How Harry Potter Shaped Modern Internet Fandom

For many, the true magic of the Potterverse lies not in its prose, but in the model of internet fandom it helped nurture.

In this second era of Harry Potter content, it can be hard to forget a time before the boy wizard and his magical world ruled the internet.

Harry Potter and the internet are so inextricably intertwined. Star Trek fandom may have written many of the rules of modern slash fanfiction. The X-Files fandom gave us the term “shipping.” But it was the Harry Potter fandom that defined much of the community-based internet fandom culture we know and (mostly) love today.

As Harry Potter fandom continues to struggle, shape, and define how we engage with the most popular stories in the world, and with the other people who love them, let’s take a look back at th fandom that helped shaped how we use the internet today…

(Image above via Dorkly.)

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Harry Potter and The Birth of the Internet

The first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,was published in 1998 in the U.S., somewhere in the middle of the process that saw the internet graduating from a resource used mostly at universities and by privileged uber-nerds to mainstream use. By mid-1999, the internet was in a third of U.S. households. By 2001, it had reached the 50 percent mark.  

Where was Harry Potter fandom in 2001? It was the year the first Harry Potter film was released. It was also one year into the so-called “Three-Year Summer,” the longest stretch between the publishing of any two Harry Potter books (after The Goblet of Fireand before The Order of the Phoenix.)

The Three-Year Summer is known within Harry Potter fandom as a period of intense creation, discussion, and collaboration. It was when the Potterverse really came into its own, and it was perfectly aligned with the spread of internet technology across the U.S.

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So was Harry Potter just in the right place at the right time? Definitely, but that doesn’t negate the strength of J.K. Rowling’s characters, plot structure, and world-building. It also doesn’t negate the serialized nature of the Harry Potter story, a feature that Francesca Coppa argues made Harry Potter perfect fodder for fandom. In The Fanfiction Studies Reader, Coppa writes:

Harry Potter comes to us as the embodied protagonist of a series of stories that retell Harry’s adventures during a series of school years … The ongoing series of novels was then made into an ongoing series of films. In all these ways, the Harry Potterbooks resist the status of ‘finished literary text’ made up of particular words in a particular order, and instead construct themselves as the open-ended inspiration for future performative supplements that will allow its audience to reconstitute itself on a regular basis.

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The stage was set.

Harry Potter and The Fanfiction

Fanfiction has always been a thing. From The Great Game to Wide Sargasso Seato Spockanalia, fans have long been inspired to become creators in the fictional worlds they love. Fandom as we now know it today, however, is a more modern development. It has become much easier to create a community around fannish excitements since the development of mass media and, even more recently, the internet. 

As we’ve already established, Harry Potter came around at a time when modern fandom was given its first chance to be. A huge part of this fannish revolution was in the writing, reading, and sharing of fanfiction. Websites like Fanfiction.net, FictionAlley, and LiveJournal gave Harry Potter fanfiction writers and readers a place to gather with like-minded fans, to find other people who enjoyed nerding out about and becoming creators within the world of their favorite story in a way that, previously, might have made you an outsider. The internet created accessible community in a way like never before. This was the first step toward mainstreaming fannish activities and behavior. 

On September 4th, 1999, the first Harry Potter fanfiction story was uploaded onto Fanfiction.net. That same month, the Harry Potter for GrownUps mailing list is started. The following month, in October 1999, MuggleNet launches. Both were sites where fanfiction was shared and welcomed, though that was far from their only purpose. August 2000 saw Cassandra Clare (who would go on to write the wildly popular YA series The Mortal Instruments, source material for current Freeform TV series Shadowhunters) publish the first chapter of “The Draco Trilogy.” The series would continue to be updated over the next six years and included almost one million words spanning three, novel-length stories. 

For many young fans, fanfiction was (and is) more than a way of engaging in their favorite story; it is a way of better understanding the world and their own identities. It is a way of breaking outside the narrow boundaries of most canon culture and normalizing something other than the straight, white, male, financially-secure experience that dominates stories with corporate backing. Fanfiction is a way of saying: whoever you are, that’s OK.

It’s not a secret that much of the fanfiction (though definitely not all) involves queer pairings. Slash fanfiction is the name for fanfiction written about two same-sex characters in a romantic and/or sexual pairing. The term “slash” refers to the “/” between the two characters in question and comes out of Star Trek fandom, specifically the Kirk/Spock relationship. 

