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Essay: Harry Potter and its digital fandom

This research paper will investigate whether or not social media has a significant impact on popular-culture and its fandom(s), specifically focussing on Harry Potter. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series is an iconic cultural phenomenon that has been spreading magic for almost a decade now. Fads are usually unexplainable and unrepeatable, but Harry Potter has proved its staying power — especially when its last novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was released back in 2007.

With the final film due this July, we should reflect, and question the driving force that continues to make this popular-culture stable. Besides exploring how the physicality of the cultural phenomenon has been transformed due to media technologies, we will examine how Harry Potter and its fandom utilises social-media in order to thrive and survive as a digital fandom. After all, its success would not have been achieved without the fandom and its fans.

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The Harry Potter franchise is historically known for its best-selling books and high-grossing films series. Although Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released in 1997, Pottermania struck the world in October 1999 with the first three Harry Potter books sitting in the top three positions of the New York Times (Gunelius, 2008). Since the Internet wasn’t huge or accessible for most people back then, controversies (in regards to the books) and word-of-mouth (either praise or criticism) helped pushed Harry Potter into the limelight, creating buzz worldwide.

Harry Potter was released at the perfect time because at the exact same time, the Internet was taking off, and people were just starting to make use of it in a social way. The big online dialogue began in September 2000 when the first HP movie, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, began filming (Gunelius, 2008).

In between the release of the books (1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2007) and films (2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011), fans waited for either the book or film to be released almost every year. During all that time, HP fans used the power of the Internet to develop a social network and a global conversation that all fans could join in whilst waiting patiently for the books and films to come out (Gunelius, 2008). Even Mugglenet Senior Staffer Andrew Sims acknowledges that social-media has a significant impact on the culture and its fandom as it enables people to “connect, and express their excitement whereas with the earlier films they couldn’t” (Blee, 2010).

  • Harry Potter fandom meets Virtual Reality

A basic definition of virtual-reality applies to ‘computer-stimulated environments that can stimulate physical presence in places in the real world, as well as imaginary worlds’ (Wikipedia, 2011).

In Power, Madness, and Immortality: The Future of Virtual Reality (2005), Cline argues that virtual-reality will lead to a number of important changes in human life and activity. He argues that virtual-reality will be integrated into daily life and activity, and will be used in various human ways, affecting human behaviours such as interpersonal communication and cognition.

This is quite evident as we see millions of individuals engaging and communicating with one another via social-networking sites. Social-media platforms are essentially virtual worlds that mirror reality — and all of it is real. Because social-media is a virtual platform, it allows you to still embody that physical presence, whilst having a faceless and unknown identity. This encourages freedom of expression, human freedom and well-being, and a sense of equality amongst everyone, in this case, the HP community. This virtual-augmented platform gives HP fans the power to form a community in which acts as an informal loyalty community group, uniting fans from around the world, and also offering social incentives such as friendship and also a (virtual) place to hang out. For instance, if you’re looking for Harry Potter friends to follow on Twitter, search for Potterheads (‘fan-name’ for Harry Potter fans) and you’ll see Twitter accounts with usernames such as ‘wonwon_weasley’ ‘TheWeasleyTwin’ ‘Evil_Dumbledore’ etc.

Whilst Facebook is primarily used to stay in contact with your personal and local networks of friends and family, Twitter on the other hand, proves to be much different. Unlike Facebook, Twitter is at a bigger global scale. It allows you to have an account in which you communicate, ’follow’ and interact with your friends AND strangers. And surprisingly, it is considered normal to follow and befriend with strangers on Twitter, so following fellow Harry Potter fans who you don’t even know of is normal.

The Harry Potter fan community on Twitter certainly fits Jenkins’ description of a ‘participatory culture’ (Jenkins, 2006). People are welcome to simply follow others and read their tweets, and fan participation is usually socially rewarded as well.  Users can acknowledge each other’s contributions by following, re-tweeting, replying, and direct messaging, as this interaction and acknowledgement essentially makes users feel as if their contributions matter and it also makes them feel belong to the community as well.

