At 16 years old, I was living in Belgium as an exchange student. Despite my mother’s ill health, I decided to take the plunge and got on a plane. Four months after I had landed, I got a call from my mom on Christmas Eve. It was from the hospital, where she had spent the last week or so. Nobody back home had told me because they didn’t want me to worry, but now my mom couldn’t keep it secret any longer.
Since she was 19, she had been on steroids to treat lupus. Those steroids destroyed her kidneys and liver. A common cold had turned into pneumonia and, like a cascade, her organs were starting to fail. We ended the call in a fight. I was coming home, but she refused to give me permission. I booked a flight anyway, and the next day I was on my way home.
When I left Brussels, I called my best friend’s mother, who told me my mom was stable but not doing great. By the time I landed in Washington for my connecting flight to Rochester, she went from stable and conscious to hanging on by a thread.
I got this news from a pay phone as I watched my connecting flight pull away from the gate. I had missed that flight by minutes because I had forgotten my passport at security and gone back to retrieve it. My next flight wouldn’t be until morning, eight or more hours later. There was a flight in between, but it had no seats available because of the holiday season. In the eight hours I was in the air from Brussels to Washington, my mother’s condition had deteriorated rapidly. When I called back after my flight left without me on it, my friend’s mother told me, “I hope you make it back in time.”
I did what any 16-year old traveling alone might do if she finds out her mother is on her deathbed while the teen is still a flight away from being able to say goodbye: I crawled under the phone booth and sobbed. Within minutes, other passengers had pulled me out. Minutes later, one of them had me at the gate to transfer his ticket on the next flight from his name to mine. I got home in time to say goodbye, even though my mother wasn’t conscious for it.
While I waited at the airport, I poured my heart out to these strangers, to whom I am eternally grateful for keeping me occupied and sane while I hoped and prayed my mother wouldn’t die while I was so close, but still so far away.
Exploiting People’s Pain Is Mean
Strangely, I thought of this moment while reading a post on the “Plane Breakup”— a woman heard a couple breaking up when their flight was delayed, and live-tweeted the whole thing. She gained 7,000 new followers, and the hashtag #PlaneBreakup trended on Twitter worldwide.
I found myself glad that social media and Twitter weren’t around when I sat under that phone booth and poured my heart out to these other passengers at a gate in Dulles International Airport. If I had, this moment of intense personal pain could have been shared, without my consent, with the world. It was certainly a dramatic and gripping story. After all, you’re still reading. Even though this intensely private moment took place in public, it wasn’t a story that the world was entitled to hear because it took place in an airport instead of at home.
In a recent book on an epidemic of shaming, aptly titled “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” Jon Ronson discusses this phenomenon, where every action, every moment lived in public is susceptible to being shared for the entertainment of the entire world. In chapter six, Ronson discusses two men whose small talk and chatter were overheard by a fellow attendee at a tech conference. The woman decided to tweet their conversation, which she perceived to be sexist, then turned around, snapped a photo of the men, and tweeted it to publicly shame them.
The sancti-mob (term coined by Lenore Skenazy for “sanctimonious mob”) descended, and Ronson writes, “The next day, Hank was called into his office and fired.” In retaliation, hackers targeted the woman, Adria, for destruction, and they succeeded. Her company’s website was taken down in a DDoS attack and she, too, was fired. Her company justified it by stating she had “divided the community she was supposed to unite.”
Kind People Guard Others’ Privacy
Is finding out your mother is dying the same as having a dramatic breakup on a plane? Certainly not. What the two experiences have in common, though, is that they were intensely private moments that by circumstance, not by design, unfolded in public. There are very few moments most Americans would want broadcast to the world. I went out today looking like I had a severe cold and had only slept an hour all night (my infant, unfortunately, has the same cold). If I were a celebrity, the photo would already be on the front page of TMZ with a headline about severe drug use.
I am, thankfully, not a celebrity. Unfortunately, in the age of social media, what is personal is now public, and simply by breathing the air outside, we have somehow signed an unwritten agreement that anything that happens in public is the greater public’s business.
I hope for the sake of Kelly Keegs, the person who decided to live-tweet a #PlaneBreakup she happened to overhear, that nothing personal of hers ever dares seep into the public realm. After the breakup went viral, Keegs tweeted, “I hope all 7k of my new followers like drunk tweets about wine and Netflix.” Those 15 minutes of fame might be fun for now, but in an age where everything is problematic in addition to everything being the public’s business, Keegs might want to just never tweet again, lest she trigger a feeding frenzy herself.
I can just picture the Twitter trend #HasKellyWokenUpYet after she tweets an off-color joke about Netflix while drunk. Hopefully, her shamer will at least get more than 7,000 Twitter followers out of the deal.