marriage proposals: everyone innocently cheers on the romance because it tells a good story, but it places the woman in the invidious position of being the “bad guy” if she says no. Holden has since made romantic overtures in the press, telling Today, “She’s a very, very, very lovely girl. Very attractive, beautiful. She has a lot to say for herself and is very intelligent.” ABC News implied that Holden said “there’s still hope” for the relationship, though this framing is at odds with what Holden actually said, which seemed to be a more generic statement about hopefulness. That narrative frame is a reminder of the story everyone here is being coerced into. They must get together.

Let’s pause the academic analysis for a moment and consider this: we all know the early stages of romance are sometimes incredibly awkward and uncertain. Now imagine doing it in front of millions of people and the international media. And imagine doing it without the benefit of a true celebrity’s phalanx of staff and bodyguards or the lucre such a status normally confers. Instead, all you have is that same vulnerability before a vast crowd that feels entitled to the most intimate parts of your life. How difficult would it be to conduct that relationship on your own terms?

This is the Faustian alchemy of social media: we are all given the opportunity to become celebrities in an instant, sometimes for nonsensical reasons, with or without our input. But we gain virtually none of the benefits of that fame, none of the glamor or the institutional support to help deal with the invasiveness of celebrity and how it can eat away at every boundary you ever took for granted.

There are also sobering lessons here about the limits and ethics of “sousveillance,” the use of our handheld devices to record from “below.” (This is in contrast to surveillance from on-high, a la CCTV or drones.) In some cases, our use of cellphone cameras has the potential to liberate us when directed at the state, subjecting the powerful and privileged to forms of accountability that they’re not used to. That’s been made plain by the significant role of cellphone video in the movement against police brutality. The brutality isn’t new, but the widespread availability of high-definition pocket video cameras is. It’s also led to significant pushback against ordinary people who try to marshal the power of the state against ethnic minorities. Think of the sagas of Barbecue Becky and Permit Patty, who tried to call the police on innocent black citizens (including an eight-year-old girl) and were publicly shamed for their cruelty.

But as we surveil each other in profoundly coercive ways, we also risk — as is often the case with informal forms of power — replicating the coercive power of the state itself. Surveillance disciplines our behavior, as any minority who’s passed through a security checkpoint in America can tell you in detail. It creates certain behaviors by design, most notably compliance, the willingness to do anything to avoid being hurt. This is all to escape the Lidless Eye unseen, or perhaps just to escape the TSA agent’s grope with some measure of dignity intact. We have the capacity to inflict this disciplinary regime on each other, as well, for good and for ill.

Seemingly innocent cases, like that of “Plane Bae,” are small warning signs on the road to our even more networked future. We are all watching each other, mining each other’s lives for “content” that we give for free to large corporations who then monetize it. “Plane Bae” didn’t just benefit Twitter, a company badly in need of good PR, but also T-Mobile, whose savvy CEO swooped in to offer Blair a reimbursement on the Wi-Fi she purchased to write her thread.

Creating threads of content based on the lives of average people, particularly with photos, has the potential to summon panoptic interest in the form of millions of eyes whose gaze weighs terribly on a person who is unused to a life of celebrity, as the vast majority of social media users are. We should be thinking more seriously about the ethics of live-tweeting: when is it appropriate? When it is, what should and shouldn’t you do? In Blair’s case, she seemed to think that lightly obscuring the faces of the two people she surveilled was enough to be ethical. (One face, that of a small child looking over her seat two rows ahead, was not obscured at all.)

Yet the identities of both were inevitably pursued and eventually discovered. At a certain level of virality, you cannot stop motivated people on the internet from piercing your veils. In the case of that woman from Blair’s flight, her legions of “fans” are digging day and night to find more information, to meet the female lead of this summer’s hottest rom-com. They want to know what happens next. They want to make her finish the story. Go on a date; now kiss; now get engaged; tell us what it was like. We need to know more. More. More.

Until she has nothing left to give, and the next thread about some other person plucked from obscurity comes along.