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Smart Pop Classics: How Harry Potter Fanfic Changed the World (or at Least the Internet)

In the Smart Pop Classics series, we share greatest hits from our throwback essay collections. This week, Heidi Tandy (aka Heidi8) time travels back to the early 2000s and shows how much attitudes around fanfiction have changed in her essay “How Harry Potter Fanfic Changed the World (or at Least the Internet)” from Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World.

I used to be terrified of Warner Bros.

Recently, I asked a friend to re-send to me a cease-and-desist letter that her fansite had received from WB in January of 2003, and when the subject line “C&D” showed up in my inbox, even though I knew it was going to be there, my heart skipped a beat and I had to catch my breath. Even after years of a good working relationship with Warner Bros. and Bloomsbury, J. K. Rowling’s agents, Universal, and Scholastic, seeing those letters and that symbol in my inbox sends me right back to 2001 and 2002 and 2003, when we felt like we existed at their sufferance.

That’s what fandom taught you, all those years ago. Anne Rice would send a nasty letter to FanFiction.Net and they would delete all the fanfic based on her books, close the section, and bar comments in the forum. Paramount could come into a fan con with Cleveland law enforcement and close the vendor room for three hours, with no warning and no notice, and fans couldn’t do anything about it. If someone uploaded the Sorcerer’s Stone trailer to the Files section on your Yahoo! group, and WB found out about it and complained to Yahoo!, they might delete your entire community and everything in it; they didn’t even have to provide a way for you to get in contact with the members of the community. It’d just be gone.

The large-for-that-time Harry Potter for Grownups Yahoo! group, which hosted over 4,500 messages per month at its peak, suffered a few nerve-racking months when a former mod decided to retaliate against the community. Her complaints to Yahoo! resulted in the deletion of one of the group’s organizational mailing lists, and forced us to close the files section. Then it got worse. After she unsubscribed herself from the mods’ organizational list, the mod claimed complete ownership of the posts she had made, and only stopped her harassment when I successfully argued to Yahoo! that she had granted the group a license to her posts for archival purposes.

If one individual could cause that much unrest, we thought, imagine what Warner Bros. could do if they learned about fandom!

Of course, they already knew. Fandom had already survived the domain name disputes of 2000 and 2001, where Warner Bros. sent Umbridge-esque threatening letters to teens around the world, insisting they hand over domain names that included terms from the Harry Potter series. Children and teens (and their lawyers) had pushed back by pointing out that their usages were noninfringing and noncommercial. But the disputes made it clear that Warner Bros. and J. K. Rowling were aware that fans existed, chatted, and created among themselves.

But was it true that fanfiction writers were bad fans, as journalist Christopher Noxon claimed in a sensationalized article in 2001 (which he rewrote in 2003, causing fans to panic when it was published again)? Was Warner Bros. waiting for a section of fandom to poke its head up so they could lop it off? Was WB “likely to greet Harry Potter slashers with more takedown orders than tolerance”? Were “billable hours . . . about to start piling up”?

Probably not, as I learned late in 2003 when I made my first visit to the sudios of Warner Bros. in Burbank to meet with members of the Harry Potter team and their intellectual property counsel. At every meeting, they were nice, friendly, and supportive of fans, fandom, and fannish creativity—even slash fanfic. In a way, our discussions were the direct result of a piece on the front page of the New York Times in May 2002. The Times article opened with a paragraph from a Harry/Draco AU (alternative universe) called “Snitch!” where the boys were gangsters in London circa 2010, then continued with a few quotes from me and others about fanfiction, romantic ships, and storyline predictions.

The day after the article ran, when posts were popping up on Usenet, in Yahoo! groups, and on FictionAlley about the havoc Warner Bros. and J. K. Rowling were surely going to wreak on the Potter fandom and all other fandoms besides, I got an email from the new manager of the recently relaunched WBShop.com site asking if FictionAlley wanted to be an affiliate of their store.

They didn’t want to shut us down. We could stay online; we could go on hosting and sharing fanfic and fanart, discussions, debates and all sorts of creativity, regardless of the ships/romances they included—and we didn’t have to worry that they’d Expelliarmus our stories or pictures. That kind of contact from The Powers That Be—supportive, interested, and curious—would start to occur more and more frequently as time went on, until an invitation to the Warner Bros. studio was, if not a common occurrence, at least a logical step. But that’s the moment when everything changed.

Ten years ago—before LiveJournal, Tumblr, Facebook, the iTunes store, Kindles, midnight book-release parties, YouTube, Google Docs, Kickstarter, or CafePress—Entertainment Weekly had to explain Quidditch in their Harry Potter FAQ, Dragon*Con filled only one Atlanta hotel, and Comic-Con didn’t sell out at all. I mused about a time in the future when there’d be dozens of Harry Potter fansites.

