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Death by Blogging: How the Rise of Social Media Killed 'Gossip Girl'

Feb 23 2016 5:55 PM
Death by Blogging: How the Rise of Social Media Killed 'Gossip Girl'

Screengrab via YouTube

In the mid-00s heyday of Paris Hilton and BlackBerry Messenger, the scandalous CW series wasn't only groundbreaking in its portrayal of Machiavellian teens wearing implausible school uniforms. It also predicted the rise of the social media influencer.

I first watched Gossip Girl over half a decade after its 2007 premiere on the CW. It was Christmastime, and I faced a four-week-long interim between jobs: My time as an intern at a fashion magazine (i.e., nobody) had recently ended, but I was still waiting for the contract making official my debut as an editorial assistant (i.e., mostly nobody). Undeterred, I decided to better myself and logged onto Netflix Deutschland in hopes of finding another mindless series to help me work on my German vocabulary. I took to recoding my (still) unfinished website in one tab while Gossip Girl played, with German subtitles, in the other—an "alternative education," as my high school guidance counselor would have said.

To no one's surprise, it didn't work. Whereas I had thought my sabbatical would result in a functional website and a cache of culturally relevant catchphrases auf Deutsch, the reality was that I instead found myself hooked on the trials and tribulations of the Upper East Side. The lying, the cheating, the underage drinking! I wasn't the only one: Nine of the 13 original Gossip Girl novels by Cecily von Ziegesar appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, and the ubiquitous six-season television show that made Blake Lively a household name is seeing a partly nostalgic, partly ironic resurgence in popularity today.

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At its heart, Gossip Girl is the story of an empire. In Ziegesar's world of the elite, where money and power exist in an unhappy marriage for the girls of Constance Billard School, a darker force was indeed at work: a blog. Its eponymous and anonymous narrator, voiced by a sultry Kristen Bell, was always watching, manning a rich and active tip line that would make any journalist froth at the mouth. With Gossip Girl's power unchecked, no one was safe—not even the spoiled teens of the Upper East Side—and the social repercussions of her every post were devastating. As the show's central cast gathers immediately after Gossip Girl's true identity is revealed in the series finale, socialite-in-training Blair Waldorf, who has just married the love of her life, roars, "Why do you all think that this is funny? Gossip Girl ruined our lives!"

In a surprisingly satisfying conclusion to the series, the girl who ruined so many rich kids' lives was revealed to have been a guy: In the season six finale, native Brooklynite and notorious former-nobody Dan Humphrey outs himself as Gossip Girl's sole proprietor, saying that the whole years-long project was a left-field approach to breaking into the in-crowd and winning It Girl Serena van der Woodsen's love. (As a sidebar, is there really anything more definitionally softboy than dubbing yourself "Lonely Boy"—the nickname Dan used when he wrote about himself on the blog, to throw others off his scent—as part of an elaborate ploy to get a girl?) In the final installment of the series, he writes:

The Upper East Side was like something from Fitzgerald or Thackeray: Teenagers acting like adults, adults acting like teenagers—guarding secrets, spreading gossip—all with the trappings of truly opulent wealth. And membership in this community was so elite you couldn't buy your way in. It was a birthright—a birthright that I didn't have, and my greatest achievements would never earn me. All I had to compare to this world was what I read in books, but that gave me the idea: If I wasn't born into this world, maybe I could write myself into it.

Indeed, as Dan needed an extra boost to propel him out of his upper-middle-class background—portrayed as borderline poverty in contrast to the privilege his classmates and love interests enjoyed—to break and into the land of One Percenters with whom he studied. The class divide of the Upper East Siders couldn't have been more clear: In what other social circuits would the Humphrey's Williamsburg loft be written off as a charity case? It wasn't just Dan fighting for admission into the high society: His sister Jenny threw a guerrilla fashion show at a charity event in a vie for social mobility; dreamy Good Guy Nate Archibald secretly dated a cougar to maintain his bourgie lifestyle after his powder-nosed father fled the country and disgraced their family. Despite all the galas and dinners and designer dresses, however, the line between the Haves and the Have-Nots ultimately existed beyond the economic divide. Acceptance came sans price tag or hazing ritual, but by creating Gossip Girl, Dan had his ticket into the ruling class.

