“There’s a party every night on the Upper East Side, if you know where to look.” Thus intones the female voiceover accompanying a promotional short for the much-hyped Second Life extension of The CW’s new teen TV drama, Gossip Girl. Based on a series of books created by teen-centric multimedia [End Page 116] corporation Alloy Entertainment, Gossip Girl features the everyday travails of wealthy Manhattan teenagers. In partnership with Millions of Us, a virtual world agency with clients from HBO to Budweiser, The CW has created a virtual playground that invites Gossip Girl viewers to cast themselves in the glamorous social sphere of the television program. Participants in the virtual Upper East Side enter the online world-building game Second Life at an intersection of previously established values, emanating from the traditions of teen TV programming and the consumerist cultures surrounding it, from histories of fan participation, and from the larger context of Second Life. Participants coming to Gossip Girl’s Second Life neighborhood via The CW web portal learn their way around a very specific subsection of Second Life, one that offers people-watching at “The Park,” exclusive parties at upscale bars, and shopping at Helen Bernel’s (a virtual version of the iconic department store Henri Bendel’s). Participants new to Second Life may explore other neighborhoods as well, or they may choose to stay in the virtual Upper East Side, settling their avatar into the verisimilitude of spaces only previously imagined. Indeed, as I write, my avatar lounges on the digital couch in the extravagant sitting room of one Upper East Side bad-boy, Chuck Bass.
The unfolding Gossip Girl Second Life experience (hereafter GGSL) offers the opportunity to explore how TV fans engage with official videogame extensions of their favored programming. Gossip Girl is developing a vibrant and creative fandom across its various transmedia branches, in spaces both officially affiliated and unaffiliated with The CW. Even in its infancy, the official GGSL neighborhood shows the promise of a compelling form of social networking, an experience of digital media based on social play with fashion, in the spirit of the social power play of Gossip Girl itself. Gossip Girl features a matriarchy, ruled by leads Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen, where the central teen characters model a dynamic mix of fashion, power, and self-exploration, albeit within the fantasy life of private-school privilege. Intentionally or unintentionally, fans bring these gendered power politics to bear in their engagement with GGSL, and GGSL encourages such culturally loaded play. In this era of corporate co-optation of grassroots experience, GGSL brings together the cultural weights and gendered assumptions of teen TV fandom, corporatized teen culture, and popular culture at large, as it provides and proscribes specific modes of fannish play and authorship.
Reaching the Girls Who Play Online
Although Gossip Girl’s ratings are barely mediocre, The CW would like its advertisers and viewers to believe that Gossip Girl is the hot new thing among savvy young viewers, who are streaming it online or downloading it through torrents. Highlighting its target demographic’s perceived interest in new media, The CW has harnessed Second Life to engage viewers in an extensive transmedia experience. However, this transmedia gaming experience differs from those connected to The Matrix or Lost (as described by Henry Jenkins and Jason Mittell) in key ways, most especially in terms of its gender address.1 Like the successful series of books that [End Page 117] precede it, the televisual version of Gossip Girl is directed primarily at an audience of teen girls and young women. Gossip Girl’s use of Second Life represents new directions in media marketing at young women. Through an emphasis on social networking, social play, identity play, and fashion, GGSL emulates assumed female fan modes of engagement with games specifically and media in general.
While the specifics may be new, the transmedia product of Gossip Girl takes its place within a multifaceted history of media cultures directed at young females, including books, TV shows, and more recently video...