Opinion: tales of romance hold huge appeal, but hunger for content without considering the cost can have unintended and harmful consequences

It had all the hallmarks of a classic romantic comedy. After a seat-switch onboard a plane, an intrepid matchmaker and her partner watch in glee as the attractive strangers in front of them - who they have inadvertently set-up - seem to really hit it off. The plane lands and the strangers appear to leave the baggage hall together.

If this was the cinema, the audience might cheer, but it isn’t. The matchmaker has been tweeting and snapping updates to a rapidly growing, deeply invested online audience. Over the next few days, #PlaneBae, as it becomes known, takes a much darker turn, raising timely questions about privacy and acceptable behaviour in the digital age.

When romance in the air takes a darker turn

Researchers working online will tell you that developing ethical frameworks to deal with the demands of such a vast and fast evolving terrain is a constant work in progress. But work in progress is always rooted in best practice. In research terms, that means studies involving human subjects must secure informed consent, where the individual is given all the information they need to understand what the study asks of them before agreeing or declining to take part. This standard is enshrined to protect the rights of the individual, including the right to privacy.

#PlaneBae highlights how the Internet age is changing the way we humans navigate space and time. It also shows how norms and etiquette are in flux as we figure out the best way to deal with a rapidly changing world. Technology allowed tens of thousands of people not just to listen or read about these strangers on a plane, but to see (even though their faces were hidden) and to decipher, based on triangulating the information provided, who these individuals were.

There is nothing warm and fuzzy about her attempt to retain her anonymity in the face of trolls hellbent on "outing" her

Neither of the people at the centre of #PlaneBae had the opportunity to consent to their lives being turned into content in this way. While the man concerned seemed to embrace being identified, the woman did not. What this illustrates is a critical point: our expectations of privacy are often subjective. Hence, you cannot assume that your interpretation of privacy will be the same as everyone else’s, a point which further underscores the importance of consent. It should also move us to be careful about what we post and share online, both out of respect for ourselves (our notion of privacy may change over time) and out of respect for others.

Tales of romance hold huge appeal but hunger for content without considering the cost can have unintended and harmful consequences. There is nothing remotely romantic about the harassment the young woman at the centre of #PlaneBae has been subjected to. There is nothing warm and fuzzy about her attempt to retain her anonymity in the face of trolls hellbent on "outing" her. Her statement on the matter should give us pause for thought, particularly the following: "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." Words to keep in mind as we continue to grapple with this brave new world.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