  • When fandom meets Virtual Reality

Although there is the perception that Twitter mainly consists of ‘junk’ such as breakfast updates and reviews about books or films, this perspective is inaccurate because every tweet is essentially a piece of information that contributes towards the Twitter-sphere. Evan Williams argues that Twitter is ‘not just a social network, but an information network’ as individuals have the power to deliver “the best and freshest, most relevant information possible” (O’Riley Media, 2009).

With Twitter being conveniently accessible via technological mediums such as phones and laptops, users are able to create and distribute information within an instant—regardless of their location. For instance: representatives from Harry Potter fansites such as Leaky Cauldron, Mugglenet and SnitchSeeker are always stationed at events such as Harry Potter film premieres, museum openings and Q&A events.  And because they are bodily there at these events, they are able to tweet live and updating as to what is happening right there at the scene. This, in essence, is a media event. While there is a social contagent happening at the actual scene, social-media enables everyone else (who can’t physically attend) to be part of this (online) media event where everyone can participate and socialise with one another.

It is essentially a liveblog where fansites tweet updates about the stars, the proceedings and even important quotes that have been said by the stars. In addition to this, users can also tweet photos and videos right from location (using their camera/iPads and applications such as Twitpic and Twitcam). This would ultimately give their followers (in this case, HP fans in general) the opportunity to attend the events at the exact same time – in a virtual sense. However, it’s not just HP fansites – fans would also tweet live from these events, tweeting as much as they can based on what they can see (note: they don’t have ‘VIP experience’ as fansites do). With the combination of fansites and fans tweeting, this contributes towards the Twittersphere, allowing other (unprivileged) fans to see simultaneous, real-time updates, and also feel involved with the event along with everyone else (virtually, that is). Therefore, it is evident how social-media and its tools have changed the way we communicate with one another, and also how we use, create, and distribute content via new forms of media technologies. Any individual, in essence, can easily become their own media publisher and share information with the world on the same common level.

Whilst saying this, it is not just the fandom who has adapted to the new age of online social-networking. Institutions and prominent individuals (such as Warner Bros officials and Harry Potter cast members) have also converted to social-media. Besides using social-networking tools to promote their work/material, they are also utilising the tools to communicate and interact with fans as well (and the rest of the world to some extent). For instance, there are pages such as HarryPotter UK and @HarryPotterFilm that posts WB-approved Harry Potter news (e.g. stills, premiere dates, posters etc).This ultimately enhances the relationship between the institutions and its followers (aka fans), allowing greater communication and transparency of information.

In addition to this, Harry Potter official pages and media outlets (e.g. MTV) also help out by providing live coverages of the events on social-media portals such as UStream, Facebook and YouTube. The brilliance behind these live coverages is that not only does it allow fans to watch the event, but fans can also chat with one another as well. All of this is done simultaneously, allowing fans to participate (in a virtual sense) and experiencing the same ‘experience’ at the same time. The social-networking experience doesn’t end there as hosts of the live media-events would also interact with the fans at home by asking fans to tweet questions for JK Rowling, cast members, and the producers of the film etc. Whilst all of this is happening, conversations and topics would usually trend and dominate the TTs (due to the large traffic of excessive tweeting), evidently showing the extent of interaction and information-sharing that is exchanged amongst the media and Harry Potter fans.

Harry Potter cast members (e.g. Emma Watson (Hermione), the Phelp twins (Fred and George) and Tom Felton (Draco) have also joined the social-media bandwagon, as most of them have Twitter accounts in the hopes of connecting with fans. In the past, they have also promoted the films, DVDs and games via viral videos being posted on these social-networking sites. This ultimately shows the diversity and multi-layers of how they have used social-media to promote material, and also interact with their fans.

When it comes to Harry Potter’s fandom ‘power’, this is demonstrated, and can be tested via ‘trending-topics’ on Twitter. For instance: when Deathly Hallows Part 1 trailer was released online, it immediately caused frenzy amongst Potterheads on social-networking sites, especially on Twitter. Because Twitter’s new algorithm for TTs essentially act as ‘breaking news’, and the fact that Potterheads were repetitively tweeting about it and linking the trailer as well — it eventually landed on the TTs. This, as a result, allows non-Harry Potter fans to be aware of the new trailer, compelling them to watch it as well just to see the hype surrounding it. The power of social-media still continues to astound people as even media outlets such as Today’s MSNBC (2010) have noted the activity, along with other technology-related sites.

