We Are All Public Figures Now

A woman gets on a plane. She’s flying from New York to Dallas, where she lives and works as a personal trainer. A couple asks her if she’ll switch seats with one of them so that they can sit together, and she agrees, thinking it’s her good deed for the day. She chats with her new seatmate and they discover that they have a lot in common: he’s also a trainer, and a former professional soccer player. Maybe there’s a spark of attraction between them, or maybe he instigates the conversation despite her polite signs of disinterest—it’s difficult to discourage someone when you’re trapped together on a four-hour flight. We don’t really know what is going on in her head, and there’s no way that anyone could know.

The woman on the plane is unaware that the woman sitting in the row behind her is watching and recording her every move. Rosey Blair, the stranger she helped sit beside her boyfriend, is projecting a story on top of her interactions that soon takes the internet by storm. Her detailed breakdown of their conversation and body language racks up hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets. Blair herself begins to accumulate thousands of new Twitter followers.

Not long after the plane touches down in Texas, the hordes of strangers following Blair’s tweets are eager to discover the identities of the personal trainers from Dallas. A hunt begins to find her Instagram account. Later the man, her seatmate Euan Holden, participates in the growing media circus because he also gains a ton of twitter followers, or because it helps his career, or because it’s fun, or because it’s just too late to go back to the anonymity of before.

Soon the woman begins receiving crass, sexually explicit messages in the comments of her personal Instagram profile. Her identity has been found. “Lol you blew that guy in the bathroom. Skank,” someone writes on a photograph from her Montauk vacation. The insult is inspired by the woman behind her on the plane, who implied that she and Euan Holden had sex in the bathroom when they got out of their seats at the same time. She deactivates her social media accounts and declines an invitation to go on the Today Show. Blair and Holden appear without her. Who doesn’t love a fun, light story about unlikely romance and the wonder of the internet?

None of this was her doing, her choice. No one asked her if she had any reservations or concerns about being made part of a modern romantic comedy. All she did was board a plane and chat with her seatmate. Now she is a public figure, a hashtag, a target. Millions of strangers on the internet want to know about her new fictional relationship. No one understands why she is so afraid. Or maybe she isn’t afraid. How could I know? I don’t know this woman either.

The erosion of the division between public and private has been coming for a while now. Maybe it started with reality television and the dramatic storylines broadcast to millions about people just like you falling in love or competing for a million dollars or struggling to survive, wandering naked in the wilderness. Maybe it was already in the works before then: history is thick with people being made into public spectacle against their will, especially if their perceived difference was entertaining for the wealthy, powerful masses. But let’s keep it simple for now. Let’s just talk about the Internet.

A public figure is traditionally considered to be someone involved in public affairs, with a not inconsiderable level of influence over society. They’re officials, politicians, entertainers, household names. They’re famous. Their status as public figures also means that they’re fair game for a certain level of intrusion.

When I was twenty-two, I wrote my first paid article for a publication on the Internet. My essay was about what it was like to date with genital herpes, and I expected maybe a few thousand people to read it on the Women’s Health website (it wasn’t even going in the physical magazine). At the time, I was an intern at a media company, less than a year out of college, and my only brush with fame was as a thirteen-year-old writer of moderately popular Harry Potter fan fiction. I’d even won the honor of “Most Original” Plot in the 2006 Dramione Awards.

The article, the one about herpes, went viral. Not just “few thousand retweets” viral— I mean invitations to go on daytime television viral. Two days after my essay went up on Women’s Health, I was featured in a trending article on the Washington Post website. It was aggregated from there on Yahoo, Jezebel, and eventually even The Daily Mail, where an enterprising staffer tracked down my private Facebook profile and raided it for photographs to use in their article. There I was, smiling bright in a picture my mother had taken as my father blew out his birthday candles. They cropped my father out, and I stood alone in my kitchen, grinning and defenseless as hundreds of Daily Mail readers wrote comments underneath attacking my character. This slut, this shameful whore, she should kill herself for having an STD.

The next year I would find myself at the center of a new controversy when Genius, a well-funded startup that mostly writes annotations on song lyrics, launched a new tool allowing their users to annotate any website, anywhere. I wrote a blog post detailing why I thought the product was unethical, as it ignored the consent of the website creator and let strangers essentially scrawl graffiti on our intellectual property. I was concerned it would be yet another tool in the hands of abusers, stalkers, and harassment mobs to silence the voices of vulnerable communities. The year between my debut on the internet as a writer and seeing News Genius annotations on my website had been full of horrifying sexual emails from strangers and failed attempts to recover from an ex’s harassment. I was bone-tired at twenty-three.