Jameson writes about the influence of megafandoms like Harry Potter and Twilight on the sexual education of younger generations in her book Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World, saying:

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Harry Potter slash helped shape and challenge attitudes toward sexual diversity among the generation that grew up reading it and arguing about it (a lot) online … Where previous generations may have looked to parental porn stashes and the pages of Cosmopolitan, today’s teens increasingly find such information in fanfiction.

They write it in fanfiction — and in some version or another, they always have. They used to write it in notebooks, and now they write it and share it online. Like it or not, this has become normal and public, a part of growing up for millions. If Twilight and Harry Potter have taught us anything, it’s that authorial intent has nothing to do with the afterlives of characters.

The representation of queer characters has come a long way in the last 15 years, and I think it’s fair to credit some of that progression to the mainstreaming of a fandom culture that has long been more comfortable with focusing on queer relationships.

Intellectual property attorney, FictionAlley co-founder, and fanfiction writerHeidi Tandy writes about the early days of Harry Potter fandom in Fic, saying:

A decade ago, I was slammed as immoral for letting teenagers discuss whether gay wizards even existed; in 2007, J.K. Rowling told us they did. Kids who were thirteen in 1999 and 2002 and 2004 are in their twenties now, and those who were college students then have kids of their own. If you told them that it was immoral to let thirteen-year-olds read YA stories about gay teenage wizards, they would probably laugh and tell you it’d be immoral to ban them from reading those stories. Or anything else.

Today, readers don’t only have fanfiction for gay teen wizard stories. In 2015, Rainbow Rowell published Fangirl, a young adult novelabout a college-aged girl and fanfiction writer. Her follow-up novel, Carry On, focuses on the Harry Potter-like characters first introduced as fanfiction characters in Fangirl. (Yes, Simon and Baz are teen wizards. And, yes, they fall in love.) 

Carry On might not actually be fanfiction, but it does use many of fanfiction’s most beloved tropes and serves similar functions, challenging, expanding, and dismantling many of the narrative constructs utilized in Harry Potter canon, most especially the “Chosen One” trope. 

The story prioritizes interiority and emotionality, in a way that is much more common in fanfiction than it is in canon fiction, as Elizabeth Minkel explains in her Medium article “Harry Potter and the Sanctioned Follow-Up Work (or, Fanfiction vs. the Patriarchy).” 

The privileging of character, of emotionality, of interiority, is par for the course in female-dominated transformative fandom, and pretty rare in the largely male-authored source works that rule the fan world, especially big-budget blockbuster franchises. It’s at the heart of the shipping clashes between creators and fans, when creators throw up their hands and say “stop making this about romance and/or sex!!” Creators are making plot-oriented worlds first, then thinking about what the characters will do; female-dominated fandom is thinking about who the characters are, and in a given situation, what they feel. 

Notably, an interest in interiority and emotionality are common traits in contemporary young adult fiction. One could make the argument that YA fiction partially gets this trait from the fanfiction tradition that many of its writers (and many of its readers) hail from.

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Harry Potter and The Powers That Be

We’ve written a bit on Den of Geek about the ongoing tensions between sanctioned creaters and fandom. With the rise of social media, conversations between The Powers That Be and fandom are easier than ever. This means that it’s easier than ever to give creators praise for and ask questions about the stories they’ve created, but it’s also easier than ever to critique content directly to its creators, corporate backers, and rights-holders. Though this might seem like a more modern phenomenon, it has its foundations in the earliest years of internet fandom.

When Harry Potter fandom first began, the legal definitions of “fair use” and “transformative works” had not been tested in this new pioneer of internet fandom. They would be. In 2000, Warner Bros. bought the merchandising rights to all things Harry Potter, aside from the books themselves. They began sending out cease-and-desist letters that were, in the words of Tandy, “Umbridge-esque threatening letters to teens around the world, insisting they hand over domain names that included terms from the Harry Potter series.” 

Tandy elaborates:

What I, as a newcomer to online fandom, didn’t know at the time was that a few fans who’d come to HP from other fandoms thought that the only proper response, if The Powers That Be asked you anything, was to shut down your site, pull down your fics and your discussions, and go away— maybe even change your online name, which definitely had no link to your real-world self. But how could you be a fan of a book that was premised on standing up to evil and saying no to overreaching by The Authorities, and just do that?