Critical to understanding the success of Dan's rise to relevance is an understanding of the content ecosystem of 2007. When the Gossip Girl pilot aired, Twitter was cradled in its nascent stages and your best friend from high school had finally made the switch from MySpace to Facebook full-time. Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton were likely still on BBM terms (when Paris wasn't in jail). Elsewhere in pop culture, Taylor Swift was still a curly-haired country singer with whom Kanye had no beef. Gossip Girl existed in a world without selfies, think pieces about selfies, and tweets about think pieces about selfies; for that matter, it existed in a world without Gossip Girl GIFs. 2007 was right in the middle of social media's advent, and Dan Humphrey's triumph, filmed in 2012, was a symbol of the mid-00s shift in social mobility from an issue of wealth to an issue of online influence.

This cultural shift pushed for the prominence of the individual—Google search: Time Person of the Year 2006—and the media was only just catching on to the weight of the ordinary person's perspective. LiveJournal and Xanga were lumped in with Facebook and MySpace as child's play; Vine stars and Instagram fame simply did not exist. In 2007, the idea of a social media influencer was at the tip of every marketer's tongue, but the scale, scope, and magnitude of user-generated content was basal at best. The idea of a blog holding cultural relevance was not yet mainstream, though similarly not unheard of: TMZ launched only two years before Gossip Girl's primetime debut.

Naturally, blogging predates even the first volume in the Gossip Girl book series, which was published in 2002. However, the link between blogging and the Gossip Girl books is merely cursory. In the books, the blog serves only to offer a suggestion as to how each day's hot gossip was being distributed, and the Gossip Girl herself was simply a metaphor for the invisible hand guiding social status and reputation. As the blog could have potentially been run by any one of the books' protagonists, everyone was Gossip Girl, but also no one was.

Executive producer Stephanie Savage has admitted that Dan was always meant to be Gossip Girl in the on-screen adaptation. With his kind yet smoldering eyes, hollow cheekbones, and cutting-edge media savvy, it seemed nearly obvious that Dan would be the mastermind behind the blog. In the television series, the reveal of Gossip Girl's true identity closed a series-long mystery as well as explained why the blog existed in the first place: Nobody Dan wanted everybody's Serena.

The years between the first Gossip Girl book and the show's premiere on the CW were a tumultuous time for the IRL New York elite. 2006 marked the launch of Socialite Rank, a catty website that lived up to its name. Functioning similarly to the way Gossip Girl had in the books, an anonymous blogger collective took it upon themselves to critique, deface, and rank the public image of New York's hottest charity circuit regulars—particularly Olivia Palermo, a young, doe-eyed New School student who couldn't wait for the spotlight.

A coke-fueled make-out session would almost certainly lead to a ruthless character assassination on Gossip Girl. And who could afford that with prom on the horizon?

Like Gossip Girl, Socialite Rank was a veritable Who's Who of the rich and I'm-Not-Sure-What-They-Do famous; like Gossip Girl, Socialite Rank was a cutthroat critic who was distinctly aware of how the blog's influence could build up or cut down a reputation with a short series of keystrokes. Originally a tongue-in-cheek rating system of Upper East Siders, the cult blog soon raked in thousands of page views and the fascination of a population beyond the tony Manhattan neighborhood. But with great power comes great responsibility. About a year after its appearance, Socialite Rank shuttered after publishing scathing coverage of a letter it claimed Palermo sent to fellow socialites, in which she groveled for forgiveness and begged for an in with the community. Understandably, Palermo was not amused: She lawyered up and filed a formal complaint with the Manhattan DA.

A proper lawsuit never came to fruition, even after Palermo's step-siblings Valentine and Olga Rei revealed themselves as the masterminds behind New York's most notorious gossip site. However, the blog's cultural capital promised a new dimension to Gossip Girl's rebirth as a television series: Though the Reis had been previously involved in the high society, Socialite Rank cemented their relevance in the aftermath of their reign.

Like the Rei siblings, Dan Humphrey was on the outside looking in: Whereas Dan was raised by a musician father in Brooklyn, Valentine and Olga were Russian immigrants who moved to New York from Moscow in the 90s. Like the siblings, Dan was willfully wedded to the idea that his blog had a direct influence on the people around him. However, unlike the Reis, who in a New York Magazine profile immediately following the closure of Socialite Rank seemed gleefully surprised that their piss-take was so popular, Dan knew exactly what he was doing.

