Hell is other people and other people can’t keep to themselves
The horribly intrusive #PlaneBae story kicks up awkward questions about what makes us pay attention these days
Rosey Blair, sitting right behind her targets, detailed every turn of the developing relationship on Instagram and Twitter.
Everybody has some notion of what the #PlaneBae story tells us. We share too much. We believe too much. We enjoy hating things. We can’t mind our own bleeding business.
Traversing a familiar path from novelty to controversy to outrage, this horrible online yarn began when Rosey Blair and Houston Hardaway, a very modern, emotionally incontinent couple, climbed aboard a flight from New York to their home in Texas. Somehow or other, Rosey and Houston ended up in different rows. Ms Blair asked a woman to switch places and, as the obliging traveller made the move, Rosey began dreamily speculating on who might sit in beside her new acquaintance. “My favourite film is You’ve Got Mail,” she later said. “And I believe in the possibility of magic in the minutiae of everyday life.”
Bleurgh! Sorry, I think I just brought up a little of my breakfast.
Anyway, sure enough, a handsome man settled in beside the other woman and the two passengers set to making friends. Until relatively recently, the substance of their conversation would have remained private. But we now have social media. We now have internet on planes. Never mind that these people were not celebrities. Any person’s story can now become the stuff of instant legend.
Rosey, sitting right behind her targets, detailed every turn of the developing relationship on Instagram and Twitter. The thread, which ran to more than 50 posts, told us that both were vegetarians and that both were personal trainers. “We haven’t even left the runway!!!! I hope they get to fall in love!” Rosey exclaimed (only that synonym for “said” accommodates so many exclamation points). They bought each other “proteins”. A photograph showed them brushing arms together. One senses Rosey’s head firing out sparks as she notes that: “they just left for the bathroom at the same TIME.” They left the plane as apparent soul mates. “OMFG!!!!!”
Mere text can’t communicate how the combination of photograph and blaring, often capitalised fonts simulate the appearance of a romantic photo-comic. The distinction, of course, is that these are real people carrying out interactions they believe to be private.
Most analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s imperishable Rear Window treats the title character’s voyeurism as a mildly psychotic obsession. Spying on neighbours as he recuperates from an accident, Jimmy Stewart’s LB Jeffries occupies one end of a creepy spectrum that would, at the other extreme, later accommodate Norman Bates. But Jeffries didn’t print out his photographs and distribute them throughout Greenwich Village (never mind the whole world). How much creepier and intrusive is the current process. Millions are invited to join in the uninvited voyeurism.
Something similar happened recently to Greta Gerwig on a visit to the cinema. Another chronicler of the insignificant – apparently using their phone during the film like a thug – detailed the star’s every laugh, snort and grimace for the imbecilic entertainment of a viral cesspool. It was a horrible thing to do, but at least that thread didn’t force unwanted celebrity on its unwitting subject. Greta was already famous.
Rosey did blur out the couple’s faces. But a kind of fame was still thrust upon her unwitting subjects. The man, happy to play along, was soon identified as a former professional soccer player called Euan Holden. The woman, whose first name alone was released, did not wish to be identified and, following full viral attention, was reported to have abandoned all social media. “We don’t have the gal’s permish [sic] yet,” Rosey said in a selfie video with her boyfriend. “But I’m sure you guys are sneaky.” Make of that what you will.
The response to that selfie on Twitter kicks up some awkward questions about what makes us pay attention these days. Virtually every reply was hostile. There is a sense that revulsion was at least as significant a factor in driving the virus as was romantic excitement. We are as happy to be annoyed as we are happy to be happy. All of us are a bit to blame. After all, that impulse partly explains the existence of this column. At any rate, the objections eventually got through and, on Tuesday, Rosey issued a characteristically sharey apology. “Every woman has a right to her own story,” she wrote. “And to have taken away yours and turned it into mine was wrong.”
Some of these passions are new. Others have been around since our amphibian ancestors first peered rudely towards their neighbours’ nests as they snuggled down for the night. Human beings are incapable of minding their own business. Somebody is always craning over your shoulder or poking his nose through your curtains. Some nut is always asking impertinent questions on the train.
Hell is other people and other people can’t keep to themselves.