Three Reasons Why Pottermore Matters…

Yesterday, J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame announced a bold new online venture called Pottermore which has sent shock waves through multiple communities which I follow closely and I’ve had more than a few people already ask me to weigh in on my initial thoughts about what’s taking place. Keep in mind that, as Will Rogers used to say, all I know is what I read in the newspaper. I have no knowledge of what’s taking place here other than what’s already in the press and what I can speculate about from my knowledge of the announcement’s fit within a range of trends impacting social media, transmedia entertainment, Web 2.0, and fan culture.

Here’s the video of Rowling’s announcement, which you should watch, if you haven’t already, so the rest of this makes sense.

Now, let’s consider what this announcement means from several perspectives.

Pottermore as Transmedia Storytelling: This may be the most highly visible transmedia project to date — after all, Harry Potter is as big a media franchise as we are likely to see anytime soon. I’ve blogged before about the paradoxical nature of Harry Potter fandom:

Harry Potter is a massive mass market success at a time when all of our conversations are focusing on the fragmentation of the media marketplace and the nichification of media production. There has been so much talk about the loss of common culture, about the ways that we are all moving towards specialized media, about the end of event based consumption, and so forth. Yet very little of it has reflected on the ways that Harry Potter has bucked all of these trends….But in many other ways, the success of Harry Potter demonstrates the power of niche media. Start from the fact that this is a children’s book, after all, and a fantasy, two genres which historically have attracted only niche readerships. Scholastic surely wouldn’t have predicted this level of popular interest when it chose to publish the original novel. By traditional industry talk, much of Harry Potter‘s success came from so-called “surplus consumers” — that is, consumers who fall outside of its target demographic. Traditionally, much of fan culture involves these kinds of surplus consumers — female fans of male-targeted action adventure series, adult consumers of children’s media, western consumers of Japanese popular culture, and so forth. Indeed, it is this attraction to works that are in some ways mismatched to our needs that encourages fans to rework and rewrite them.

Relatively little of the official Harry Potter media produced to date has been transmedia in the sense that I use the term — as an extension of the information we have available about the world rather than as a replication of the story from one medium to another. I’ve been suggesting lately that we might identify transmedia projects through the combination of two factors – radical intertextuality (that is, the complex interweaving of texts through the exchange of story-related information) and multimodality (that is, the mixing of different media and their affordances in the unfolding of the story). Pottermore works at both levels.

On the one hand, Rowling is making a commitment to provide fans with a large chunk of additional information about the world of Harry Potter, nuggets which, as she puts it, she’s been “hoarding” during the writing process. We might think of this as a more interactive version of the kinds of “further stories” or notes on the mythology that J.R.R. Tolkien’s estate has been slowly feeding Lord of the Rings fans in the decades since the author’s death. Some estimates suggest that she’s already got 100,000 words of new material which is going to be inserted into the interstices of the original novels — that’s more or less the length of a typical book (not as much as a Harry Potter book, but still) — and she’s hinted that there may be more where this comes from. During the Harry Potter lexicon case, it came out that she had been planning to publish her own encyclopedia which would expand our knowledge of her fictional universe. It is not clear whether this will supplement or replace that original conception.

By far, this is the aspect of the announcement which has caught fire with fans, especially those who have been worried that the intensity of the fandom will fade once the last film is released into the theaters. Trust me, there’s been lots of mashing of teeth about this. No one thinks that Harry Potter fandom will go away completely — we’ve seen many fandoms long outlast the production of new material — but there is apt to be less intensity and visibility once the final film hits the theater. For these fans, Pottermore is a game changer. Here, for example, is some of how HPANA, one online Harry Potter fansite, responded to the news:

“Does this announcement and the looming launch of Pottermore hold enough weight to keep together a fandom that is showing signs of deterioration? To me, Pottermore will act as an integral part of the fandom for the next few years. Yes, years. If Jo were to have announced a print encyclopedia, the immediate impact would have been greater. But because of the interactive nature of Pottermore, and the fact that each novel’s storyline will be released months apart (Sorcerer’s Stone in October, Chamber of Secrets in early 2012), the Pottermore storyline may not conclude for at least two years – extending active fandom discovery until the end of 2013 at the earliest….What does this mean? The Harry Potter fandom is on the verge of embarking on a new, monumental journey, something which has never occurred and probably will never happen again, as Rowling has been famously private about her writings in the past. Pottermore will be truly a one-of-a-kind experience where fans will have the opportunity to dictate what they want to see come out of it, both from Jo and fellow fans….I believe the whole fandom discovering brand new canon together is the most important aspect of Pottermore. The ingenious sorting, play-along aspects and digital store with the first ever Harry Potter e-books? That’s merely icing on an already delicious cake.”

