Gossip Girl knows that a person's most intimate relationship is the one they have with their phone. The original series, which ran from 2007 to 2012, aired amid the cultural boom of apps like Twitter and Facebook, and while Serena van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf predated the rise of the social media influencer, they were acutely aware of the power their devices had over them — and their secrets. "It was once said that a person’s eyes were a window to their soul,” Blair says in Season 1. “That was before people had cell phones.”
The codependency has only intensified in the years since. People are more tethered to their devices than ever (seriously, check your screen time summary). Compulsive scrolling is a way of life, where we're all chasing likes and every notification elicits an immediate Pavlovian response. The new class of privileged students calling the shots at Constance Billard are no different. In fact, they're even more plugged in than their early-aughts predecessors.
It's no secret that "It" girl influencer Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander) has been desperately seeking validation from everyone around her — her father, her inner circle, her followers, and most recently, her half-sister. That's now manifested into an unhealthy obsession with being liked, not for who she really is but rather a more perfectly curated version of herself. Thanks to Gossip Girl's reemergence, however, Julien is quickly learning that you can't always hide your problems with a ring light.
"Nobody was taught how to create boundaries with the internet or social media," Jordan tells Teen Vogue during a press day to promote the new HBO Max series. These boundaries, says the 27-year-old actor, will help "protect your spirit and protect your energy" both online and off. Of course, knowing where to draw the line is a personal decision. (How many minutes on Instagram is too many?) It's something that the Toronto-native has spent years trying to figure out for herself. "It's a learning curve for everybody."
For her teenage co-star Whitney Peak, who plays Julien's estranged half-sister Zoya, it's about "figuring out what works for you."
"Part of it is curating a feed and a collection of things that you are interested in that aren't going to make you react or feel a certain way," she adds. "You don't need that negative energy. There's just something about being on your phone that inevitably has an effect on your outside life and how you perceive everything around you. There's a very harsh disconnect."
Savannah Smith knows just how cruel that disconnect can be. "I was a victim of social media all throughout high school," she says, not holding back her disdain. "It really harped on my self-esteem, especially as a Black girl in a predominantly white school in Los Angeles. Social media curated the insecurity in my skin for me."
Yet, the New York University acting major, who landed her first major role as Manhattan mean girl Monet De Haan, also knows how a robust social media presence can help young actors book more jobs. "I try to separate myself and use it to my advantage," she says. "But for my health, I think it's best if I'm not on Instagram every day for, like, eight hours. Monet can be, but Savannah is different."
Meanwhile, Evan Mock spends a lot of time on the 'gram. "Evan is always on it!" Thomas Doherty says. Rarely out of sight or mind, Evan's IG is an extension of himself — a place to post about fashion, friends, and his first love, skateboarding. "I just watch skate videos 24/7," the skater turned model turned Gossip Girl actor says. And he keeps things positive by keeping it totally 100 while "posting [his] life experiences." ("Get that money, honey," Thomas tells him.)
It's Evan's effortlessly cool authenticity that made him an instant follow for co-star (and on-screen girlfriend) Emily Alyn Lind. "I love going on your profile, Evan, because you have so many videos that are so cool." As for Emily, she takes a similar approach to Evan, sans hitting the pavement. "I don't really curate," she says of her Instagram feed, which is a mix of fashion spreads, random moments, and acoustic covers. She does, however, "try to respond as much as [she] can to fans" who comment on her posts.
"I post and respond to fans as much as I possibly can [on Instagram]," Thomas adds. "Apart from that, I try to stay off it. It's bad for you." In fact, before Gossip Girl premiered earlier this month, the Scottish actor established his own boundary with the app: He unfollowed everyone, except for three accounts (his friends).
The question of whether you can ever truly be authentic on social media is one Zión Moreno still struggles with. "I try to be as authentic as possible," she says, before adding, "I hate social media — there's no way to truly be authentic." As teen stylist Luna La, she's fiercely direct and always within reach of her phone, ready to snap a pic. IRL, Zión describes herself as "silly," and she tries to convey that on her Instagram, where she boasts more than 850,000 followers. "I try to curate it in a fun and playful way," she says, "to showcase my silly self as much as I possibly can."
"I know that it's difficult for people who follow me to see this perfectly curated individual who has no flaws, so I try to lean into being silly and showing off my flaws," the Mexican-American actor adds. It's also important to Zión to be vocal about her activism, noting how social media has become a powerful tool for spreading awareness and adding "fresh, new perspectives." "[It's] a very small form of activism, but I think that it helps open others' minds, especially because most of the people who follow me are of Latino descent," she says.
For Eli Brown, it's a case of art imitating real life in which his character's contempt for social media mirrors his own. "I had a meeting with Josh [Safran, showrunner] and the entire writers' room where we talked over various aspects of Obie and various aspects of myself, and I think that's why Obie doesn't have social media," he says.
On Gossip Girl, even the show's titular antagonist falls victim to the allure of clout. Now an Instagram account run by the gilded prep school's overworked faculty (including Tavi Gevinson's Kate Keller), Gossip Girl exchanges secrets for power — with Julien and her clique caught in the crosshairs.
Online, it's easy to see others as less than human. We're all just pixels on a screen, part of a device we've been conditioned to think of as more than a machine. As one Upper East Sider once said, it's a glimpse into the soul. So if you don't like what you see, you have the power to change it.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue