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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

Why the viral #PlaneBae love story is an egregious invasion of privacy

When did it become acceptable to eavesdrop on other people's conversations, take pictures of them without them knowing, and then broadcast it to the world? 

What seemed like a simple feel-good story about two strangers meeting on an airplane soon turned a dark turn. Getty 
What seemed like a simple feel-good story about two strangers meeting on an airplane soon turned a dark turn. Getty 

It started with a seemingly innocuous tweet: “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, an actor, writer and photographer, then proceeded in a series of over-exuberant tweets to recount in the minutest detail how the woman in question and her new seat partner were hitting it off. “They are both personal trainers,” she revealed. “They are both vegetarians,” she exclaimed. “They have touched arms a few times.” Woop-di-doo.

For many, it was a sweet little love story of the most modern kind. For me, it was all a bit creepy.

I can think of nothing more intrusive than sitting on a plane and having a total stranger eavesdrop on my private conversations, take photos every time my elbow twitches, and then superimpose their own ridiculous viewpoint onto my experience, before broadcasting it to the rest of the world.

Blair, seemingly unaware of such antiquated concepts as privacy, consent and personal space, went on posting, amassing an almighty following and hundreds of thousands of retweets as she went. At the airport, she brought her story to a close with a celebratory “OMFG” (reiterated with no less than five exclamation marks), as the duo walked out of the airport together, luggage in tow.

The Twittersphere was besotted. Would they? Wouldn’t they? Did they? Didn’t they? And, most importantly, who were they?

The man, Euan Holden (aka #Planebae), quickly and proudly outed himself, and was soon to be found making appearances on national television. Rosie, meanwhile, took the opportunity presented by her newly swelled Twitter following to “hype some of [her] favourite creatives who need some exposure” and to try to secure herself a job at Buzzfeed.

And then the backlash began.

There is, I will admit, an underlying sweetness to this tale. I love a good rom-com as much as the next person and there is something heartening in the fact that so many people were so swept up by this everyday love story. If nothing else, Blair can be credited with creating a compelling tale out of absolutely nothing. Even Monica Lewinsky waded in with a: “Legit just boarded a plane. Praying for a hot football player to sit next to me” tweet.

But if a love story is going to be aired to the world, it needs to be cast with willing participants. While Holden was happy to embrace his newfound fame, the woman in question was not. Unsurprisingly, given how little Blair did to protect it, the lady’s identity was soon discovered. Before long, she was being harassed online andhas since taken her Instagram account offline. She clearly has no desire to be in the public eye.

She has been cast by many as a bad sport. One person tweeted words of support for storyteller Blair: “Who could have guessed that the "lady" was a private introvert? Not you. Stay strong.”

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Read more of Selina's thoughts:

The eternal quest for the perfect work-life balance

Paying tribute to the extraordinary life of my dad, the ultimate expat

Why eating meat makes me feel like a hypocrite

Phone etiquette? I need some guidelines please

After a decade, Dubai feels like it has come of age

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Private and introverted are now negative qualities, it seems. Expecting others to respect your privacy is something to be sneered at (and I don’t even want to imagine what the quotation marks around the word lady are supposed to mean).

Social media and reality TV have taught us that we can claim other peoples’ experiences – that their lives are ours to watch, disassemble and judge. It has turned us all into voyeurs, unwitting or otherwise. There’s also the assumption that in this millennial, social media-driven age, everyone is hungry for their 15 minutes of fame – that everyone’s end game is to "go viral". Maybe most people want exactly that. But I don’t and the innocent lady on the plane who has become an unwilling internet sensation clearly didn’t either.

Social media is eroding our personal boundaries – whether it's people telling you what they had for breakfast, women posting pictures of themselves half-naked, or couples airing their acrimonious break-ups online, we live in the age of the overshare. The boundaries between public and private are now but a faint blur, and the #planebae affair is the ultimate manifestation of that.

After much criticism, Blair has apologised, recognising that “every woman has a right to her own story”. She also said: “The last thing I want to do is to remove agency and autonomy from another woman.”

But her apology is ultimately worthless because, as she has discovered, Blair is no longer in control of her own narrative. It’s a stark warning to us all: once your story has been hijacked on social media, it is very difficult to reclaim it.

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