I made some new friends over the weekend and asked one of them to add me on Facebook. “Oh, I don’t have Facebook,” she replied.
How odd. I expressed my surprise with my usual charm and tact: “What?” I said. “If you don’t have Facebook, you don’t exist!”
Of course I was exaggerating. Of course I was just being a jerk (I’m a tremendous jerk). But that sentiment is symptomatic of our digital age, an age in which online presence matters so much and anyone sufficiently famous — or sufficiently shameless — has a Wikipedia profile. At Yale, lots of people are Googleable. We’re surrounded by obscenely accomplished people, many of whom have already left their stamp on the world.
And yet that doesn’t seem enough. How many times have you been to an event to find people more interested in tweeting than enjoying it? How many times have you been to a party where people spend more time taking pictures of each other than actually partying? You don’t really know you’ve had a good time unless other people can see you having a good time. The News spreads news about Yale, and the Rumpus spreads Yale gossip, all of which add to our reputations. We live in a world in which everything is broadcasted and everything is shared. And that’s great, right? Right?
What if it’s not? What if our digital age is habituating us to constant surveillance — a trend best encapsulated by the popular TV show “Gossip Girl”?
“Gossip Girl” is about elite Manhattanites who live on the Upper East Side. These Manhattanites go around doing sexy rich brat stuff, their every move watched by Gossip Girl, an anonymous blogger who observes and comments on their scandalous exploits, serving as a kind of narrator.
“Gossip Girl” is a show for our times. In his book “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,” philosopher Michel Foucault likens modern society to the Panopticon — a giant prison where everyone’s behavior is constantly under scrutiny by unknown observers.
In the show, Gossip Girl watches and comments on the lives of her subjects, thanks to her sources, people around the city who whip out their phones and send tips to Gossip Girl whenever something notable happens. Everyone is constantly watching and being watched, and the most envied people are watched most of all. Far from resenting it, the characters consider it a compliment to be watched.
The Manhattan of “Gossip Girl” is not so different from the real Manhattan, or from many other communities around the world today. It’s a quirk of our era that so many of us worry about government surveillance while posting so much of our personal information on blogs or Facebook or Twitter.
Why would a government need to spy on us when we happily give our information away in a race to one-up each other? Why would anyone need to report our activities when our friends and acquaintances already post them online?
Gossip Girl is the successor to Orwell’s Big Brother. She’s the menacing, mustachioed Big Brother’s glitzy younger sister. Unlike Big Brother, she makes constant surveillance seductive and flattering. Our societies give us a golden chain, and we gladly put it on ourselves. All the most glamorous people are wearing it. Who cares if it shackles us if it glitters so beautifully?
The philosopher-sociologists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno wrote that “the triumph of … the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to [consume] its products even though they see through them.” They’re right.
Despite seeing through “Gossip Girl,” I have no urge to stop watching it. Nor do I feel the urge to deactivate my Facebook account or to (God forbid!) stop reading the News. Neither, I bet, do you. Perhaps we’re all puppets, and seeing the strings doesn’t help us one bit. Perhaps we’re slaves to our own delicious exhibitionism. We’re all watching and being watched. Always.
Smile for the camera!