My prediction was not as accurate as Trelawney’s prophecy; by the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there were hundreds of thousands.

In those days, TV networks and movie production companies could shut down online communities with a sharply worded letter to Yahoo! or FanFiction.Net, but communications scholars hypothesized that “eventually . . . there will be a continuum between point-to-point and broadcast communication . . .”

But even they couldn’t predict half of the wizardry Harry Potter fans would do.

The Harry Potter fandom, which began in 1999 and shows no sign of ever ending, arrived in a perfect storm of radical new communication methods and interpersonal relations, which combined with the fantastic creativity of Harry Potter fans—creativity in writing, art, law, social networking, filmmaking, science, animation, humor, and a drive to change the world.

Kids and young adults who wrote Harry Potter fanfic in 2000 and 2002 and 2004 now have novels on New York Times bestseller lists.

College students who wrote and performed in fan films now star on TV shows and have created their own production companies for stage and screen.

Authors have teamed up with Wrock bands to raise funds after natural disasters and have brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars to help those in need.

Filmmakers cast Harry Potter fans in major roles and as extras, and cast members write dissertations about the Harry Potter fandom.

Theme parks and museums include fans as consultants and team members to help perfect their rides, showcases, and exhibits.

Fans—with the support of J. K. Rowling and other authors, actors, and celebs—have raised about a million dollars over the years by creating and selling Wrock albums, fanart collections, T-shirts, stickers, wristbands, and fanfic stories, alongside Rowling-signed books, in fundraisers to support marriage equality, victims of earthquakes and tsunamis and hurricanes, kids who want to read, and so much more.

Fan artists who shared their art with friends and fellow fans create games for Electronic Arts and book covers for Scholastic and Random House, and work for Dreamworks.

Site moderators and archivists are librarians and teachers and literary agents.

Quidditch had a place at the 2012 Olympics.

Multinational corporations no longer go to war against fans who want to set up websites, podcasts, vlogs, or Twitter accounts about their favorite books and films and bands and shows. Instead, they give them advance reading copies of books, visits to film sets, and space on the red carpet at movie premieres.

The fandom crowdsourced the grammar on the teaser poster for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, persuading Warner Bros. to add a vital comma; helped an exec at Warner Bros. with an email to the producers about the incorrect date of death of Tom Riddle’s father, which was corrected using computer graphics by the time the film came out; participated in the creation of Pottermore; and worked with Universal Orlando as consultants as they created and built The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

That’s not all that’s changed, when it comes to the rightsholder/fan relationships, interactions, and magic. In the 2000s, fans felt like they had to cave and kowtow even if the rightsholder overreached and claimed more rights than they were entitled to under US copyright or trademark law. But in the last ten years, in cases utterly unrelated to fan creativity, US courts have expanded the definitions of “fair use” and transformative works. At the same time, the Organization for Transformative Works and their fanfiction archive, archiveofourown.org, have invested in their own servers so as not to worry that some ISP will overreact to a bogus and legally untenable complaint from a copyright holder and delete thousands of person-hours of transformative works.

The Harry Potter fandom is really the first “social network”—possibly the largest, and still one of the strongest. But it’s not a monolith, and never was. To some, it’s Fluffy, Hagrid’s three-headed dog, where some fans focus on fan creativity; others indulge solely in discussions of the book canon; and a third group are fans of the fandom itself. Or perhaps the Harry Potter fandom has split into seven or more parts, like a Horcrux. Or maybe it’s a reverse of that, as thousands of souls came together to generate something new, unique, and fascinating.

When I ordered Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone from Amazon in December 1998, I was twenty-seven years old, newly pregnant, and already an internet veteran. I’d been online for over six years and had done stints on staff at the New York Times Electronic Media Company, modding the Cyberlaw forum on America Online, as the chat room coordinator and freelance writer for TheKnot, as a fill-in moderator at the Crowded House fansite, and as the attorney for Cybergrrls/Webgrrls.

While I’d read scripts for Twin Peaks and the original ’70s version of The Tomorrow People in Gopherspace, posted actively on alt.weddings and, um, extended the Melrose Place Drinking Game, my “fandom” participation was comparatively limited. I didn’t read fanfic, or link to fanart, although I knew what they were.

However, thanks to a mailing list run by a grad student at Dartmouth, in September 1994, I became somewhat involved with the fandom for a brand-new TV show called Friends. Back then (it sounds almost like I’m discussing something from a hundred years ago; yes, it was the last century, it’s nearly 20 years on!) newspaper articles and TV programs regularly warned that if you had “real-life” meetups with people you had come to know online, you’d learn that they were ax murderers or a different gender than they claimed. But most likely, they were an ax murderer.

