Imagine Better: “Open at the Close”

As many readers will know, my Civicpaths team at USC is studying the Harry Potter Alliance as a key example of what we call “fan activism,” seeking to better understand how the group helps young people who are culturally engaged become more politically aware and active. A few weeks ago, Neta Kligler Vilenchik, a PhD student working on this project, attended Leakycon where the HPA’s Andrew Slack announced a new outgrowth of his efforts. Below is her report from the field.

Imagine Better: “Open at the Close”

by Neta Kligler Vilenchik

I open at the close.jpg

Fan art by ShadowKunoiciAsh

In Deathly Hallows, the last book of the Harry Potter series, the phrase “I open at the close” is inscribed onto a golden snitch, a key part of Dumbledore’s inheritance to Harry. Not knowing throughout the book how to open this mysterious object, Harry [spoiler alert!] finally realizes that it will open only when he is about to face his own death.

Given this quite sinister plot connection, it is perhaps surprising that “open at the close” came to be the unofficial theme of LeakyCon 2011, this year’s Harry Potter fan convention. At LeakyCon, the phrase held several meanings. “Open at the close” was the name of the event in which conference attendees could, for the second time, enter the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Island of Adventure for a special night-time celebration, when the park would open — only for the fans – as it closes for all other guests (see Henry’s accounts from last year’s “Night of a Thousand Wizards”).

But “open at the close” was also used in a wider sense. As both mainstream media and popular conversations wondered what will happen to the Harry Potter phenomena as the last of the movies was released, for the fans gathered in the conference halls this question carried deep personal meaning. As fans were breathlessly preparing towards their special fan screening of Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (6 hours before the official midnight release!), many talked about ‘the end of an era’. “I can’t believe there will be no more midnight screenings”, fans said to each other, mirroring – perhaps more palely–many of the sensations that have been voiced before, as the last of the books had come out.

If those fans from a few years back consoled themselves that they still had the movies to look forward to, the fandom now has latched onto Pottermore, J.K. Rowling’s new online project, as the new lifeline. As Henry has discussed a few weeks ago, Pottermore is not free of potential controversy, and yet at LeakyCon, it was embraced by fans as a source supplying more valuable canonic information around Harry Potter, and was hailed as the pathway for a new generation of fans to enter the series. The sequenced order in which the digital versions of the Harry Potter books will come out was already exciting fans as an opportunity to have more countdowns on fan websites, and fans were eagerly awaiting the possibility of being the first to join the new site.

The phrase “open at the close” thus served, at least metaphorically, for the fans to assure each other that this is not really the end of an era. Instead, it is the beginning of a new phase for Harry Potter fandom, one that will rely more heavily on fan production and fan creativity to keep the fire burning, and, in addition, one that excitedly looks forward towards Pottermore.

Yet “open at the close” was also used at LeakyCon in another context: as part of the press conference launching the new organization “Imagine Better”, which was described as “the future of the Harry Potter Alliance”. Regular readers of this blog will probably be familiar with the Harry Potter Alliance, a key case study for our USC-based research team Civic Paths, which explores continuities between participatory culture and young people’s engagement within civic life. The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) has played an important role in shaping our understanding of how such processes may function. Creating metaphors between the Harry Potter narratives and real-life issues, as well as tapping into the structures of Harry Potter fandom, the HPA has succeeded in reaching over 100,000 young people, encouraging them to channel their love of the text and their connection to other fans around them towards civic-minded action in the real world. More on our work about the HPA can be read here and here.

The HPA was also what had led me to LeakyCon–my first experience at a fan conference. For almost two years now, I have been following the HPA as part of our Civic Paths research, interviewing members about their experiences with the organization and attending their public events. LeakyCon, as a mecca for Harry Potter fans, garnered an impressive presence of HPA members as well–the organization boasted 37 volunteer members in brand new staff T-shirts, and an impressive repertoire of HPA programming, including hands-on sessions like “how to open an HPA chapter” and “all about the crisis climate horcrux”.

When examining the HPA as a civic organization, however, getting to know the Harry Potter fan community is a key component. The assertion that the organization’s success thrives on the energies of the fandom, which had been expressed in many interviews before, could not be clearer than at LeakyCon.

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There are good reasons to try to understand the “magic formula” behind the HPA. In addition to the organization’s tangible achievements (raising $123,000 for Haiti in two weeks, donating 87,000 books to local and international communities, collecting 15,000 signatures on a petition for fair trade chocolate, achieving first place at the Chase Community Giving Competition to receive a $250,000 grant), it has received national media coverage as well as academic interest. The idea behind the launch of the new organization “Imagine Better” is to take the approach that has proven successful for the HPA – connecting fans around story worlds they love to create real world change – and to apply that to collaborations with other fandoms.

