Update: The woman filmed on the plane, who wishes to remain anonymous, gave a statement to Business Insider about the viral sensation, opening up about the harassment she received and requesting privacy:
"I am a young professional woman. On July 2, I took a commercial flight from New York to Dallas. Without my knowledge or consent, other passengers photographed me and recorded my conversation with a seatmate. They posted images and recordings to social media, and speculated unfairly about my private conduct.
"Since then, my personal information has been widely distributed online. Strangers publicly discussed my private life based on patently false information. I have been doxxed, shamed, insulted and harassed. Voyeurs have come looking for me online and in the real world.
"I did not ask for and do not seek attention. #PlaneBae is not a romance - it is a digital-age cautionary tale about privacy, identity, ethics and consent.
"Please continue to respect my privacy, and my desire to remain anonymous."
Original story published below on July 10 at 3:45 p.m.
Over the Fourth of July holiday, an unexpected spark captured America’s attention. Alongside the usual barbecues and fireworks, all eyes were on Twitter user Rosey Blair, an actress and photographer from Dallas with a passion for plus-size fashion. Blair also had a passion for constructing a good story, which she demonstrated by documenting the supposedly budding romance of two strangers who ended up next to each other on a plane after Blair and her boyfriend asked one of them to switch seats.
Blair’s narrative started on Instagram Stories and was repurposed into a viral Twitter thread that, as of this posting, currently has over 370,000 retweets and over 900,000 likes. The 59-tweet-long thread photo-documented the couple's every alleged flirtation, down to light touches and, notably, a trip together to the bathroom.
Initially, the reactions were positive, with people eagerly awaiting the outcome and expressing hope that the couple’s romance would continue. I'll admit that when I first read the thread, which concluded with the couple leaving the airport together, my knee-jerk reaction was also to think it was sweet. Especially right now, what's not to love about a good, old-fashioned meet cute?
This is a trap we’ve fallen into time and time again. Twitter allows us to present and spread one side of a story, one nugget of information, and it’s easy to get excited and hit retweet before remembering that life is larger and more complicated than that. Twitter is made for multiple perspectives, and it’s not long before they make themselves known.
"Secretly recording people in public so you can exploit them later for content and viral fame is gross and everyone involved in the plane bae saga should be kicked off the internet except the poor woman who just wanted to be left alone," wrote Atlantic writer Taylor Lorenz about the thread.
Secretly recording people in public so you can exploit them later for content and viral fame is gross and everyone involved in the plane bae saga should be kicked off the internet except the poor woman who just wanted to be left alone.— Taylor Lorenz (@TaylorLorenz) July 6, 2018
This is not the first time a viral moment has soured. People had similar feelings about Twitter user @hayejunt. In May, they ended up in a screening of I Feel Pretty with Lady Bird director Greta Gerwig. In now-deleted tweets, they documented Gerwig's less-than-positive reaction to the film, including her saying things like "I hate this" and "ugh" during pivotal moments. After some brief excitement over this voyeurism, the tables turned, and @hayejunt was on the receiving end of criticism from people like I Feel Pretty star Busy Philipps.
"It just bummed me out on such a deeply personal level for a few reasons," Philipps said on her Instagram Story after it all went down. "It’s just the idea that if you are in the public eye in whatever capacity that you just sort of are giving up your autonomy and your privacy, anywhere, that you can’t go to a movie theatre."
Or, it seems, a plane. While the story of Plane Bae, as it was affectionately nicknamed, continued to spread around the internet in one conveniently packaged, shareable moment, real life carried on — and real life comes with consequences. Caught up in the excitement, the man in the story, Euan Holden, identified himself. He also added fuel to the fire, telling a fan who asked about what happened in the bathroom that "A gentleman would never say." What he did say, though, was the woman's name, which Twitter users claim he let slip during an Instagram Live about the story. If you've even been a woman on the internet, it's not surprising what happened next.
it's not just about shyness! she was actually being harassed, insulted and attacked! please don't try to milk-and-toast what motivated this poor innocent civillian to back out of social media, this isn't a romance fanfiction pic.twitter.com/07Pbh0QQkZ— seu menino, victor c (@seumeninovictor) July 6, 2018
Amid harassment, the woman was apparently forced off of social media, and public perception of the story swiftly went south.
In this light, it's much easier to see the glaring privacy issues with the thread. Much of the commentary was projection and speculation, going so far as to insinuate they had sex or something similar in the plane bathroom. Even though Blair admitted she didn't have the woman's permission "yet," she made references to her story becoming a movie that she hopes to be a part of and tweeted at BuzzFeed asking for a job. All of these things piled up, and Blair finally addressed the backlash on Tuesday.
“When I made this and shared it, I was happy, joyful, and overcome with authentic and sincere excitement,” she wrote in a screenshot shared to her Twitter. “So much so that I could not see the potential exploitative nature of the outcome and my actions. The last thing I want to do is remove agency and autonomy from another woman." She deleted the first tweet in the thread, as well as the more heavily-criticized posts, and apologized to the woman, saying that the story is now hers, which it should have been all along.
But we're only just learning a disappointing truth: There's no such thing as a good viral story anymore.
There's a term for this phenomenon when, for varied reasons, the internet sours on an initially positive moment: Milkshake Duck. The term was first coined on Twitter in 2016, but has gained traction over the past two years as, time and time again, a good viral moment is ruined by its inevitably dark underbelly.
A prominent example of this occurred in late 2017 when a number of celebrities rallied around Keaton Jones, whose emotional video about bullying went viral after his mother Kimberly uploaded it to Facebook. Through tears, he explained that he was bullied at school for his appearance, ending the video by saying "It's hard. But it'll probably get better one day."
Chris Evans notably retweeted the video, adding words of encouragement and inviting Jones to the Avengers premiere in L.A.. And then, it Milkshake Duck-ed. Since the video went viral on Facebook, people could see other things Jones' mother had posted, which included pictures of the confederate flag with captions criticizing "butt-hurt Americans." The mother appeared on Good Morning America to clear up the confusion, insisting that she and her family aren't racist, but the damage had been done. The viral moment was forever tainted. It's unclear if Jones ended up attending the premiere.
While the viral moments of yore may have snuck in early enough to escape this fate — before social media was a part of everyone’s lives and became an easily-searchable record of personal information — it's not likely that ones of the future will ever exist in the same vacuum. The point of social media is to accommodate multiple narratives, and now that social media has been almost fully integrated with "real life," in the sense that almost all of use it and what happens on Twitter is just as real as what happens in person; viral moments no longer exist solely on the web.
This isn't to say they'll stop happening, or that we're doomed to relive the same disappointment over and over again, but rather that we have to start acknowledging the power of having a platform. Social media puts everyone on a level playing field, with a single Tweet or Instagram Story carrying the potential to become a cultural phenomenon, which means anyone can be a public figure. While we can’t stop the creation of these moments, we can consume them responsibly. Before you like or retweet think: Who else is affected? Do I need to spread it? And am I ready to share accountability if it all goes wrong?
Those who retweeted Blair’s tweet were more than just bystanders: They played a part in making the story louder, which ultimately contributed to the woman’s decision to leave social media. While the damage is already done for Plane Bae, in a few weeks another viral moment will happen, and with any luck we’ll think twice before sharing, having understood that the situation is almost always more complicated than it initially appears.