The surveillance state has a Blogspot.
At least that’s what it looks like in the opening credits of Gossip Girl, when the titular website flashes on the screen, and Kristen Bell, the narrating omniscient voice of Gossip Girl herself, intones: “Gossip Girl here: your one and only source into the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite.”
The site that obsessively monitors, and regularly ruins, the characters’ lives looks like it was made on the classic Blogger platform: There’s a header, a series of bordered posts that run straight down the middle, and a left rail full of links. It’s the most iconic of the many ways that the show, which turns 10 years old this year, is a perfect time capsule of the technology of its time. And while it now feels dated in some respects, it was remarkably prescient about the compulsive relationship people would end up having with their devices.
Gossip Girl was a show about ultra-privileged teens and their infinitely morphing romantic entanglements and high-society social battles. But it was also a show about lives lived in the spotlight of the internet, in the liminal era just before most of America dove headfirst into palm-sized screens.
Technology was integral to Gossip Girl’s premise and plots. Without cameraphone-wielding looky-loos invading the privacy of Serena, Blair, Dan, Chuck, and Nate, there would be no show. So many plotlines hinged on secrets, but it usually only took a couple episodes before Gossip Girl ensured those secrets were revealed, and the writers had to find something new for the characters to hide.
The show’s creators treated technology with the detailed attention befitting its central role, to the point that “we would have companies like Verizon come in and show us prototypes of new models coming up in the future,” Joshua Safran, the show’s executive producer, told Vulture. “We would come up with plotlines based on what we knew would be tech coming out in the future.” Nothing but the newest and shiniest for Manhattan’s elite.
One interesting thing about the Gossip Girl era was the sheer variety of phones available. Before we all coalesced around a touch-screen rectangle as the best possible mobile-phone design, there were BlackBerries with their full keyboards; the Motorola Razr, a super-skinny flip phone; the LG Chocolate, which came in fun colors and slid open to reveal its number pad. All of these appear in the show’s first season, a reflection of the technological diversity of the time.
If the show were filmed today, all the Constance Billard/St. Jude’s students would have iPhones. (Serena’s would be gold and Blair’s would be rose gold. I’m certain of this.)
This was a show in which text messages were often major plot points, but this was before anyone had thought to depict texts as free-floating typography in a shot (an idea widely credited to Sherlock), which meant there were a lot of close-ups of cellphone screens.
The attention the show paid to technology was both incredible production design and a great opportunity for product placement. Watching it today, it feels extremely evocative of 2007, in a good way, but also sometimes in a hilariously dated way.
There is a plot point mid-first season that revolves around a videotape. A literal tape, from a camcorder:
Blair studies for the SATs with this handheld Princeton Review device:
And at one point Serena bonds with her boyfriend Dan’s best friend, Vanessa, over a round of Guitar Hero. Is there anything more 2007 than Guitar Hero?
Sure, one can certainly get one’s jollies by watching Blake Lively pretend to be totally crushing it playing “Free Bird” on that plastic guitar. (Her fingers barely move! As someone who devoted way too much time to getting good at Guitar Hero, I’m offended by this shallow performance.) But where these Upper East Siders were ahead of the curve was in the tightness of the grip technology had on their lives.
The teens of Gossip Girl had codependent, toxic relationships with their phones in a way that would be intimately familiar to many people now, even those who aren’t constantly living in fear of their personal lives being blogged about. Though it was possible in the late ’00s to subscribe to text-message updates from RSS feeds, or SMS alerts from news organizations, for the most part cellphones were still thought to be just for calling and texting people you knew. But Gossip Girl’s characters were using their phones to monitor the news. (By “news” I mean rumors about their very small social circle, but still.) It was unclear whether they’d signed up to get notifications from the Gossip Girl blog, or whether the anonymous blogger just had everyone’s numbers to send “e-blasts” to. These e-blasts were also inconsistent in form—sometimes they appeared as emails:
And sometimes as texts:
It was not uncommon for all the characters to be in a room together, probably at a lavish penthouse party, and for all their phones to go off simultaneously. Then they’d all check them at once, creating a tableau that was strikingly similar to a modern group of people reacting to a breaking-news notification:
If I encountered this in real life today I’d be more likely to expect that North Korea had launched a missile than that my friend’s ex had been spotted with another woman.
Several of the characters—well, let’s be real, mostly Blair Waldorf—exhibited a double standard around privacy. Blair fiercely protected her own secrets, and was devastated when Gossip Girl revealed embarrassing facts about her private life. But she also frequently sent tips in to the blog about others, for her own ends. And all the characters, however they may have hated the blog, still read it regularly. This is a more extreme version of how anybody today might engage in Facebook-stalking, or other digital dirt-gathering, on people in their lives, even as they might worry about what’s discoverable about themselves online.
People have only entrusted more of their personal information to the internet—especially to their smartphones—over time. “It was once said that a person’s eyes were a window to their soul,” Blair says at one point in season one, as she’s forwarding messages from a stolen phone to herself. “That was before people had cellphones.” That certainly hasn’t become less true since then.
The role of the actual Gossip Girl blog diminished as the seasons went on, and the show’s quality declined as well. At the end, the nonsensical reveal of which main character was behind the blog entirely missed the point. That wasn’t a mystery that needed to be solved. The point of Gossip Girl wasn’t who she was; it was that she was watching.
The show was about scandal, and privilege, and the greatest love affair in 21st-century television history (Blair + Chuck 4eva), but it was also about the ways a person’s public and private life can blur in the internet age, with or without their consent. And that’s a theme that feels more relevant than ever. XOXO.