Deep down, we all love to eavesdrop. But this?
Last week’s internet sensation, now dubbed “Plane Bae,” starts out like a thrilling romcom, but ends with an odd mixture of voyeuristic guilt and disillusionment with humanity. What’s more, it questions the limits of consent in a digital age and begs for a proper understanding of respect.
I’ll let the instigator present the backstory:
“Last night on a flight home, my boyfriend and I asked a woman to switch seats with me so we could sit together. 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." — Rosey Blair.
You can see where the subsequent 50-plus tweets are headed — the new seatmates seemingly hit it off. Meanwhile, Ms. Blair started recording everything the couple did, from sharing family photos to scooting closer together even though the plane’s air conditioning was broken to insinuating scandalous behavior when they left for the bathroom in tandem.
The initial tweet drew more than 300,000 retweets and 800,000 likes. In less time than it takes to fly from New York City to Dallas (the itinerary of the infatuated seatmates), a chunk of the world was rooting for a happily ever after complete with white gown and open bar. Excluded from that company, of course, were the romantic duo, who were blissfully ignorant of any tomfoolery.
These sorts of happenings are the new prime time for the online age, but something suggests they’ve expanded beyond the realm of pure entertainment. Indeed, the internet has become an exercise in consent and respect, and if the #MeToo movement and online comment forums are any indication, neither attribute abounds.
Let’s start with the obvious. Did Ms. Blair have the couple’s permission to post their movements and photos on the internet? No. Should she have asked for permission? From a propriety standpoint, yes. Did she need to ask for permission? Now we’re breaching the barrier between certainty and a boundless gray area.
Think in ethical terms for the moment. The internet is a public sphere. In one sense, popping up on Twitter is like being spotted walking down the sidewalk. You may not invite the gaze — or the post — but there’s not much you can do about it by virtue of living in a public world.
For another perspective, consider how society treats celebrities — those people in the so-called “public eye.” We have no qualms taking secret pictures, making memes and generally discussing their lives without approval. But why does starring in a summer blockbuster open the door for intrusion in another’s life? We wave aside any of their complaints by saying it comes with the territory. Is the choice to act also a choice to give universal consent for us to commandeer their lives?
If the answer is “yes” (dubious, but plausible), how does social media change things? With smartphones and Facebook, everyone is seconds away from celebrityhood, for better or for worse. Sure, Chewbacca Mom was endearing. We all shared a laugh, in part because we could tell she was the type to laugh at herself.
But what about the Chinese prom dress? Earlier this year a Utah teen innocently wore a Chinese qipao to her high school prom because she thought it was modest and looked fancy. Twitter didn’t agree.
Yes, the teen posted the picture, but she didn’t invite the criticisms, shaming or guilt. She was not a celebrity before the picture and had not made the same decision that a Kristen Stewart or a Meryl Streep makes. If we’re to rightfully insist a woman is not guilty for unwanted contact because her skirt is short, then shouldn’t the same standard hold for innocent online users subjected to harassment?5 comments on this story
It seems we haven’t yet figured out the limits of consent on the internet. While we grapple with these questions, the best solution for a happy future is to simply promulgate respect. No one should feel like Facebook fodder for simply stepping through the front door. The immediate and permanent nature of the internet requires greater constraint and respect for others than ever before.
Ms. Blair eventually took down her thread and offered a heartfelt apology to the woman on the plane. But nothing is truly forgotten on the internet. The damage is done. As for the seatmates? A flight free from prying eyes might have made for a happier ever after.