I had no idea that there was a small, intense, dynamic, and talented mass of writers, artists, debaters, obsessive list makers, analysts, gossips, academics, and technologists creating magic every day. (There were also some trolls, as there are throughout the internet.) But those fanwriting communities had no idea that their below-the-radar subcultures were soon to be flooded by thousands of “feral” fans, be written up on the front page of the New York Times, show up on Fox News and MTV, and somehow become part of the mainstream.

In 2001, a fan suggested that people put buttons (we’d call them icons now) on their websites or fics to show how long they’d been part of the Harry Potter fandom. Nobody had been around for more than two years at that point, so even a line of lightning bolts, one per month, wouldn’t take up too much space.

Now? It’s been half a lifetime for many; for millions of people, there is no “before Harry Potter.”

When I joined Harry Potter for Grownups the day before Goblet of Fire came out, there were a few hundred people on the list; eight months later, there were over 1,000, and now, over 25,000. When I joined The Leaky Cauldron in the spring of 2001 to post blurbs about new Harry Potter merchandise in WB stores, Harry Potter fans who wanted to create a fansite used Tripod or Geocities to do so, then typed their site name, URL, and summary into the Directory on Yahoo! so someone could manually approve and add it so subsequent fans could find it. During that summer, AOL added House seals and the Hogwarts crest as emoticons in AIM and launched 1-2-3 Publish setups for creating homepages; on most websites, comments from visitors were posted to a guestbook.

There were massive debates among fandomers as to whether the series was for children, whether adults could legitimately read it, and whether fanfic writers were creatively inspired by J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world or thieves lurking in Nocturne Alley and The Restricted Section.

Everyone was afraid that Scholastic, Bloomsbury, and/or Warner Bros. would show up within the next hour and shut everything down, but the few lawyers in fandom, including myself, didn’t think they’d have a leg to stand on if they tried.

Nearly two years after the release of Goblet of Fire, with one Harry Potter film already on DVD and another set for release a few months down the road, fans were getting desperate for new canon. There had been thousands of posts on Yahoo! groups, on ship-specific forums and more general Harry Potter discussion boards, and at small meetups at movie theaters and during DVD releases. While those were awesome and fun, every one of us wanted something more from J. K. Rowling. And if we couldn’t get it, we would read something else.

I spoke with a reporter from the New York Times about how thousands of fans were passing the time before the release of Book Five (we didn’t know the title yet) by writing and reading fanfic, as well as participating in roleplaying projects in communities on LiveJournal. On May 5, 2002, the Times ran the front-page article that quoted me, linked to FictionAlley.org’s fanfiction/fanart/discussion archive, and reported that fans were writing fanfiction to pass the time before a new book from J. K. Rowling was released. The article mentioned slash fiction; it seems that it was the first time that the Times had ever reported on slash.

Some panicked, and even I was nervous. When I checked my email on Monday morning and saw an email from someone at Warner Bros. asking me to give her a call, I downed a Diet Coke for courage before picking up the phone.

She’d seen the article in the Times, and thought what we were doing on FictionAlley was very interesting! I took a deep breath, hoping this wasn’t going to be the “but you can’t continue . . .” call I’d feared since we’d started the website.

Instead, she asked, “Are you interested in becoming an affiliate of the WBShop? We’re about to relaunch the site!”

In other words, it was the complete antithesis of what I’d been expecting. Of course, the article wasn’t the first time WB, or Scholastic, or Bloomsbury had read about Harry Potter fandomers and their creative ways of sharing theories, debating ship viability, and proposing possible character arcs. But it was the first time that the Harry Potter Powers That Be had publicly reached out to a fansite in such a positive way—although it wouldn’t be the last.

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?

A few months later, Warner Bros. asked me (no, they never demanded or even suggested that they would kick us out of the store’s affiliate program) to recategorize all fanfic on FictionAlley that included gay characters as “Rated R.” I said we wouldn’t. I pointed them to our policy on ratings that didn’t rate kisses between Sirius Black and Remus Lupin any differently than kisses between Percy Weasley and Penelope Clearwater. (Years later, when J. K. Rowling said that she had always thought of Dumbledore as gay, it made me wonder whether she had ever even been aware of WB’s requests, and she reinvigorated my confidence in that 2002 decision.)

Warner Bros. weren’t the only ones who were concerned about slash fiction. There have been significant strides in LGBT rights since the early 2000s, but while slash fanfic, gay characters, and gay couples are common in Western media in 2013, ten years ago it wasn’t yet part of the mainstream within fandom, or on tv, in films, or even in books. The Harry Potter fandom was no different, as Nimbus–2003, the first Harry Potter fan convention, made clear. In July of 2003, over 600 fans from all around the world converged in Orlando, Florida, years before Universal even thought about placing the Wizarding World amid its palm trees.

