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How the viral story of #PlaneBae brought out the worst in everyone

Viewing other people as pieces of content isn’t cute – it’s dehumanising and really fucking creepy

It’s a cliche, by this point, to say that we’re living inside the very future that Andy Warhol predicted in 1968, in which we would all be world-famous for 15 minutes. With his meta preoccupation with fame as a material in itself, Warhol foreshadowed our culture in which we all have the potential to go viral, and we all curate feeds full of our own faces next to celebrities’ faces, detached from their sources and context, twisted to fit our own narratives. The reality that we’re actually living in right now, though – the reality that last week gave us #PlaneBae – feels a step beyond even what Warhol predicted. We’re now viewing other human beings, just living their lives in the same vicinity as us, as opportunities to make ourselves famous.

For those who haven’t been following the story of #PlaneBae, here’s what went down: Texan actress and photographer Rosey Blair wanted to sit next to her partner Houston Hardaway on a flight they were taking on July 4, and so asked the woman seated next to him if she would swap seats. The woman obliged. Blair made an offhand comment that perhaps the woman would meet the love of her life when she sat in her new seat. Rather than leave that comment hanging in the air as a passing, if slightly creepy and presumptuous joke, Blair realised that if that did in fact happen, that would be social media gold. Presumably, her eyes enlarged like a cartoon’s, and instead of dollar signs, she was seeing likes. Loads and loads of likes.

Blair (with Hardaway) began documenting the couple in front of her via her Instagram Stories for the duration of the flight (later shared as a Twitter thread). She shared photos of the pair’s elbows touching between the seats, and shared overheard snippets of their conversation. Blair divulged to social media that the pair sat in front of them decided to share a cheeseboard. When the pair both went to the bathroom at the same time, Blair told social media. She posted a photo of the woman sharing her family photos (with the family in question plainly visible). The whole saga ended with a snap of the pair walking off together with their carry-on luggage, into the proverbial sunset.

The reaction to the Twitter thread was pretty much insane. Vox wrote about “how an in-flight matchmaker broke the internet”; the BBC asked, “is this the greatest love story ever told on social media?”; BuzzFeed declared, “people think this story about a guy meeting a girl on a plane is the best thing ever”. In turn, Rosey Blair tried to leverage her massive virality to get a job at BuzzFeed. The guy involved in the “romance” chose to reveal his identity, and has since been milking the situation for his own social media fame, even appearing on the Today show and Good Morning America. The woman, meanwhile, declined to talk to anyone, and deleted her social media accounts after receiving a ton of unwanted attention and even harassment.

And well, who can blame her? She didn’t ask for any of this. On July 4, all that woman did was catch a flight, agree to swap seats with a stranger, and possibly flirt with the guy sat next to her. Or maybe they were just having a friendly chat. Maybe he was flirting, and she wasn’t that into it, or vice versa – we don’t know, because we’re not her. From the outside, we only know what Blair chose to curate and document on her social media; the real point of this story isn’t what was going on between the two strangers who met on a plane on July 4. The real story is how Blair looked at those strangers and, instead of people, saw material for her Instagram.

In fact, the real story is not just Blair, but the way that all of us now see the world around us – including other people – as potential content, and what this is doing to our notion of privacy. A similar feeling of queasiness springs from seeing a photograph of Diane Abbott minding her own business on the London Overground, or a thread about Greta Gerwig going to the cinema, going viral. Gerwig and Abbott are, at least, already public figures by choice – but for those two strangers on a plane, fame was forced on them for the sake of someone else’s personal brand. Warhol predicted that in the future we’d all be famous for 15 minutes, but he didn’t necessarily predict that we’d have no choice in when or how it might happen to us.

Narcissism is believing yourself to be the protagonist of a movie, and everyone around to be a supporting character; it’s seeing other people’s experiences only in relation to yourself. When she told their story, Blair centred herself. She dehumanised the people sat in front of her on that plane, flattening out their lived experience into something conventional and palatable for mass consumption – and all totally without their knowledge or consent. That’s not cute. That’s a really bleak picture of how social media, something with potential to bring people closer together, can be a tool that pushes us much further apart.