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NULab Faculty John Wihbey Links Airplane Content to Virality on Social Media

Airplane nightmares—ranging from rocky turbulence, to hallway lock-ins, to lengthy flight delays—reached new heights of popularity on TikTok in 2023. Personal and non-personal stories alike have surged: a woman missed three flights in a single day; a woman was ejected from a flight for claiming another passenger was “not real”; influencers offered tips on sleeping in the airport, or posted reactions to the new “double-decker” seats; a man got an entire plane to himself after an 18-hour delay.

In an interview with Business Insider, NULab faculty John Wihbey, a professor in media and technology, claimed that airplane content is captivating because it’s a “unique situation in human life” that produces “good drama.” He continued, “You’re in a very public situation that is highly constrained, and you don’t know anyone typically” and “It’s also something that I think everyone can relate to: which is, being alone and in a possible situation, stranded for 7 hours on the tarmac or wherever it is.”

Wihbey also notes that the “uncontrollable” nature of events unfolding in airports and on airplanes adds to the intrigue of this content. He says, “It always seems like it’s out of your control, and there’s something almost metaphorical about it that people probably enjoy,” and that “there’s a certain drama; there’s a beginning, middle, and end.” According to Wihbey, the success of airplane content might also be due to TikTok’s algorithm recognizing the genre and boosting it: “I’m sure the air travel genre is pretty discernible, algorithmically, as the classifier looks for certain characteristics, the scenario probably looks pretty much the same.” Another staple of the airplane content genre is the call for retribution from airline companies, particularly amidst the more nightmarish scenarios.

Of airplane videos, Wihbey concludes, “There’s a certain, I don’t know, ‘Everybody’s in it together’ kind of drama.”

You can read the full story on Business Insider here.

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