Sam Biddle, writing for Gawker, found my case unconvincing. His argument boiled down to my status as a public figure.

“It’s brave and noble of Dawson to publicly try to combat the stigma of STD infection. But when she writes ‘we need more voices to challenge the single narrative of herpes,’ she’s already acknowledging her place in public—it’s right there in the ‘we.’ If you want to advocate for a cause in front of an audience (and judging by the fact that her website has a ‘Press’ section, I’m assuming she does), you have to take what comes with it. Dawson says she has a blog ‘to have total control of how I write and who interacts with me.’ If only this were possible! Unfortunately, this is a fantasy, and will always be so.”

Chelsea Hassler, writing for Slate, argued that I wasn’t a public figure at all. I was an individual, an amateur. She wrote: “There’s a substantive difference between critiquing the work of a professional journalist or blogger and critiquing the writing of an individual who is using her blog as an outlet to communicate with other likeminded people.”

People like me pose a challenge to traditional understandings of the public/private divide. I write about my personal life, and sometimes I get paid to do so. I go on podcasts and give interviews and appear on the occasional poorly rated television show. My Twitter account is verified but I have less than 20,000 followers. I’ve had a handful of short stories published in anthologies by indie houses, all erotic and not available at major book retailers. I’m slowly outlining a memoir. I have no Wikipedia page, but my website earned a quarter of a million views last year. Would you consider me a public figure? At what point did I become one? Was it that first article in Women’s Health? Was it when I put up my copy-pasted Press page, as Biddle argues?

Was it when I decided to become a public figure? Would it change your mind if I told you I’ve never wanted to be one?

In 2014, Anil Dash published an article on Medium called “What Is Public?” He wrote, “Public is not simply defined. Public is not just what can be viewed by others, but a fragile set of social conventions about what behaviors are acceptable and appropriate.” To summarize his argument, the media industry wants to broaden our definition of the public so that it will be fair game for discussion and content creation, meaning they can create more articles and videos, meaning they can sell more ads. The tech industry wants everything to be public because coding for privacy is difficult, and because our data, if public, is something they can sell. Our policy makers have failed to define what’s public in this digital age because, well, they don’t understand it and wouldn’t know where to begin. And also, because lobbyists don’t want them to.

I think a lot about us, the normal ones, the average citizens. The idea that our privacy is in jeopardy is a relatively new concept, born from the 2016 election and the Cambridge Analytica scandal. There’s growing awareness of just how much of our private lives we’ve ceded to Facebook. But even now, most of us feel safe online, because what do we have to hide? Who would care what we have to say? Who is watching us? What’s the worst that could happen?

And then we board a plane.

In December 2013, Justine Sacco took a seat on her flight to Cape Town for the holidays. Before takeoff, she tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Then she turned off her phone. When she landed in South Africa, the entire internet was waiting for her, using the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet to pick apart her identity. Strangers were even at the airport, thirsty to document her arrival. Her life as she knew it was over.

Was her tweet insensitive? Yes. I’m not here to litigate what Justine Sacco deserved. If you have a public profile and say something ignorant online, you should know that people might read it and disagree with you. If you call the police on African-American kids who are selling water bottles or making more noise than you deem acceptable, you should not be protected from the consequences of your actions either. Public shaming is a powerful tool, and often the only tool available to the oppressed who the justice system has no interest in aiding. We rely on the wisdom of the crowd to determine who is a fair recipient of a public shaming—if thousands pile on the abuse, we prefer to believe they deserve it.

But who was Justine Sacco? She was not a public figure. She was no one. Her tweet was racist, but she was not an influential person when it came to politics or culture or the immediate lives of other people. It deserved a few passive aggressive replies pointing out her insensitivity, not a mob of strangers gleefully plotting her humiliation. Her real crime was that she worked in public relations, and that someone sent her tweet to (pause to appreciate the irony here) Sam Biddle. He wrote about it on Valleywag, Gawker’s tech-industry blog. He explained his actions to writer Jon Ronson: “The fact that she was a P.R. chief made it delicious. It’s satisfying to be able to say, ‘O.K., let’s make a racist tweet by a senior IAC employee count this time.’ And it did. I’d do it again.”