In its fictional world, Gossip Girl was iconic because the blog held a full monopoly over its jurisdiction: The blog's word was the law that the elite obeyed; there was an unwavering, unshakeable attachment to Gossip Girl. The Upper East Siders often openly loathed the site, but cautiously so: No deviation from Gossip Girl's iron fist would go unpunished. Whereas an appearance at Christie's was a surefire way to move up the social ladder, a coke-fueled make-out session would almost certainly lead to a ruthless character assassination on Gossip Girl. And who could afford that with prom on the horizon? The elite performed for Gossip Girl; Gossip Girl, in turn, tsked at noncompliance before tearing another friendship apart.

As was made clear by Dan's final broadcast blast on the show, writing himself into the history of Constance Billard's social caste system was the easiest way to break rank and make a place for himself. While love was amply and openly distributed amongst his peers, he knew that the true motivation behind any of their actions was fear. Under the guise of Gossip Girl, Dan found himself feared by everyone who surrounded him.

It seems obvious that someone could have jump-started a rival blog to shake Gossip Girl's credibility, but it's not that no one tried. A competing news source—The New York Spectator—almost had a shot when they hired Serena to write a column about the goings-ons in her life. Gossip Girl, unamused, hacked the site, immediately shutting off its server and releasing a broadcast that said there simply wasn't room for any competition. The swift punitive action took place in the fifth season of Gossip Girl's run, and was almost certainly a flailing attempt to save a show whose ratings had begun to fall steadily. The moment had passed, and the zeitgeist had spirited away.

By the sixth season of Gossip Girl, the series finale was a welcome relief to fans who had given up hope for the narrative but still wanted to know who was behind it all. Like most hit TV shows, Gossip Girl made a big splash: It was the new, sexy weeknight must-watch that parents hated and teenagers aspired to recreate! As the plot twisted and turned in the following seasons, however, ratings and viewers fell dramatically, until it was announced that the series would wrap in 2012. Some blamed it on a flailing economy; others, myself among them, noted that the series simply just didn't live up to what it once was.

Why do you all think that this is funny? Gossip Girl ruined our lives!

Ultimately, the reason for Gossip Girl's success is that it was a story involving the One Percenters, but not necessarily about them. The interest in the life and times of old money is an artifact of a brief mid-00s moment when a relative nobody could become a somebody by simply declaring themselves so—a sort of New Age American Dream. What Dan Humphrey, the Rei Siblings, and countless other bloggers (Tavi Gevinson, for example) demonstrated was the fleeting power of the savvy user in an age when the media was about to be decentralized. By the time the show was winding down, a writer in his early 20s could hack a daily newspaper's website without getting caught; it was 2011, and Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram were quickly breeding a generation of social powerhouses—a new Internet celebrity was born daily.

Yet "social media influencers" are not today's Gossip Girls, as much as those tweeting appreciation for Blair Waldorf would like to be. They, too, are ruled by the public eye—the same eye that Gossip Girl and Socialite Rank directed before. What I realized sitting in my living room watching Gossip Girl reruns as my coffee grew cold was not that Gossip Girl existed in the fantasy all-expenses-paid world of the Upper East Side, but rather in the Have-You-Heard-of-This-Thing-Called-WiFi world that, to be honest, simply doesn't exist anymore. In the age of Justine Sacco and Roosh V, we are all still subject to the critical public eye—but we are now the eye itself as well. That's not to say that Dan wasn't subjected to a patronizing gaze as his classmates watched him anonymously air his own dirty laundry across their web browsers. However, as Gossip Girl, Dan's power existed as a monopoly in a way that no Twitter celebrity or Vine star could: The blog had an airtight seal on its tiny social kingdom. One did not beef with Gossip Girl; Gossip Girl beefed with everyone.

Now a self-policing system, the digital paradigm has left behind the singularity that afforded Dan Humphrey fame, self-worth, and a girlfriend. Instead, the aftermath of social media's advent has left us all with the power, responsibility, and expectation to signal boost each others' successes and missteps to the high heavens, trashing our job prospects, and ruining our relationships with our families. Today, when you think about it, we are all Gossip Girl.

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