The internet is a chaotic fiery hell pit with intermittent heavenly glimmers. I spend all day looking at it, and occasionally a seemingly lighthearted viral moment reveals itself to be so insidious and morally bankrupt that I dream about throwing my electronics into the ocean and building a new life for myself, disconnected from the horror of social media. The #PlaneBae saga was one of those moments that reminded me how depraved the social media machine can be.
A recap, for the blissfully unaware: On July 3, a blogger and actress by the name of Rosey Blair asked a woman to switch seats with her on an airplane so she could sit next to her boyfriend. "We made a joke that maybe her new seat partner would be the love of her life and well, now I present you with this thread," Blair wrote in a tweet that now has over 900,000 likes. The Twitter thread—a series of images Blair originally posted in her Instagram story—chronicles what she interpreted as the beginning of a love story between the two people sitting in front of her with unapologetic voyeurism.
In a thread of captioned images of the back of the flirting plane-riders' seats (with the sides of their faces blacked out), selfies of Blair and her boyfriend, and reactions from Blair's friends, the blogger-actress excitedly documented what she was witnessing, emphasizing repeatedly how hot both of the people she was spying on were. The burgeoning couple allegedly purchased a cheese board to share, and the narrative reached its climax when Blair claimed that the pair went to the bathroom together at the same time.
The sickly sweet story appealed to the rom-com fans, single people wondering whether they'll ever have some chance airplane encounter where they'll meet The One. But life is not a movie, and less than a week after Blair posted her viral thread, any residual positive #PlaneBae vibes were long dead. While the man sitting in front of the couple, a former soccer player named Euan Holden, was more than happy to reveal his identity to the world, the woman, who a Today Show segment identified as "Helen," didn't want her identity publicly revealed. Holden told the Today Show that Helen is "a very private person," but made sure to give viewers hope that their romance would blossom into something bigger, saying that the pair plan to meet up soon.
Unlike Helen, Blair basked in the fruits of her newfound notoriety. She immediately began tweeting at BuzzFeed asking for a job, informing her new followers that she's an actress looking for work, asking T-Mobile for money, and making sure the world knew that the story was first and foremost about her. ("One of my favorite life mantras when struck with the thought of 'why is this happening to me' is to instead consider asking yourself, 'why is this happening FOR me,'" she explained in an Instagram post where she identified herself as "some strange variety of journalist.")
The blogger-actress, high off her viral fame, was totally unable to grasp why Helen was reticent to go public—and that's when things took a darker turn. In a video posted on Twitter, Blair leans next to her boyfriend, encouraging the internet to dox Helen. "So we don't have the gal's permish yet—not yet y’all—but I’m sure you guys are sneaky. I think you might," Blair cheerfully intones.
"Don’t encourage them," her boyfriend interrupts with a smile.
According to Business Insider, Helen "has quietly gone dark by deleting both her Twitter account and Instagram." The rom-com fairytale, when translated into the messy real world, quickly turned into a saga about the invasion of privacy and what happens when someone uses something happening to you IRL without your permission for their own gain.
To those who want to become famous, a thirst for likes and follows might seem like an innocent personality quirk. But anyone who has become famous against their will knows that not all publicity is good publicity. Monica Lewinsky, who was initially charmed by the thread, sent six tweets apologizing for "bringing stress, upset and a violation of privacy to whoever the woman on the plane is." And she was not the only social media user to apologize for unintentionally egging Blair on.
"Trying to reconcile my general distaste for internet vigilantism with my overwhelming desire to elbow drop the goblin couple who posted the plane bae thread off the top rope," one Twitter user wrote. Atlantic writer Taylor Lorenz put it like this:
The lesson here is not that Blair is a uniquely evil person or that she deserves to be bullied herself. But it is an illustration of how the allure of social media stardom turns private real-world moments, whether they belong to you or someone else, into potential content. It's not inherently immoral to tweet an observation of something that's happening around you—I do it all the time—but not-so-tacitly encouraging your followers to dox a woman who clearly does not want to be famous crosses a line. Smartphones have turned everyone into amateur journalists because anyone can broadcast what's going on around them to the world, but that means everyone needs to be aware when they are infringing on people's privacy. A world where everyone is not just a potential paparazzi but also a potential target isn't one anyone wants to live in. (Thinkpieces on the problematic nature of the woman responsible for #PlaneBae, like this one, continue to feed the viral hate machine, and for that, I am sorry.)
In a time before Donald Trump was president, and GamerGate mentality engulfed internet life, #PlaneBae might've been fun. (Remember Rooftop Breakup? Simpler times!) But in the miserable, desperate social media ecosystem, #PlaneBae is just another example of how seemingly cute viral threads always turn sinister. The problem with the internet is that it's made up of people.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.