Henry Jenkins writes about this period of fandom history, known as The Potter War, in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide.Jenkins tells the story of how Heather Lawver, the then-teenage fan who ran the website The Daily Prophet, launched the Defense Against the Dark Arts campaign, coordinating media outreach and activism against the studio with other Harry Potter fans and site-runners across the world. Lawver told Jenkins:

Warner was very clever about who they attacked … They attacked a whole bunch of kids in Poland. How much of a risk is that? They went after the 12 and 15 year olds with the rinky-dink sites. They underestimated how interconnected our fandom was. They underestimated the fact that we knew those kids in Poland and we knew the rinky dink sites and we cared about them.

Warner Bros. wasn’t prepared for the Harry Potter fandom to be so well-organized, or perhaps to be a community at all. Unlike fandom before the rise of the internet, these groups of fans could communicate and coordinate like never before.

Fandom crossed boundaries of age, nation, language, and culture to push back against Warner Bros.’s campaign to keep this fictional universe firmly in the hands of The Powers That Be. And it worked. Diane Nelson, Warner Bros. Family Entertainment’s senior vice president at the time, told Jenkins:

We didn’t know what we had on our hands early on in dealing with Harry Potter. We did what we would normally do in the protection of our intellectual property. as soon as we realized we were causing consternation to children or their parents, we stopped it … [Now,] we are trying to balance the needs of other creative stakeholders, as well as the fans, as well as our own legal obligations, all within an arena which is new and changing and there are not clear precedents about how things should be interpreted or how they would be acted upon if they ever reached the courts.

The reaction from internet fandoms of the time, including the ever-growing Harry Potter online fandom, shaped the rules for the current relationship between The Powers That Be and The Fans. If those Harry Potter fans had been less organized, who knows what the internet would look like today?

Harry Potter and The Conclusion

Books could be (and have been) written about the expansive Harry Potter fandom. From wizard rock to the Harry Potter Alliance to LeakyCon, the Harry Potter fandom is no one thing. It is massive and diverse. Fans participate for different reasons and in different ways and that makes it hard to come to any sweeping conclusions about its nature, purpose, or growth. However, it does seem safe to note its vital importance as one of the first major internet fandoms. A fandom that developed along with the internet and, in some small part, helped shape what it would become.

For many, Harry Potter fandom is just as if not more powerful than Harry Potter canon itself. Any why wouldn’t it be? Fandom involves millions of creators rather than just one. Of course it is richer than the book, stage play, and prequel movies that, by the broadest definition, include thousands of creators.

Fandom is a conversation. Canon is a lecture — often times, an articulate one, but one-sided nonetheless. Or, if you’d prefer, the statement that starts the larger cultural discussion that, through fandom, more people than ever before are able to participate in.

As Alanna Bennett touches on in her recent Buzzfeed piece “The Harry Potter Fandom Is At A Crossroads,” the current angst in the Harry Potter community is as much about seeing canon fall short of the infinity of fandom as it is about the lackluster quality of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

“The Potter fandom has crafted a legacy of engagement and creativity that the series’ modern canonical efforts are struggling to live up to. For so many fans … it can be hard to get hype about Cursed Child when they recognize in it so many of the tropes they explored themselves a decade ago — in content they created and championed.”

An entire generation of fans is being asked to reevaluate the presumed value of canon vs. fandom and coming up with an answer The Powers That Be might not like. The Harry Potter book series is often credited with getting an entire generation of kids to read, but, perhaps even more importantly, it gave an entire generation of nerds community-based fandom.

In turn, Harry Potter fandom gave us (with the rise of the internet) the mainstreaming of nerd culture. It taught an entire generation of nerds that they are not alone and that they don’t have to wait for The Powers That Be to write people who look, act, and feel like them into the stories they love. They can do it themselves.

There is a nostalgia for these early days of Harry Potter fandom as much as there is a nostalgia for the Harry Potter books themselves, but I’m not sure how many people would want to go back to a time when fans’ rights to act as creators in the stories that act as our modern myths were so uncertain. Not when, now, this community-based form of loving, challenging, and expanding the stories that make up our popular culture has become so normal.

Harry Potter canon might be aging into something less relevant and more problematic than its earlier incarnations, but the modern fandom it helped create is more important than ever.