"How does the physical and social context of a text message impact the meaning of its content?"
“We are all Gossip Girl!”
Jessica Pressler and Chris Rovzar
(Toffoletti, K., 2008, ‘Gossip Girls in a Transmedia World: The Sexual and Technological Anxieties of Integral Reality’, Paper 18, Page 74)
In today’s digital society, many individuals, particularly women have embraced mobile phones and the World Wide Web. They use these sources to discover and distribute information and scandal; what is commonly known as gossip. However, it is easy to misinterpret information uploaded onto the web and sent to our mobile phones. In order to understand how we are able to correctly interpret the information, particularly if it is scandalous gossip that is provided to us, we must use concepts such as Representation, Signs and Semiotics. We must also understand the Intimacy some women, especially Fans can feel as they participate in the frequent distribution of scandal. The social consequences which occur from these actions will be explored. A media text which demonstrates these concepts is a scene in the television series Gossip Girl.
Gossip Girl is about the characters that frequently appear on a gossip blog run by an anonymous owner. Amongst the teens of New York, the Gossip Girl blog is considered to be “the number 1 source for gossip on the scandalous live of Manhattan’s elite” (Gossip Girl, DVD, 2007). Though the webmaster often publishes scandal of her own, the majority of the daily scandal has come from her loyal followers, of who are predominately female. The scandal provided to the webmaster is via email or SMS message which the she posts onto the website. She then sends an SMS of the blog post to the fans on her SMS mailing list. There are no rules and the webmaster has no care for any of the consequences which may follow from the scandal that is spread.
In an opening scene episode during the series’ first season, ‘A Thin Line Between Chuck and Nate’, one of the central female characters, Serena van der Woodsen is purchasing a pregnancy test on her best friend’s behalf. While Serena asks the sales assistant which brand they would recommend, she is unaware that a classmate, Penelope Schafai is taking her photograph with her mobile phone which is then sent to the Gossip Girl website. When the photograph is published on the website, underneath the image is the caption ‘Is S with child?’ Once the blog post is published, in true Gossip Girl fashion, the reaction of Serena’s boyfriend, Dan Humphrey, his younger sister Jenny and their father is overly dramatic. What this scene demonstrates is that it is very easy to misinterpret a seemingly obvious image, even if accompanied with a caption. Because Penelope personally saw Serena purchasing the pregnancy test, she automatically assumed it was for her, she did not consider it may actually be for someone else. The social context of Serena’s purchase going viral resulted in her boyfriend, Dan Humphrey’s, little sister Jenny and father finding out that they had sex and their very intimate, meaningful moment was now public knowledge.
However, we cannot blame Penelope for assuming this was the case, as she was merely making connections between Serena’s debauchery filled past, current relationship and the purchase of the pregnancy test. To understand what was happening Penelope made these connections by using the ‘System of Representation’ approach. The System of Representation approach is defined as containing not only single concepts, but the various ways of organising them and understanding their meaning (Hall, S., 1997). In using this approach, Penelope mentally arranged the events in the order she would assume they would happen to her and the consequences from those actions (Hall, S., 1997). She took the knowledge of Serena’s debauchery filled past, assumed she had unprotected sex with Dan and that their action caused a pregnancy scare. This would be considered a conceptual system. The way how Penelope knew that unprotected intercourse often causes pregnancy is from the concepts which represent our meaning of objects, people and/or events and the connections they have (Hall, S., 1997). Therefore, it was natural for her to assume Serena was purchasing the test for herself and was the person who was pregnant.
There are two other approaches to Representation this scene could take, especially from each girl’s different point of view. In Penelope’s case, as she saw Serena as the person buying the test her approach would be the ‘reflective approach’. A pregnancy test itself is a fixed object and reflects the meaning of the possibility of being pregnant, this “‘reflects the true meaning of an object, or event as it already exists in the world” (Hall, S., 1997, Page 24). Penelope and Gossip Girl’s ‘gossip blast’ with the image of Serena holding a pregnancy test and the caption ‘Is S with child?’ was an intentional approach. Penelope waited for what she considered to be the best photo opportunity while Gossip Girl chose the specific caption to include. They intentionally published what they felt was the most important aspect of the scene.
Signs are important when studying media texts as we are able to read between the lines of what the story is trying to say, they assist us to make sense of our thoughts. They are sorted into languages and with our shared cultural languages we are able to edit our thoughts into text, images and sound which are then used to distribute our knowledge to others (Hall, S., 1997). Language also consists of variety of entities including facial expressions and body language. These are evident in Serena’s distressed state as well as in Penelope’s overly excited facial expressions and rush to take a picture of her discovery. Even though we all have the ability to interpret images and text, we all do this differently, we all see the world from a different angle.
However, what we do share are the same cultural codes. These codes are fixed which ensures us to have a greater understanding of what they mean (Hall, S., 1997). Codes in this scene would be what purchase of a pregnancy test means as well as Penelope and her mobile phone. It is seen in Penelope’s facial expression as she positions herself in such a spot so she is unnoticed by Serena and in her desperate need to take such a great photograph. This desperation of being the one who discovers such scandalous news and who distributes it to others can remind us of how some women take great pleasure in being the first to make such a discovery and the excitement such big news can bring. These fixed codes assist in building the connection between understanding Penelope’s actions. Within the codes we are able to understand Penelope’s excitement over her news and her mobile phone through semiotics.
