Andy Warhol’s maxim about the distant time when everyone would have their fifteen minutes of fame has now been fully realized. Sometimes it’s jamming in front of a Kroger, sometimes it’s being handsome while working at Target, sometimes it’s stopping someone from burning a Qu’ran. Whatever it is, though, those brief moments of fame are often intoxicating.
Last week, four Dallas residents had their own brush with viral fame: actors and comedians Rosey Blair and Houston Hardaway; Eaun Holden, a former pro soccer player; and a woman named Helen, who wanted no part of any of it. And it all started on a flight from New York to Dallas on a Tuesday afternoon.
Blair and Helen were seated next to one another, while Hardaway was seated next to Holden in the row in front of them. Blair asked if Helen would swap seats with Hardaway, her boyfriend, and she agreed. Later, Blair tweeted that she joked to Helen that perhaps she and her new seat partner would fall in love on the flight.
Helen and Holden appeared to hit it off throughout the flight. And Blair, now seated directly behind them, documented the encounter on Twitter and Instagram, updating her followers as they flirted, brushed arms, exchanged Instagram usernames, and—at one point—left their seats at the same time. It was, perhaps, an inordinate amount of detail to include about two strangers (though she never included their names or faces). But in another world, Blair’s audience might have been briefly amused by the real life rom-com-style meeting, and then simply imagined what might have happened after they exited baggage claim.
Instead, the encounter went massively viral. Blair’s Twitter thread about two strangers—both to her and the internet—was retweeted tens of thousands of times, and outlets around the world ran stories about the meet-cute. As interest in the story grew, people quickly used information Blair provided on social media—locations, professions, a photo from Holden’s Instagram account—to identify both of the parties. Holden quickly outed himself, leaning heavily into his new role as “plane bae.” By Thursday, he, Blair, and Hardaway were on the Today show, and had turned their social media profiles into running updates.
Helen, on the other hand, declined interviews and worked to protect her identity.
In a video she posted to Twitter that has since been deleted, Blair seemed annoyed at Helen’s refusal to play along. Although Blair acknowledged that Helen hadn’t yet given her “permish,” she nonetheless encouraged people following the story to be “sneaky” in finding the social media accounts of the woman who so clearly wanted to remain anonymous. What followed was an online horde. Some, to be sure, only wanted to continue the vicarious thrill of watching two people hit it off. But others had a malicious objective: Helen deleted her social media accounts after she was harassed by people—convinced by Blair’s suggestive missive—who believed she had sex on the plane. No matter what the intentions, though, Blair wasn’t the only one ignoring a boundary.
hey @roseybeeme the plane girl deleted her social after being harassed as a result of your lack of boundaries. winking at your audience a& calling them "sneaky" enough to find her? sis. this isn't cute it's invasive & irresponsible. she doesn't want to be famous. seriously. stop. https://t.co/5WUAIAsRNd
— Franchesca Ramsey (@chescaleigh) July 7, 2018
As the early rush of enthusiasm for a story declared “the best thing ever” gave way to the reality that Helen was an unwilling star in the internet’s impromptu romantic comedy, contrary takes rolled in. The Today show segment opened with a shot of a storybook, suggesting a fairy tale romance, and ran a banner on the screen that read “Love in the Air?” But just a few days later, people began to reckon with what the behavior we were celebrating actually looked like. Soon, instead of celebrating the adventures of #PlaneBae, we were urged to “Stop Live-Tweeting Strangers Flirting.” We learned that “People Are Creeped Out By A Viral Love Story About Two People Meeting On A Plane.” We heard that it represented “The Dark Side of Going Viral” and of “Turning Strangers Into Social Media Content,” that it “Brought Out The Worst In Everyone,” that it “Proved How Voyeurism Has Been Normalized,” and that “Fun Viral Moments Are Dead Forever.”
The backlash is understandable. In the moment, stories like #PlaneBae can seem cute. But as they unfold, it becomes clear that the internet’s hunger for content can be all-consuming—and people who never signed up for any of it can end up the meal.
Holden, whose Twitter and Instagram accounts have now gone quiet, seems to have recognized that he was laying it on a little too thick—a modeling shot he posted that had been captioned with a note about wanting to see “her” again was edited to say “Thinking of ways to make the world a better place.” And Blair, who received the brunt of the blowback, issued a broad mea culpa on Twitter for her part in invading Helen’s privacy.
— Rosey Blair (@roseybeeme) July 10, 2018
Blair, the instigator of the whole affair, does deserve some of the blame. But holding her solely responsible ignores the fact that countless people consumed the her exploitation, that the media seized upon it, and that people played arm-chair detective to share in the viral rewards. Blair may have lit the spark and stoked the flames, but it took the interest of tens of thousands of people who favorited, retweeted, and shared the story to turn the situation into such a firestorm. The people who posted harassing comments on Helen’s social media feeds behaved horribly, but everyone who followed the story had a hand in this mess.
The wild rush of viral fame does strange things to people. #AlexFromTarget had to leave school, received death threats, and had his parents’ bank accounts and social security numbers leaked online. On the flip side, he moved from Frisco to L.A. to seize the opportunities presented by his sudden rise, launching a YouTube channel and a career as a fitness trainer. (He currently has 1.5 million Instagram followers.) The three guys who held the impromptu jam session outside of the Irving Kroger all attempted to parlay the viral video into sustained music careers, with varying degrees of success. Jacob “Dude, You Have No Qu’ran” Isom struggled with the impact of his viral moment in the year that followed. The circumstances of each of these encounters vary, but the common denominator in them is that, once their Warholian fifteen minutes came, they were inclined to try to make them last a little longer.
Blair might have wanted a complete love story. The media and tens and thousands of people who watched it from their screens might have wanted one too. But Helen didn’t want her fifteen minutes to stretch a moment longer—she didn’t even want them in the first place.