For awhile now, fandoms including ‘Smilers’, ‘Beliebers’, ‘Monsters’ and ‘Lovatics’ have been battling it out to trend the most TTs. Potterheads have also joined in the fan-wars, as HP fans unite to trend HP-related things every week. This includes trailers, beloved characters, tribute/thank you messages to JK Rowling etc. When Potterheads are not intentionally trending anything, fans use the usual hashtags such as #HarryPotter

#DeathlyHallows #WeLovePotter #Potterpride and #TeamPotter in their Harry Potter-related tweets. All of this fan-generated energy ultimately takes the burden off WarnerBro’s marketing department, as the continuous hype and enthusiasm keeps the series fresh in fans’ minds, and keeping the fandom strong and united. Therefore, as you can see, HP fans have clearly embraced the ‘participatory culture’ very fondly and successfully, allowing us to see how physical contagent fandoms have transformed into digital fandoms via social-media tools.

    • Where role-playing meets social-media

According to Cline (2005), the more time we spend in the virtual space, the quicker our “migration to virtual space” becomes. And because of this dependence and enthusiastic response to receiving HP news via online/digital-media, and also interacting with other fans, it makes it slightly impossible for HP fans to stop this behavioural habit.

This is obvious as we see role-playing accounts not only on fansites, but also on social-networking sites as well. Since the emergence of Web 2.0 applications, today’s society aren’t passively viewing and consuming content anymore — They have now become a participatory culture where fans actively contribute to global fanbases through creation and participation.

As Henry Jenkins mentions in Convergence Culture (2006), Rowling’s “richly detailed world allows many points of entry. Some kids imagine themselves as related to the characters, the primary ones… also minor background figures…basically any affiliation that allows them to claim a special place for themselves in the story”.

And as a result, Harry Potter is essentially a ‘transmedia story’ as Jenkins (2007) states that ‘transmedia storytelling’ usually involves “integral elements of fiction being dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience”. Encouraging creativity and interaction, fans have jumped on board creating new HP products such as wizarding bands, fan-videos, fan-fictions and fan-arts etc. The HP fandom even has its own musical ‘A Very Potter Musical’ and its puppet series ‘Puppet Potter Pals’ via YouTube. It is evident that the narrative is not just limited to the books and films – it can be extended across other mediums such as videos, literature, music and performance. These narrative extensions keep the interest of audiences (while they wait for the next books or films, or even just for pure entertainment), providing insight into the plot and its characters, and also elaborating on parts of the fictional HP world.

Using social-media platforms, one of the biggest participatory-culture products however, is role-playing. Harry Potter roleplayers (RPers) embody canon characters—taking on their voices, expressions, personality, and interests. For instance, we see many people role-playing as Harry, Ron, Hermione etc — even Lord Voldemort is on Twitter (@Lord_Voldemort7), and funnily enough, he’s actually one of the most respected and well-known (role-played) individuals on Twitter. Because the Harry Potter world is vast and unlimited, RPers even create their own original characters, conversing and interacting with the canon RPers.

Unlike fanfiction and more traditional forms of Raping (forums, blogs etc.), Twitter is made for conversation, which allows for more interaction amongst RPers. For instance, Dramione fans would follow Draco and Hermione Twitter accounts to follow the fanfiction story and exchanged conversations that occur between them.  In the Twitter timeline, the dialogues become integrated with tweets from non-RP Twitter accounts—creating a mixed reality “between the real world and an imaginary or fictional world” (Roig, 2009). This ultimately enables fans to immerse themselves in the alternate universe of Harry Potter. Twitter essentially becomes a public stage for RPers as the immediacy of Twitter allows for the real-time plot progression and dialogue. By the end of the year, there are Twitter accounts (such as @HPotterAwards) that host RPG competitions just to see who is the best Harry or Ron or Hermione on Twitter, or who has the most interesting conversations, and even the best proposals.