More content for Gawker, more page views, more ads served. The rest, shall we say, is history.

I don’t think there is any such thing as a “private person” anymore. The vast majority of us constantly groom our internet presence, choosing the right filter on Instagram for our brunch and taking polls of our friends about our next Facebook profile picture. We don’t think about this as a public act when we have only 400 connections on LinkedIn or 3,000 followers on Tumblr. No one imagines the Daily Mail write-up or the Jezebel headline. We actively create our public selves, every day, one social media post at a time. Little kids dream of becoming famous YouTubers the same way I wanted to be a published author when I was twelve.

But there are also those of us who don’t choose this. We keep our accounts locked, our Instagram profile set to “friends only.” Maybe we learned a lesson when a post took off and left the safe haven of our community, picked apart in a horrifying display of context collapse. Maybe we are hiding from something: a stalker, an abusive ex, our family members who don’t know our true queer identity. To some of us, privacy is as vital as oxygen. Without it we are exposed—butterflies with our wings pinned to the corkboard, our patterns scrutinized under a magnifying glass. For what? For entertainment? For someone else’s mid-workday escapism? For a starring role in someone else’s bastardized rom com?

A woman boarded a plane in New York and stepped off that plane in Dallas. She chatted with a stranger, showed him some family photos, brushed his elbow with her own. She wore a baseball cap over her face and followed him back on Instagram. At no point did she agree to participate in the story Rosey Blair was telling. After the fact, when the hunt began and the woman took no part in encouraging it the way Holden did, Blair tweeted a video in which she drawled, “We don’t have the gal’s permish yet, not yet y’all, but I’m sure you guys are sneaky, you guys might…”

Blair’s followers were sneaky. They did as they were told and immediately replied with screenshots of the woman’s Instagram account. They shared links.

When people called Blair out for this blatant invasion of privacy, she blocked them. Because she, apparently, could control her own boundaries. Later she tweeted about wanting a job at BuzzFeed.

I don’t know what the woman on the plane is thinking or feeling. I don’t know if she’s afraid or angry or mildly amused but inconvenienced. But I know how it feels to see strangers scrawling obscenities in a space you once considered safe, commenting alongside your friends and family members. I know the sour humiliation of knowing everyone in your life can see that strangers have written about you—your parents, your coworkers, your exes.

Even when the attention is positive, it is overwhelming and frightening. Your mind reels at the possibility of what they could find: your address, if your voting records are logged online; your cellphone number, if you accidentally included it on a form somewhere; your unflattering selfies at the beginning of your Facebook photo archive. There are hundreds of Facebook friend requests, press requests from journalists in your Instagram inbox, even people contacting your employer when they can’t reach you directly. This story you didn’t choose becomes the main story of your life. It replaces who you really are as the narrative someone else has written is tattooed onto your skin.

There is no opting-in, no consent form, no opportunity to take it all back. It feels like you are drowning as everyone on the beach applauds your swimming prowess. You are relevant, and that is the best thing you can be in this new world. What do you have to complain about? Why wouldn’t you want this?

What Blair did and continues to do as she stokes the flames of this story despite knowing this woman wants no part of it goes beyond intrusive. It is selfish, disrespectful harassment. The violation of this woman’s privacy is less important than Blair’s growing platform and ambition. It is not a romantic comedy for the digital age, it is an act of dehumanization. It is a taking of someone else’s identity and privacy for your own purposes. That this is happening online makes it more, not less serious—its impact is instant, and anyone can join in the fun.

A friend of mine asked if I’d thought through the contradiction of criticizing Blair publicly like this, when she’s another not-quite public figure too. I am projecting my own assumptions about Blair’s motivations—it’s entirely possible she’s swept up in the rush of going viral and not thinking through the ethical ramifications of every post she makes on social media right now. But Blair is not just posting about her own life; she has taken non-consenting parties along for the ride. While Blair uploads gorgeous Instagram photography to celebrate her body on her birthday (I say this genuinely: you go, girl), the woman on the plane has deleted her own Instagram account after receiving violent abuse from the army Blair created. As the content creator of this media circus, Blair is responsible for the behavior of its fans. When faced with the opportunity to discourage their privacy violations, she has done the opposite: “I’m sure you guys are sneaky.”

