Two Strangers Met on a Plane—and the Internet Ruined It

Nothing in American culture—not even delight, not even coincidence, not even love—is safe from the gravitational forces of commodification.

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Have you heard about #PlaneBae? The story that went viral on Twitter over the Fourth of July holiday, and was featured as one of those feel-good segments on the Today show and Good Morning America soon after? Just in case you haven’t, here’s a summary: Rosey Blair and her boyfriend, Houston Hardaway, wanting to sit together on a flight from New York to Dallas, asked Hardaway’s assigned seatmate whether she would switch seats. The woman (her name would later be revealed to be Helen) agreed. Maybe, they joked, in the light way of strangers on a plane, her new travel companion would end up being the love of Helen’s life.

Helen went to her new seat—16C, in the row just in front of Blair and Hardaway—and that might have been, as it so often is, the end of the story. Except in this case: Helen’s new seatmate (his name would later be revealed to be Euan) was … hot! Which was perfect, because Helen herself was hot! And, it turned out: They’re both fitness instructors (!!). Anyway, Helen and Euan started talking. And they didn’t stop—for the whole nearly four-hour flight. Their small talk quickly progressed, to sharing their thoughts on marriage (!!!!) and on kids (!!!!!!). They talked about his mom (“So hot!” Helen remarked), and about why they were both—!!!!!!!!—still single. They shared their seats’ arm rest. Their arms occasionally touched. At one point, for a second, she soooort of seemed to be resting her head on his shoulder. The whole thing was, potentially, one of the meet-cute-iest meet-cutes ever: Love Actually, but with an actual airport for Hugh Grant to get all sappy about.

You might be wondering how I, a writer who was not aboard Alaska Airlines Flight 3327 in early July, would know all this (and how “we,” as a wobbly little collection of eyeballs and attention, would know about it too). That is because Blair and Hardaway, instead of just settling back to watch Coco or read Alaska Beyond Magazine or something, settled on a different mode of in-flight entertainment: They began observing the interaction playing out in the row before them. And also: documenting it, via pictures and videos and words and, eventually, a series of tweets. Helen and Euan thus went from strangers on a plane to participants—via the dedicated attentions of the two people behind them, watching them through the space between the seats—in a cheekily epic drama.

“Last night on a flight home,” Blair’s vicarious saga began, “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.”

Blair’s story built on itself, tweet after threaded tweet—a story told after the fact, re-created as if it were happening in real time. And as Blair tweeted, the tale became a thing in the typical way any such event will become A Thing: More than 300,000 people retweeted Blair’s thread. Nearly a million liked it. Those small endorsements brought more attention, more eyeballs, more retweets. People filmed themselves, sipping wine, reacting to the latest of Blair’s exclamatory developments. They began wondering about the full identities of the people involved. They added their own insights and spins on the story. Euan, in particular, quickly became converted, through the easy alchemies of the internet, into #PlaneBae and #PlaneHunk.

It is an extremely familiar trajectory: the kind of thing that, once upon a time, converted Alex Christopher LaBeouf into #alexfromtarget—and the kind of thing that has also turned a pair of escaped llamas into folk heroes, and an errant raccoon into a metaphor for the fraught strivings of modern life, and a bag of stolen shrimp fried rice into a source of low-stakes tragicomedy. Warm, messy, silly, complicated events get flattened into memes; the dynamics of the performer and the audience take over; ephemeral delights are honed and hardened into pieces of media against which can be sold ads for IHOP or Anthropologie or Alaska Airlines. None of us is immune to that conversion process; it is one of the consequences of living in public, when so many members of that public are equipped with the tools of instant broadcasting. Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes are now both briefer and more enduring than ever: Instances of fame, now, can be transformed into eternities. People themselves can be transformed into those eternities. For a product you are, and to a product you shall return.

The impulse to meme-ify is understandable, of course, and very, very human. We are social; we are nosy; we love to hear—and tell—stories about each other. And in the case of Helen and Euan, audiences were rewarded for their investment, of time and of care, with that rarest of things: a story that seemed to have a happy ending. No regretful, Missed Connections–y fate for our star-crossed lovers in Row 16; instead, over the course of their long conversation, Helen and Euan exchanged Instagram handles (!!!!!). They seemed to leave the airport together (!!!!!!!!!!!), their hard-shell carry-ons in tow (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). Which we know because Blair took a photo of their retreating forms as they walked toward baggage claim! Good things can happen, still! There is love to be found, sometimes, and second-hand delight for the rest of us! Yay! And: awwwww.