Role-playing on Facebook

Although all of this might seem too good to be true, Virilio implies that no technology – no matter how “smart” or sophisticated – is “perfect or free of accidents” (Rushkoff, 2011). According to Andrew Murphie (2011), media is “highly complex, unstable and somewhat mysterious”. While we may assume that we might know a lot about these technologies (in terms of its features, capabilities and results), there are, of course, unforseen issues with these media forms that have led, or will lead to a great deal of trouble, and even distrust amongst users of technology.

As mentioned earlier about Harry Potter cast members using Twitter — Since anyone can easily pretend to be anyone on Twitter, JK Rowling also has her own Twitter account in order to prevent anyone from impersonating her. This is accompanied by Twitter’s ‘verified account’ tick as it tells us that the Twitter account is owned and managed by the real person, not a fake.

Although Jo has Twitter, she barely communicates with her followers/fans as all her tweets (so far) are along the lines of “This is the real me, but you won’t be hearing from me often I’m afraid, as pen and paper are my priority at the moment.”

There have also been other issues with Twitter, regarding privacy and distribution issues. British comedian Stephen Fry for instance, was reprimanded by Warner Bros after posting Deathly Hallows film set photos on his Twitter (2011). Just before posting the offending pictures he added: “Just wandered round the Harry Potter Privet Drive on the studio backlot. Already looking a little overgrown. Time is so cruel…” But not long after the images had appeared online, and were viewed by Fry’s 1.9million followers, they mysteriously disappeared from the internet, and he wrote: “Oops. I’ve been sent to the naughty step…”

Warner Bros have always been secretive about its sets and filming, and security measures were no different for Deathly Hallows. Although Fry did not confirm why the pictures had been removed, he had tweeted just a week earlier that he suspected his constant revelations on Twitter may not be popular with Warner Bros. Therefore, as we can see, whilst social-media seems perfect for enhancing our social-networking skills; it does present issues as well, especially in regards to privacy and copyright.

  • Conclusion:

Popular culture has taken a significant turn as we see social-media affecting individuals and the way they communicate with other individuals and how they receive information. Due to new media technologies, digital fandoms are spawning online as the Internet and new technologies have become increasingly dominant in our daily lives. The Harry Potter fandom for instance, has evidently transformed from a physical fandom to a digital fandom. So much has come out of it as we see fans relying on social-media for their news, means of communication and also a portal to participate in fan-related events and activities. Although the Harry Potter films are ending this year, it is (somewhat) guaranteed that Harry Potter won’t really be ending altogether – the magic will live on forever just as long the culture and its fandom continues to show their loyalty, enthusiasm and passion towards the series.

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Anon. (n.d) ‘Virtual Reality’ , Wikipedia http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_reality

Blee, S. (2010) Potter’s Internet Presence Won’t Die with the Films, http://inews6.americanobserver.net/articles/potters-internet-presence-wont-die-final-films> Last accessed

Cline, M. S. (2005) Power, madness, and immortality: The future of virtual reality. University Village Press, May 25th, 2011

Gunelius, S. (2008). Harry Potter: The story of the global business phenomenon. US: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling 101,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins, March 22, 2007.

Jenkins, Henry et al. (2005). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century

Lefort, R. (2010) The mystery of Stephen Fry and the vanishing Harry Potter tweets, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/harry-potter/8098736/The-mystery-of-Stephen-Fry-and-the-vanishing-Harry-Potter-tweets.html> Last accessed May 22nd, 2011

Popkin, H. (2010) Harry Potter fandom eclipses Team Twilight o Twitter, http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/38042974/> last accessed May 20th, 2011

Roig, A. et al. “Videogame as Media Practice: An Exploration of the Intersections Between Play and Audiovisual Culture.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 15.1 (2009): 89-103.

Rushkoff, Douglas (2011) ‘The Evolution Will Be Socialized’, Shareable: Science and Tech, Viewed on 2nd of May 2011 http://shareable.net/blog/the-evolution-will-be-socialized

Web 2.0 Summit 2009: Evan Williams and John Battelle “A Conversation with Evan Williams”, O’Reilly Media, October 21, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5jXcgZnEa0&fmt=18, retrieved November 1, 2009

Ytreberg, Espen. “Extended liveness and eventfulness in multi-platform reality formats.” New Media and Society 11.4 (2009): 467-485. Web.

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