Those are high hopes for the author to meet.

On the other, there is the promise of multimodality represented by what’s been described as interactive “moments” introduced around the books — including a sorting hat process and a wand shop — which allow fans new ways of interacting with the story. For literary critic Lev Grossman, who has been a key enthusiast for the books, this aspect of transmedia causes him to pause:

When publishers mix reading with other media, the way Pottermore does (or the way that The 39 Clues, another Scholastic creation, does), I find it confusing. Every time I see more of the Potterverse realized in other media, as video or audio or even still images, it undoes the work I did by reading about it. It takes away from the marvelous, handmade Potterverse I’ve got going on in my head and replaces it with something prefabricated.

Those of us who are more enthusiastic about transmedia see it differently: we see these materials as expanding our knowledge and deepening our experience of the story (at least in so far as they are done well and everything about Potter has been done well) by allowing each medium to do what it can do best. There’s been lots of talk about whether there has been a killer demonstration of the potential of transmedia — this may well become that killer demo, for better or for worse, and I for one am going to be watching closely to see what happens next.

Pottermore as eBook: The Wall Street Journal has read the Pottermore story through the lens of ebook publishing and the future of authorship, and it’s a pretty significant story from that perspective also. Here’s part of what they speculate:

While her publishers and major online book retailers will continue to sell her physical books, Ms. Rowling has reserved for herself the digital editions, the fastest-growing segment in the book world. The move could inspire other authors, large and small, to pronounce themselves independent agents in hopes of tapping more lucrative paydays. Ms. Rowling refused for years to release her books in electronic format, retaining the digital rights for herself. While most other authors have already handed over their digital rights to their publishers–most recently, John Grisham–Ms. Rowling’s deal could prompt them to self-publish when their deals come up for renewal or demand higher royalty rates than the 25% of net sales that most publishers offer today on digital editions. Some may even choose to forgo all traditional means of book publishing and set up their own bookstores, reaping 100% of everything they sell.

I am following the world of epublishing closely these days, thanks to my affiliation with the Annenberg Innovation Lab which is launching its own epublishing division. Few authors at this point can exert such power over their own publications and few have the ability to set new terms of professional compensation. Read through this lens, it may be a comparable to when George Lucas took a smaller salary on Star Wars in return to a percentage of the revenue from ancillary products, a decision which helped paved the way for Star Wars as a ur-text for transmedia storytellers and entertainers.

Rowling recognizes that it is not enough to offer a digital offset of the books via Kindle but that ebook publishing represents its own kind of event, which enables her to further expand the reader’s experience through new content and new ways of interacting with the material. Her continued involvement with the social network of her fans moves the ebook from a product to a process – not a one time thing, but something which can draw back people who have already read the seven books and watched the eight films to have a new set of relationships with the story. So, again, the announcement is big news.

Pottermore as fan relations: This is where things start to get a little more complicated. I’ve been mapping this fandom for years and there are many different kinds of Harry Potter fans who have different expectations and different relationship to the material. So, as critics such as Suzanne Scott and Julie Levine Russo have noted, transmedia practices tend to priviledge some kinds of fans over others, constructing model fans and thus seeking to set the terms of how fans relate to the material.

This has become increasingly true for Rowling, who has shown many signs that she wants to continue to shape and control how fans respond to her work well after she finished writing it. We can see this in the epilogue to the last novel, which seems to pointlessly map out futures for all of her characters, including shaping the “ships” (relationships) between them, in what amounts to spraying her territory. Many fans would have preferred a text which was more open ended on that level and allows them more freedom to speculate beyond the ending. She decided to “out” Dumbledore not through the books but via her own discourse around the books. She tried to shut down the Harry Potter Lexicon. So, it is abundantly clear that she likes some of her fans more than others and that any effort to facilitate fan interactions also represents an attempt to bring fandom more under her control.