You become a public figure the instant that someone else decides you are worthy of interest, even if you are minding your damn business. Maybe you will tweet a joke. Maybe you will squint in a friend’s photograph. Maybe you will yodel in a Walmart. Or maybe you will board a plane.

UPDATE 7/13/18: The woman who had her privacy violated has now released a statement:

I am a young professional woman. On July 2, I took a commercial flight from New York to Dallas. Without my knowledge or consent, other passengers photographed me and recorded my conversation with a seatmate. They posted images and recordings to social media, and speculated unfairly about my private conduct.

Since then, my personal information has been widely distributed online. Strangers publicly discussed my private life based on patently false information. I have been doxxed, shamed, insulted and harassed. Voyeurs have come looking for me online and in the real world.

I did not ask for and do not seek attention. #PlaneBae is not a romance – it is a digital-age cautionary tale about privacy, identity, ethics and consent.

Please continue to respect my privacy, and my desire to remain anonymous. (Source)

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

49 thoughts on “We Are All Public Figures Now

  1. I like a good live-people-watching story on Twitter as much as the next person, but when it gets to the stage where there’s talk of public identification of these private individuals, who don’t know they’re being talked about, that’s where I’m out. Aside from being intensely creepy, it also takes away the wonder of it – I wonder if those two personal trainers kept meeting up after the flight and got married? – nope, that daydream is killed.

  2. Referred to this read by TomandLorenzo.com. Thanks to you, Ella, and to TLo. Looking forward to reading more of your work. Now, please excuse me while I go tighten my FB privacy settings and delete Instagram.

  3. Excellent article. Truely sad that we have come to this point in history. Hopefully more people over time will gain some semblance of morality or ethics when it comes to using another person for your cause. Shameful behavior displayed by the tweeter.

  4. It takes guts for you to tell everybody that you have an STD. Do you think it’s perhaps you actually really want attention, hence why are you talk about the stuff and post your picture on line and have Instagram and social media and stuff like this?

    It seems deep down that you need someone to love, or need someone to love you. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. I am a psychologist.


    1. Hi Jane! You should keep in mind that when you comment on someone’s website and include your email address and name in that comment, the administrator of the website has access to that information, as well as your IP address. I say that not as a threat, but as someone who cares about the privacy of strangers. I wish you only the best.
      Thank you for your concern,

    1. I have tremendous respect for your comment form. Kudos.

      I dont have much to contribute, but Blair definitely strikes me as that nosy neighbor type who illustrates the changes in our society because she has as global platform instead of church social or a fence.

      I will say that I am always destressed when I read articles about no privacy. Its not that they are in accurate but expectation of privacy is what the US Const. right to privacy is based on. That might matter less with the makeup of the court but I think recent events such as the EU personal information law and the Netherlands classifying loot boxes in gaming as gambling show that governments can assert themselves. It makes me think we can push the privacy needle the other way if we can keep in existence public expectations of privacy.

  5. Great article. I had just been thinking along these lines when I found your article via John Scalzi’s blog. Well done. Lots of great things to think about.

  6. Reblogged this on NIV words and commented:
    I had just been thinking about this, and then I find this fascinating article via John Scalzi’s blog. It’s worth the read. ❤ N

  7. Good piece. We could all do less judging. And less contributing to loss of privacy.

  8. Missing in this discussion, as with many tech matters, is the idea that a society through its justice system can outlaw certain kinds of behaviour. An earlier commenter wrote about the civil law of defamation, but as he noted, First Amendment rights set the bar high. However, harassment is a criminal offence in most jurisdictions. You cannot physically follow a person – public figure or not – with a cam and a sign saying “John is a wife beater with a fatal STD” without attracting the police’s attention. Instead of expecting Google or Facebook to take action, victims of online harassment should seek to have their abusers charged with a criminal offence. If laws are deficient, folks should press their legislatures to toughen them up. The erosion of public vs private boundaries is an important topic, but the issue here is what kind of behaviour a society accepts or requires from its members. Expectations may differ in the physical and virtual environments, but there’s every reason to require some level of restraint in online behaviour, and to punish violation as a criminal offence.

    1. In theory I agree with you, but the law has proven even less willing to take cyber-harassment seriously than the platforms on which it occurs. Police regularly laugh off or turn away people who face even extreme forms of harassment on social media, and I say that from experience. I hope that the law *will* change, but in the mean time, there’s very little recourse available.

