The internet has brought the world closer together — so much so that we’re finding ourselves lacking personal cyber space. Every day, people add millions more photos, tweets, comments, videos, gifs, memes and various other forms of content to the web, where it can be collectively sorted through by whoever happens to be online.
And every once in a while, more so now than ever before, something will burst to the surface and bleed all over our phones and feeds. Was that dress blue or black? Did you hear Laurel? I heard Yanny. Can you believe Chewbacca Mom wrote a book? Whether they last for a day or a decade, these moments of virulence catch like wildfire and are capable of leaving behind as much devastation. Sometimes people get sucked into the vortex, like someone standing too close to a jet engine.
Case in point: the events of July 3. If you haven’t already heard, we’ll give the short version. On a flight from New York to Dallas, Dallas actress Rosey Blair asked the woman next to her to switch seats so she could sit with her boyfriend. The woman agreed and ended up sitting next to former fourth-tier soccer player Euan Holden (the infamous “PlaneBae”). Then this happened:
Then PlaneBae’s seat-mate got doxxed, with some encouragement from Blair in a now-deleted Twitter video and some help from Holden, who revealed the woman’s first name in an Instagram post. Commenters, TV reporters and Blair described the event like a movie — a romantic comedy that turned Instagram into Netflix and forced a woman to shutter her social media accounts to avoid harassment. Setting aside the obvious boundaries crossed by Blair and Holden and the blatant sexism of most internet trolls, the PlaneBae incident has hinted at a much larger cultural revelation.
Social media has trained us to share our experiences and rewarded us for racking up likes and comments from a healthy stable of followers. Do it for the 'gram, they say; it’s great for networking. But when our experiences intersect with the lives of people around us, at what point does sharing those experiences constitute an invasion of privacy? In Blair’s case, that moment was likely when she tweeted this:
Blair has since apologized in another post to Twitter, saying the moment initially overwhelmed her with sincere excitement. She couldn’t anticipate the consequences of projecting her hopes onto a women she’d only spoken to the once. Whether her apology passes muster is immaterial, however; she could see the numbers in front of her. Before PlaneBae, Blair was lucky to get 10 likes on a tweet, which suddenly shot up to as high as 109,000 over the course of a plane ride. It’s a tough sell to think that didn’t egg her on or possibly even contribute to the increasing exuberance of her posts, and it’s a big part of the problem.
The response to posts like this is simply too ambiguous for anyone to accurately judge where “too far” is, especially when making a post go viral is the modus operandi for internet influencers. Had PlaneBae and his seat-mate hit it off, would there have been any backlash? Not likely. What if Blair overheard the two discussing their mutual love of Trump instead of fitness? Would their privacy have mattered less then? In 2013, a man live tweeted his neighbors breaking up on the roof of their New York City apartment building and suffered no backlash. In 2015, a woman did the same thing, live tweeting a couple’s first date to rave reviews.
If we continue to judge the appropriateness of situations like this by the number of people who get offended or whether someone ends up getting doxxed, then posts like this will never go away. Like it or not, we live in a world where nearly everyone around us has the means to document and broadcast anything we say or do. If that sounds a tad dystopian, it’s because it is.