To its attendees, the event was a smashing success; dozens of fans and academics presented on aspects of the series, Harry/Hermione and Ron/ Hermione shippers debated where the series was going, and the Welcoming Feast turned into a wake for Sirius Black, killed on page 806 of Order of the Phoenix, which had come out barely a month before. Judith Krug, Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, spoke about the growing problem of book banning, especially as parents demanded schools and libraries ban the Harry Potter series because it promoted witchcraft (it doesn’t).

But two vendors were not happy and clearly hadn’t attended Dr. Krug’s presentation. They complained to attendees and other vendors that we were hosting a smut-fest, griping about the panel that explained and discussed slash and the sentence uttered by one of the Ron/Hermione proponents to start her debate: “Harry Potter has two best friends— Hermione and Ron. Will he end up with one of them or will they end up with each other?”

In other words, the very idea of two characters in a book being gay offended them deeply; discussion of homosexuality was inherently wrong and should be banned. Just after lunch, we refunded their money and asked them to leave.

But they were outsiders to fandom. What about webmasters and academics and adult fans?

Some of them were anti-slash, too. When I started at The Leaky Cauldron in the spring of 2001, I tried to convince the site’s then-webmaster Rames to allow me to create a fanfic section for the site that would accept all Harry Potter fanfic regardless of ship or lead characters. He said that he didn’t want to host slash somewhere that kids could read it, even if the characters didn’t go beyond kissing. In the mid-2000s, MuggleNet took the same perspective: stories with same-gender relationships shouldn’t be easy to access and wouldn’t be hosted on MuggleNet’s fanfic site.

Fans who wrote slash fanfic were pilloried in articles in papers from Scotland to San Francisco, and Warner Bros. was concerned that kids doing internet searches for Harry Potter (in those pre-widespread-use-of- Google) days would find “problematic” material.

Fanficcers, fan artists, and those who enjoyed fanworks kept their names and their Potter interests hidden from friends and family. Many were worried that if people found out, they’d be called freaks— dangerous freaks—and anonymous trolls stirred the cauldron of concern when they could. Anons would show up a few times a month on forums and mailing lists to condemn mods for hosting fics with gay characters where kids could see them, even if the characters were barely kissing. In 2004, for example, an anonymous user wrote:

While I understand that the majority of the writers here at fictionalley may be adults, or at least well into their teens, some of the readers may not be. Even if you consider your fic to be PG, with just a bit of kissing or whatever, I think that any level of homosexuality from the main characters would be sufficantly [sic] traumatic for a child that one might want to consider rating all of those fictions R.

And ten years ago, this sentiment wasn’t uncommon. As one fan commented back in 2000, “And as to Ron/Harry shippers- let ’em ship. I know that JKR would never screw up a perfectly lovely series like HP because she wanted to make the main characters boyfriends. That would instantly make me set down the book and run screaming.”

In 2002 or 2004, it wasn’t unusual for a Concerned Netizen to post on a forum or email a site’s mods and warn that “making” the beloved Harry Potter characters gay was libelous, confusing, a slap at J. K. Rowling, and, worst of all, noncanonical.

But in 2004, J. K. Rowling gave her first website award to Immeritus, a Sirius Black–centric site that hosted fanfic and fanart as well as discussions and speculation . . . and in some of those fics and some of that art, Sirius was snogging or shagging Remus Lupin (or occasionally Snape or Lucius Malfoy). Rowling said, “For a while I had a picture of the four marauders drawn by Laura Freeman on my desktop. It is a particularly accurate portrayal of Sirius and Lupin . . .” There were discussions about what she meant by that, focusing on the characters that comprised one of the most popular ships. Was she okaying it? Was she granting permission to fanart in general, and same-gender, romance-centric fanart in particular?

Three years later, though, when she stated that she had always seen Albus Dumbledore as gay, everything changed, not only for slash readers, writers, and artists, but also for fandomers across the net.

Back on October 19, 2007, thousands of fans posted comments and essays about Dumbledore’s sexuality; many if not most comments criticized Jo for celebrating homosexuality, for making it all right to be gay, for “ruining the books” or this favorite character. “Now people are going to call HP fans gay . . . lol hope it doesn’t come to that!!”

By 2010, the world was different, and so was fandom. MuggleNet changed its website in support of Spirit Day, in memory of six young men who killed themselves after being bullied because they were gay. Hundreds of fans posted support for those gay teens, for the inspiration fans had gotten from the Harry Potter books, and their memories of how terrific it felt to hear that J. K. Rowling had always seen Dumbledore as gay.

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 midtwenties now, and those who were college students then have kids and nieces and nephews 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.


Want more writing on fanfiction? Order your copy of Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World.

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