Last week, Rosey Blair, a writer and self-described “drama queen deep in the heart of Texas,” boarded a plane and began a Twitter thread that changed her life — and the lives of the two people sitting in front of her. Rosey and her boyfriend asked a woman to switch seats so they could sit together. “We made a joke that maybe her new seat partner would be the love of her life,” she wrote. Then, it actually happened.
As it unfolded, Blair began posting a series of tweets and photos about how the woman struck up a conversation with her seatmate, how they appeared to be flirting, and even snippets of their conversation. The thread collected hundreds of thousands of likes, comments, and retweets, and it quickly catapulted Blair, her boyfriend, and the man, Euan Holden — since nicknamed #planebae — into quasi-stardom.
But not the woman who changed seats.
In a (recently deleted) follow-up tweet video after her thread went viral, Blair and her boyfriend briefly addressed the status of the as-yet-unknown woman.
“So, we don’t have the woman’s permish yet, so — ”
“No information,” her boyfriend chimed in.
“Not yet, y’all. But I’m sure — you guys are sneaky, I think you might…,” Blair said before quickly silencing herself, implicitly suggesting that you could find her if you wanted to.
People did. They found her and they trolled her. (On Tuesday, Blair issued an apology for having “taken away” the woman’s “right to her own story.”)
The doxxing put a dark spin on what appeared at first to be a happy story. Yet even before the woman was outed, scrutiny of the story was building. Was it right for Blair to publicize the event in the first place? And was it right that Blair was immediately celebrated on national TV? Ultimately: wasn’t this mystery woman, who was simply enjoying conversation with a seatmate, entitled to her privacy?
Our awareness of privacy has been heightened lately thanks to an unfolding scandal over how platforms like Facebook use our personal data — specifically, how Cambridge Analytica allegedly used a Facebook personality quiz to collect data that informed its targeting of political ads. They weren’t the first to gather mass data from social media users. Michal Kosinski was one of the developers who first conceived of the myPersonality quiz (which was not an ad-targeting tool, and didn’t gather data from users’ friends) that a team at Cambridge Analytica later used as a rough guide for its own work. Kosinski’s latest foray into data analysis? Controversially suggesting that A.I. can detect sexuality simply by examining a photo of someone’s face.
He recently explained his outlook about privacy — and why he’s willing to push the boundaries of privacy in his research — to The Guardian. Kosinksy, like many of us, is a privacy fatalist.
“I can be upset about us losing privacy,” Kosinski said. “But it won’t change the fact that we already lost our privacy, and there’s no going back without destroying this civilisation.”
He may be right. But what kind of civilization do we live in when asking to be left alone is enough to destroy it?
The central question of the modern, platform-driven internet is: Who are you?
The platform economy, from Amazon to Uber, is built on this type of surveillance capitalism: who’s driving your car or who is riding in it; who’s delivering your food or who is eating it; who’s staying at your place or who’s renting it to you; who is searching for what; who is friends who whom; who likes what. What the platform economy therefore detests is not knowing who you are.
“The days of having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in 2010. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”
A cursory glance at the internet eight years later seems to bear this out. Anonymity is the refuge of the nameless, faceless Twitter trolls who doxx unwitting victims. Anonymity is behind the crank phone call that sends a SWAT team to your house. Anonymity fuels the racist and misogynistic posts of 4Chan, which spiral outward into the rest of the internet with bizarre and frightening consequences. Anonymous is the name of a disruptive collective at the center of hacks and denial-of-service attacks.
And since 2010, the majority of us have taken active measures to avoid anonymity. We plug our names, faces, birthplaces and dates, and those of our children; our likes and dislikes; our vacation photos, consumption patterns, and political affiliations into a server. We display them in various combinations on a number of platforms, dependent on the service they offer. We do this to be validated by the platform, and thus, increasingly, validated outside it. And we do this because we have been convinced that non-anonymity is equal to authenticity.
This has led us to where we are today, faced with the insatiable demand to find a mystery woman from an airplane. The logic of surveillance capitalism creates that demand. In the society we’ve created, the question “Who are you?” cannot go unanswered.
If privacy has truly disappeared, then there is only one option available for escape from surveillance capitalism, however briefly. We must reclaim as personal ground the territory that the system has declared a no-go zone: anonymity.
What we forget, or are constantly nudged by the platforms to forget, is this: though anonymity can allow for terrible actions to take place, anonymity is not, in itself, a terrible thing. Rather, it is a neutral state that allows for both good and bad. We are reminded so often of the bad things that the good is drowned out. But the good aspects of anonymity are now perhaps even more fundamentally important than privacy.
Because the good things about anonymity allow us to actually be free.