The Problem With “Plane Bae” and Using Strangers for Entertainment

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By now, if you spend any amount of time on the Internet, you’re likely aware of the phrase “plane bae” and its accompanying social media saga. (If you’re not, well, go ahead and Google it. I apologize in advance for what I just did to your day.) It originated on July 3 when Twitter user Rosey Blair asked a woman to trade seats with her on a flight from New York to Dallas so that she could sit next to her boyfriend. The woman obliged, and Blair and her boyfriend made a joke that perhaps the new seatmates would find the love they were lucky enough to share.

The majority of reasonable people would stop there, but boundaries apparently meant nothing to the pair — that, or the in-flight entertainment on the flight in question was particularly disappointing, because Blair and her partner decided to document every single moment that followed on Instagram, which Blair then painstakingly transferred to a Twitter thread once she realized the viral potential. Yeah.

Blair documented not only the potential couple’s physical movements, including each and every arm brush, every time they smiled at each other, and when the woman went to the bathroom. She also listened in on their conversation and noted personal information about the pair.

“Don’t worry I am following this story to baggage claim,” she assured her followers over Instagram stories, the screenshots of which she later tweeted. “I will have answers for you!” And not only did she make good on that promise, she posted photos of the two strangers shortly after they’d collected their bags. While Blair might’ve just gotten caught up in the story (especially since she was being egged on by followers), it highlights the importance of taking a breath and asking ourselves why we feel so entitled to others’ space in public.

Sharing strangers’ likenesses online is a huge invasion of privacy, not to mention the sheer quantity of details Blair included that, while seemingly innocuous, could be — and ultimately were — identifying attributes. Sure, Blair slightly blurred the strangers’ faces, but there are quite a few other details that would allow anyone who actually knows them in real life to instantly spot them.

Many people take great pains to stay off social media, choosing instead to keep a low digital profile. Maybe it stems from a simple desire for privacy or from their employment situation. Maybe they have a past partner who wants to do them harm, or a family member they don’t want to stay in contact with. Maybe they don’t have a reason; they don’t need one.

In this scenario, Blair had minimal information on the personal circumstances of the two people whose actions she was documenting to her followers. What if either of the people she was filming had an abusive partner who, upon seeing an innocent conversation taken out of context and tweeted out by a stranger, could have reacted violently? Utilizing someone’s interactions without their consent for one’s own entertainment — let alone to amuse thousands of strangers in a public forum — can do untold harm.

Another unfortunate note is that the man involved in the encounter, Euan Holden, seems totally okay with Blair’s actions. He’s appeared on shows like The Today Show, added the words “Plane Bae” to his Instagram bio, and some of his (recent photos)[https://www.instagram.com/p/Bk0Vchjh_F8/?taken-by=euanholden] have been captioned with some reference to the viral story.

On the other hand, the woman he connected with on the flight has reportedly told both Blair and Holden she does not want to be known by the public. Blair and her boyfriend nevertheless tweeted a now-deleted video seemingly encouraging fans to out her. Blair said in the video, “So we don’t have the gal’s permish yet, but I’m sure you guys are sneaky. I think you might…” then her voice drops off. Her boyfriend then jokes, “Don’t encourage them!” Many responses to the video include people saying that it wasn’t hard to find the woman, with people excitedly asking for DMs with her information.

Since then, the woman has reportedly deleted all her social accounts, according to BuzzFeed. This is likely because she was doxxed (had her identity and information revealed online against her will) and slut-shamed due to Blair revealing the pair went to the bathroom at the same time.

The thing is, I understand why people initially found this thread cute. There’s a ton of shit going on in the world right now on micro and macro levels, and distractions of any kind — especially hopeful-feeling ones — are often welcomed with open arms. But when these light-hearted viral threads involve unsuspecting participants, it’s not a distraction. It’s a violation.

While it’s true that we live in a much more public time than we used to, there’s a difference between choosing to put images and videos of ourselves on our own feeds and ending up as entertainment for an audience we don’t know, however large or small, because someone else decides they want to pay attention to what we’re doing. It can feel dehumanizing — like you’re just an object for consumption — when a person starts taking photos or film of you without your consent and projecting their own desires upon you. And that’s exactly what Blair did — and her thread’s enthusiastic followers fueled the flames.

Going viral is a very tricky thing. It can help you launch a career, gain notoriety, get cash, and more. The thing is, there’s not really an exact formula, and virality doesn’t always produce the same outcome. In this instance, Blair was likely hoping not just that her tweets would go viral, but that out of it would come a new relationship, new followers for all those involved, and perhaps a BuzzFeed job for herself. But it seems that only the first of those happened, and she’s getting a mixed bag of responses. That said, it has pushed along the conversation about how to try to go viral (or simply exist on the Internet, if gaining a large following isn’t your goal) without hurting others in the process, and there are a few rules I’d like to suggest.

Depicting strangers anonymously, without ascribing your own narratives to the photos (thus allowing the images to speak for themselves) or getting consent from those in the images and asking for their stories, are all good practices if you’re into, say, street photography. However, it is unconscionable to live tweet the moments in the lives of private citizens in such a way that allows others to find them, bully them, and chase them off the Internet. As is obvious in this case and others, the folks who are targeted are often women or other folks who are already marginalized, and putting that into action to gain a few followers makes you as bad as any Internet troll.

Since the original story went viral, Blair took a break for a few days, seemingly to reflect on the huge impact the story had not only on her own life but the life of the people she’d been documenting. Now, she’s posted an update, apologizing after receiving backlash, and deleted some tweets related to the event. In it, she writes, “The last thing I want to do is remove agency and autonomy from another woman. I wish I could communicate the shame I feel in having done this, but I truly feel that at this point my feelings are irrelevant. This may be coming too little too late.” This is a stark difference from the video posted just days ago, in which Blair can be seen encouraging followers to find the woman she’d filmed, even while acknowledging they didn’t have permission to reveal her identity.

While it’s good she’s taken a few days offline to reflect on her impact on two strangers’ lives and absorb some of the criticism, it doesn’t undo any of the damage done by such privacy violations. It’s also worth noting that even in the apology, she mentioned the woman by name, and it’s yet another way of continuing the narrative on Blair’s terms. However, hopefully, others will learn from her mistakes and think twice before violating the privacy of others in public in the future.

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