      1. Maybe one way to begin the legal assault would be via a case where social-media harassment led to actual physical incidents at the home or workplace, making the social-media activity part of the indicted criminal conduct. Need to find a DA somewhere who’d be willing to take this on. (Or in Canada, where I am, a Crown attorney.) Generally I’m an advocate of broad freedom of expression but when it leads to imminent physical danger to individuals it acquires criminal intent. But more important is the broader issue: is a society going to act in its own defence or not? Unfortunately we’ve chosen to regard the social media platforms as clubs that people can join and leave at will, rather than as something akin to public utilities, indispensable for social participation. When a president uses Twitter to disclose public-policy decisions it has ceased to become a harmless hobby or pastime.

    2. I had the exact same thought. The problem is that a lot of people react to this story by committing wrongdoing against the woman in the plane. The only way to stop that is to push the authorities.

      I do agree with Ella – the border between private and public is eroding fast. But is it ok to harass a public person? I don’t think so. Not physically, not digitally. Not women who have been sitting in a particular seat on a plane or written an article about a disease. Not men who have told the world they are gay or have argued for a certain political point of view.

      That’s my main issue with your article, Ella. I agree with your point concerning consent when someone decides to suddenly include some unknowing person in a story (that has always been a problem in novels and storytelling), but it’s the harassment that we need to stop.

      I should mention that we have begun to punish harassers here in Denmark, with some positive results.

  9. “While Blair uploads gorgeous Instagram photography to celebrate her body on her birthday (I say this genuinely: you go, girl), the woman on the plane has deleted her own Instagram account after receiving violent abuse from the army Blair created.”

    If you think Blair isn’t facing her own army of violent abuse, I think you’ve missed the point of some of the very stuff you’re saying.

    1. There’s a difference though. Blair chose to post all about this online. The other woman did not. If Blair is receiving some negative feedback, it’s based on what she willing shared online. The other woman is completely innocent in the matter.

  10. how did the internet find her insta fb twitter ? Dis she gave it to euan or rosey or houston ? rosey is wrong for not keeping their identities private. I know their is no expectation of privacy in public but rosey went after them IMO.

  11. Superb. Some friend shared Blair’s BS as it was ongoing and I briefly looked to see what it was about. My impression was how weird and imposing. Didn’t pay further attention to what became of it until I ran into this. If the Today Show has a clue they should invite Blair back on to discuss the issues you’ve brought up. I had actually thought about one aspect of this a while ago in discussing social media use with people who work in public safety. That is, now that so many us have become public figures via social media platforms who weren’t before, does that put them in a new category when it comes to defamation? If a victim of this wanted to sue, would the courts determine they are now public figures with the higher burden of proof it would then take to make such a case? Or could the courts determine there is something new and malicious in making someone an involuntary public figure? My non-lawyer mind says that isn’t likely because it would have to be balanced with the the First Amendment rights of the person doing the outing and too high a hurdle to get over. So that would likely leave us with only remedy being the SM street justice that may come against Blair because of articles like this. Far from encouraging that behavior, I am just sad this vicious cycle is another example of the downward spiral of public discourse.

    1. Well – I don’t think there’s defamation, false light, or a violation of the right of publicity here. You’re allowed to photograph someone in a public place, like an airplane or bus or train or the street. You’re similarly allowed to publish those photos. You’re allowed to tell non-defamatory stories about people, regardless of whether those people are public figures. Should you do that? I don’t really have an answer – there’s a well-developed body of journalism ethics that addresses when something is worthy of a story and when it isn’t. But it’s pretty clear to me that it’s not the place of the state to make that determination in all but the most extreme cases of invasion of privacy.

      1. A photographer is allowed to do all those things. But when it escalates to doxxing, phone calls, hateful messages, addresses published and knocks on the door, we’re way beyond the First Amendment. It’s the difference between posting “kill all the Jews” on an account with 30 followers, and saying the same words to a crowd of 500 brandishing firearms in front of a fully occupied synagogue. One’s a wish; the other’s incitement. It’s speech fused with the tools of mass murder. If we don’t have the legal arsenal to make online harassment in its worst forms a crime, we should work it up. No thought crimes; but also no incitement of actual imminent physical harm.

  12. Thank you. Great article that I hope many read. This has become a large fear of mine.

    1. I accidentally stumbled upon this. I usually read things that are interesting in its entirety. This was good. I usually scan articles for interesting content. Every written word was interesting.

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