This Fourth of July holiday, there was more than one set of fireworks in the sky. As America celebrated its birthday, the internet fawned over the latest viral Twitter thread, a meet-cute between two strangers on a flight from New York to Dallas, as documented by the woman sitting behind them.
It all started when Rosey Blair asked a fellow traveler to switch seats with her so she could sit next to her boyfriend. The new seating arrangement put a pretty woman next to a handsome man, and, as Jane Austen might write if she had lived to see 2018, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that single people in possession of solo air travel tickets, must be in want of heterosexual love and viral fame.” Viral fame they quickly got, in the form of hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets, dozens of articles written, and, as of Thursday, a Today Show appearance, about their so-called epic love story. The substance of that story? Over the course of the flight, Blair surreptitiously observed the two talking about fitness, sharing the arm rest, following each other on Instagram, getting up to go to the bathroom at the same time … reader, it was on.
It’s easy to see why this story commanded so much interest. Planes, the site of so much of our recent national psychic trauma, for once gave us something that wasn’t violent or horrifying or racist (on its face, anyway) but seemingly nice. The story played out like a rom-com with a modern twist: We had someone capturing a real-life flirtation on her own using the guerrilla tools of social media, elevating what would have been a great anecdote to tell at parties into a story that millions of people could experience and participate in. Love, that ever-elusive thing, was unfolding before our eyes.
Or was it? Years of hoaxes, sponsored content, publicity stunts, and more have trained us to distrust much of what we read, and rightly so. Buying in to this type of story these days comes with an implicit agreement to balance any enjoyment derived with the worry that it all might be fake. Social media has the effect of making this guessing game both more exciting and less pleasant, as we all wait for the inevitable bad thing to come out and ruin all the fun. For instance, what should we make of the fact that John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile and power tweeter, swooped in and offered to credit Blair for the money she spent on WiFi? Even if it’s not paid placement, it’s always worth asking who might be profiting from this, and whether our current system, wherein the only entities doing so might be, not any of the people involved, but Twitter and the websites that source content from Twitter, is a good and just one.
Perhaps most important is the question of whether the people documented ever got to consent to be stars in their own story. While the man has revealed himself on social media, the woman declined to use her last name on television, an indication that she might not be entirely comfortable with all of this. Blair squiggled out the faces of the people she was writing about in order to obscure their identities in her original tweets, but that didn’t stop the amateur sleuths on the internet from putting together some of the details and trying to ID them, effectively nullifying the safeguards. Even if she was intending her record of the events to just be for her friends and followers, Blair’s choice to broadcast via social media meant it could quickly spread to a much wider audience and snowball out of her control.
In the end, this adorable love story raises a similar question as many previous viral moments: In our online age, what is a reasonable expectation of privacy, and did this violate it? These were two anonymous people taking part in some very normal flirtation, and while they were doing so in public, there is a huge difference between a conversation being overheard by those seated in the surrounding rows and having it overheard by the entire internet. Blair never would have done something like commandeer the plane’s announcement system to point out to the whole plane that she was sitting behind two lovebirds and that everybody on board should come gawk at them—we have all sorts of societal norms that go against that sort of thing. But by sharing her posts on social media, where our norms haven’t had nearly as long to develop, she blasted out the story to orders of magnitude more people than just those within hearing distance.
We might say there’s something similarly strange going on in how the story was received: Somehow, the majority of the internet’s immediate reaction to it seemed to be one of celebration, not concern. Partly, that might be because this was a seemingly charming story involving conventionally attractive people. It delivered a satisfying fairy tale narrative that adhered to the strong societal norm that being partnered is preferable to staying single. (Of course, even pretty, single people are entitled to their privacy.) But the other reason why such an intimate moment went viral is certainly due to how it was delivered. If Blair had made her announcement via loudspeaker, such an act would have been so rude it probably would have gone viral itself. Instead, she packaged it perfectly for us to click the Twitter heart without a second thought.
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