We can use Semiotics to understand Dan and his family’s dramatic reaction when they discovered the news. According to Saussure’s Semiotics techniques, the signifier would be the “physical object” (Lacey, N., 2010, Page 57) of the pregnancy test and the mobile phone. They made the connection she must be pregnant from the signifiers and the fixed signs our society share. “The signified is the mental concepts we learn to associate with that object” (Lacey, N., 2010, Page 57) which would be the automatic assumption Serena is pregnant. Understanding the signifier and signified is a level of denotation. The girl who heard the gossip and did not try to make any other assumptions about what was happening is the basic level of denotation. If they looked further, they would be aware there was more to her actions. The absoluteness of what a pregnancy test means is due to our society’s mental agreement (Lacey, N., 2010) of particular signs. “The meaning of a sign is determined by it’s context, it has no meaning on it’s own” (Lacey, N., 2010). By looking at Penelope’s actions of hurriedly capturing the moment and informing Gossip Girl as a sign which we then form a “mental concept” (Lacey, N., 2010, Page 57) with women’s interest in hearing scandalous gossip. In this particular media text, it would be natural to assume that girl’s love to participate in distributing scandal as it is stated in the show’s title. It is also clearly demonstrated in this scene.
Gossip Girl successfully incorporates the use of mobile and Web 2.0 technologies, enabling its fans to participate by sending through (Chandler, D. & Munday, R., 2012) gossip ‘blasts’ and to be informed at all times. Those who are subscribed to Gossip Girl’s blasts are a loyal, interactive fan base that is eager to please. The fans that are subscribed to Gossip Girl’s SMS’s enjoy distributing their new found knowledge to those who are not aware of the latest news. This is proving Henry Jenkins’ definition of fans: “Fans are motivated by epistemaphilia – not simply a pleasure in knowing but a pleasure in exchanging knowledge.” (Jenkins, H., 2006, Page 139). The viewers of the show Gossip Girl can understand why and how Penelope snaps her photograph and publishes the gossip as viewers have the ability to do these themselves. They to belong in a social environment dominated by the endless possibilities of online media and can “participate in creating, disseminating and exchanging content via the World Wide Web” (Kearney, M.C., 2006, Toffeletti, K., 2008, Page 74). Because the web is easily accessible, such as, through a computer or an app on their mobile, fans have the ability to view the unlimited source of information any time they want and as soon as it is uploaded. This is why the Gossip Girl blog works so well, the webmaster understands that her followers like to participate and they constantly want the information. This is demonstrated in the scene while Jenny is reading the gossip blast on the blog – she is doing this while she is getting ready for school, as she wants to be informed of recent scandal by the time her classes start.
Another important factor to consider in this scene is how the use of the mobile phone capturing the moment is dominant. While Serena’s purchase is important, Penelope and her mobile phone are even more so. Gossip Girl notices from the fact Penelope sent her the information that women prefer to send an SMS as it is a more intimate form of communicating (Hjorth, L., 2011) – the information she sends is directly to them and can make the person receiving it feel special.
Women often prefer text messages rather than email, which is predominately used for business purposes, as communicating via SMS appears more intimate (Hjorth, L., 2011) particularly between close friends. Larissa Hjorth makes considerable reference in her paper ‘Mobile Spectres of Intimacy: A Case Study of Women and Mobile Intimacy’ of women’s responses in a survey regarding the various ways and emotions they have when using technology to communicate. The majority of the responses claimed they preferred to communicate through SMS and found it crucial to maintaining intimacy in their relationships as it was far more personal than email. Though the women surveyed enjoyed receiving hand written letters and postcards, in today’s digital society, texting was the easiest and at times more direct form of communication and the respondent will reply when they are available (Hjorth, L., 2011). However, a consequence from sending an SMS is that information sent can easily be misinterpreted or SMS’s can be sent to someone else, particularly if they are rushed. It was noted numerous times in Hjorth’s survey results that the tone of voice was crucial to ensuring information was not misinterpreted.
To conclude, while Gossip Girl does provide a solid source of entertainment for young women, it demonstrates there can be extremely harmful social consequences when such scandalous news is distributed. The fans of the show should take note from the consequences demonstrated in this scene and although it may bring a sense of intimacy between friends or acquaintances, they should be careful what they share.
Gossip Girl, 2007 [DVD], Season 1 Episode 13 ‘A Thin Line Between Chuck and Nate’, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Chandler, D. & Munday, R., 2012, ‘The Oxford Dictionary of Media and Communication’, Pp. 311
Hall, S., 1997, ‘The Work of Representation (excerpts)’ in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, Sage, London, pp. 15-30, 36-41, 61-64. http://ezproxy.lib.swin.edu.au/login?url=http://onlineres.swin.edu.au/932279.pdf
Hjorth, L., 2011, ‘Mobile Spectres of Intimacy: A Case Study of Women and Mobile Intimacy’, in R. Ling and S. Campbell, Mobile Communication: Bringing us Together and Tearing us Apart. Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, pp. 37-60.
Jenkins, H., 2006, ‘Interactive Audiences? The “Collective Intelligence” of Media Fans’, in Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture, New York University Press, New York, pp. 134-151. http://ezproxy.lib.swin.edu.au/login?url=http://onlineres.swin.edu.au/932278.pdf
Lacey, N., 2009, Semiotics in ‘Image and Representation: key concepts in media studies’, 2nd Edition, MacMillan, London, pp. 56-75.
Toffoletti, K., 2008, ‘Gossip Girls in a Transmedia World: The Sexual and Technological Anxieties of Integral Reality’, Paper 18, Pp 71-76