And the whole thing, once again, might have ended there: a dash of delight during a time when so many people are in need of it. Except, as is becoming more and more clear … it very much couldn’t have ended there. Because the “it,” with every tweet Blair sent about its development, got bigger and weightier. It accumulated. The dynamics of microfame took over. As viewers got invested in the saga of #PlaneBae, they also began, in their own small ways, laying claim to it. Media outlets started writing about it. Ryan Seacrest joked about it. USA Today reported, with the urgent tones of breaking news, that Euan is the brother of Stu Holden, the former United States soccer player and current World Cup commentator. The story of the maybe-couple’s lofty meet-cute had slipped the surly bonds of mirth. It had ceased to be a simple, airy delight. It had instead become a heavy-handed media product, with ads sold against it and eyeballs meant to cling to it and #PlaneBae truthers attempting to puncture it. It had become #content. It had become a commodity.

And, hey, maybe it always was. In the brief frenzy, after all, it also came out that Euan Holden is already a minor celebrity, a former soccer player and current model. (He has now cheekily added “Plane Bae” to his Twitter bio, along with the tag #CatchFlightsANDFeelings.) Rosey Blair, parlaying her own Warholian moment the way people whose tweets go viral might ask new visitors to their feed to sign up for their SoundCloud, shared that she was a comedian and actor, and invited her new fans to write a screenplay with her. She then asked BuzzFeed for a job—saying she’d love “to create” for the site—via a tweet punctuated with a ;). Holden retweeted it.

Is it all a hoax? Is the whole saga—👩❤️✈️, Holden has taken to abbreviating his caught flight-feelings—the work of people simply looking to boost their careers? Is this tale of lofty love, during a time of deep anxiety about what is real and what is not—a time of Photoshop, of “fake news,” of “infopocalypse,” of fake love on The Bachelor, of fake decisions on House Hunters, of fake heroines on YouTube—just another reminder of the fact that, as Vox recently put it, “your reality is an interpretation”?

What’s striking, in the maybe-romance of these maybe-strangers, is that those questions are pretty much irrelevant to the story itself. Because the authors of this particular tale, with an efficiency that would impress even the most ardently post-y of the post-structuralists, quickly got lost in the bigger one. Whether the result of clever hoaxery or massive coincidence—or even, as the rom-comically inclined might have it, of fate—the specific saga of Helen and Euan got subsumed within the broader one: the one that is collective, and messy, and meme-ified. Rosey Blair and Houston Hardaway ceded their story to Twitter, to the Today show, to Good Morning America. The individual authors got dissolved, as it were, into the author-function.

That collective authorship is in some ways a deeply wonderful thing, a reminder of how powerful people’s impulses can be, despite the assorted awfulnesses on offer on the internet, to enforce human connection. But it’s in other ways a deeply cynical thing. Fake, fate, fame: The weight of mass attention once again had its predictable flattening effect. It converted Helen and Euan, the people, into Helen and Euan, the memes. It took the flimsy and serendipitous delights of their initial meeting and turned them, with the ruthlessness of media churn, into a money-making proposition. As Blair and Holden made their appearances on the morning shows—as they cheerfully sold their story and also themselves—they served as reminders: Even whimsy, these days, will be commodified. These commercial delights will have commercial ends.

There was one person, notably, who resisted those inertias: Helen herself. Helen—her last name remains unknown—has been conspicuously absent from the #PlaneBae saga after its initial publication, seemingly resisting the Warholian tug of the American media. And yet: Even despite her resistance, Helen was pulled into the story. She, too, was meme-ified. She, too, was flattened. She, too, was used. “She’s a very, very, very lovely girl,” Euan Holden said, of his maybe-new-love-interest, during his interview on the Today show. “Very attractive, very beautiful.” He added: “And has a lot to say for herself.”

At which point the narrator NBC had appointed for its lighthearted segment on this “Modern Fairy Tale,” perhaps anticipating viewers’ reasonable query about the whereabouts of that tale’s appointed princess, interjected via voiceover: “Helen preferred not to be interviewed for this story.”