Two key phrases stood out for me in the announcement: “digital generation” and “safe,” both of which require some glossing here. Harry Potter has attracted a very strong adult readership, many of whom would not conventionally fall into the digital generation. Even among those who come from the digital generation, many of those who grew up reading the books, are now young adults, even in some cases, parents on their own. And then, there are the children readers who were the targeted audience for the books. The most active fans, as noted above, are often a “surplus audience,” and may well not be children. This doesn’t matter when the book can be purchased at a range of different locations, read in a variety of contexts, but if you try to bring that readership together online, then the tensions are apt to become more of an issue.

That’s where the term, “safe,” is a red flag. In this case, it can mean two things — first, a space where you can read the stories without encountering any of that dratted “pornography” that some (many actually) of the adult fans have been producing. I remember talking to Warner executives when I was working on Convergence Culture who kept saying they wanted to distinguish between the “fans” and the “pornographers,” and I couldn’t bear to tell them that most of the erotica is produced by the fans and is part of what it means to them to be a fan. So, “safe” in those terms means censored, regulated, or policed. So, the promise is that “You,” “Us,” will help shape the future of the franchise but only in terms specified by Rowling and by the companies involved in overseeing this site.

Here enters a second potential meaning of the word, “safe,” which is that the site will comply with the Children Online Privacy Protection Act (or its British equivalent) which sets restrictions on the exchange of personal information, especially by minors. (For a useful discussion of how the desire to protect children may also restrict their ability to meaingfully participate, check out this recent post by Anne Collier.) So, does this mean that Pottermore will become the literary equivalent of Club Penguin, social media without the potential for off-line social interactions, and how does this fit within the larger framework of social relations upon which Harry Potter fandom, like all other fandoms, depends.

Moving beyond the word, “safe,” there’s the potential that this follows the logic of Web 2.0 more generally which seeks to capture and commodify participatory culture. There are multiple concerns here, which I need to know more to be able to address. While the language of the video hints at a more open-ended structure of participation, wherein fans share their thoughts, speculations, and creative works with each other, the only features specifically described constitute preprogramed interactivity — such as the Sorting Hat — which sets the terms of our engagement with the storyworld. I might note that Harry Potter fandom has been among the most innovative in helping fans make the transition to the era of social networks — having developed their own platforms and practices since the book was first published — including several very sophisticated versions of the Sorting Hat. Which house you identify is deeply personal to Harry Potter fans. I strongly identify with my affiliation with Ravenclaw, so why should I cede to Rowling and Sony the right to decide which house is mine! So, in this case, Rowling is offering fans what they already have on their own terms and using the release of information as a bribe to pull them into her walled garden. (Keep in mind that the information is going to get spoiled and leaked the moment it is posted.)

If, on the other hand, she does allow for more creative and participatory engagement of the material on the site, that opens other questions already hotly debated along the borders between Web 2.0 and Participatory Culture. Abigail DeKosnik, for example, has described the bargain fans often are forced to make — ceding all rights to their own intellectual property in return for the promise, easily revoked, of corporations not suing them for their efforts. Others have described this in terms of issues of fan or free labor — people are doing creative work for free which benefits corporations without getting any revenue in return. Lawrence Lessig has gone so far as to describe this as a modern form of “sharecropping.” This is a complicated issue and we have a lot to say about it in my forthcoming Spreadable Media book.

I am not prejudging the terms that Rowling and Sony are offering here. I am just saying that the platform as described raises these questions and we need more information before we can really weigh whether Rowling is treating her fans fairly here. She’s been surprisingly supportive of fan culture in the past, but on a selective basis, which does not give us much guarantee on how this one is going to shape out. The devil is going to be in the details here and those are going to be rolled out over the next few months.

Could Rowling’s “gift” to her fans turn out to be a Trojan Horse? Hell yes, but it may also open the door for some other creative opportunities along the lines discussed in the earlier sections of this post.

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