This is a segment from the press release at LeakyCon, at which Andrew Slack, founder of the HPA, officially launches Imagine Better:

Strategically timed, the HPA chose the release date of Deathly Hallows 2 to launch Imagine Better. An activist in heart, as well as a man of symbols, Andrew Slack reminded audiences that July 14 is the date of Bastille Day, while the Imagine Better website was–also symbolically–launched on the 4th of July. From a more pragmatic point of view, the launch date secured some interest from mainstream and niche media outlets, who were looking for Harry Potter-related stories to cover around the movie release.

The idea behind Imagine Better, however, has been looming in the head of Andrew Slack for several years now. In fact, as Slack revealed at LeakyCon, this had been his original idea when he envisioned linking narratives with activism: “taking a bottom-up approach to love to stories and the art, and connecting it to the world”. In contrast to the strong links that the HPA has made so far to a specific canon, as well as their embeddedness within a specific fan community, Imagine Better seeks to tap into the shared ground of all kinds of fans, aggregating their respective energies towards shared social action.

Leading towards this new organization were almost 2 years of research conducted by young HPA members. The volunteer “fandom team” received the task of searching and cataloguing other fandoms online, as well as identifying potential contact points within these fandoms. This legwork has enabled Imagine Better to list over 20 fan communities in its list of collaborators, including fan communities around popular books, shows and movies, as well as you-tube celebrities and young adult authors.

This list, however, is still open-ended. At Leakycon, conference attendees had the chance to imagine Imagine Better together with its founders. In a break-out session devoted to the new organization, 35 LeakyCon attendees brainstormed possible fandoms they would want to collaborate with. In addition to the usual suspects, this brainstorming brought up surprising directions such as Sparklife, a community of regular users of Sparknotes. The group then focused on three fan communities: Glee, Hunger Games, and Doctor Who, and made a list of real-world issues that could be raised in conjunction with these texts. They then broke out into small groups, discussing potential campaigns the HPA could hold in conjunction with these other fan communities. The group discussing possible collaborations with ‘Gleeks’ (fans of Glee) thought of campaigns ranging from issues of LGBTQ rights and bullying to fighting ableism (discrimination towards persons with physical disability).

Collaboration with other fan communities is a natural step for many HPA members. In our conversations with members we often hear long lists of texts they are passionate about, starting with Harry Potter, but moving on to a variety of genres and media (recurrent favorites are Doctor Who, the Hunger Games, Star Trek and more. The relationship with Twilight is a bit more contested). Many HPA members also identify as ‘nerdfighters’ – followers of the vlogbrothers John and Hank Green.

In Textual Poachers, Henry builds on De Certeau’s notion of readers as nomads to describe fans as being similarly nomadic: “always in movement, ‘not here or there’, not constrained by permanent property ownership but rather constantly advancing upon another text, appropriating new materials”. Imagine Better seems to build on this idea of fan as nomads, whose passion may be directed towards any greatly told story, rather than towards a particular narrative. Moreover, it builds on the shared characteristics, and potentially shared identity, that fans (of different texts) may have with each other.

Slack expresses this when he announces at the press conference that Imagine Better is going “to start with the most popular piece of fiction in human history and to go beyond that because, who here loves stories beyond Harry Potter? We all do. And we’re going to continue to love Harry Potter and continue to love other stories and continue to love being engaged as heroes in the story of our world. This is our launch, as we open at the close.” Here, “open at the close” takes on added meaning. It may refer to the end of the canon, but it is also preparation towards a possible decline, or at least decrease, of Harry Potter fandom.

Yet at LeakyCon – the gathering of hardcore Harry Potter fans, let’s not forget – this statement receives a slightly reserved reaction. As fans are spending the whole convention assuring each other that the fandom is alive and kicking, not everyone seems ready to quickly shed off the ‘HP’ part of the HPA, and stick only with the ‘Alliance’. While Imagine Better is aiming to speak to the shared identity of “fans”, or to the fan as nomad, many in the room may align themselves more as “fans of [Harry Potter]” (see John Edward Campbell’s recent discussion of this notion).

For them, their mode of engagement may be seen not as a fixed identity, but rather a relationship towards a particular text. Part of this may stem from the fact that to many, Harry Potter is a first experience within fandom, that hasn’t necessarily (or perhaps, not yet) crossed into a more generalized fan identity.

It seems that the HPA is aware of this potential tension, as the launch of Imagine Better happens parallel to continuing action of the HPA, and not as a new organization replacing it, as was previously suggested to us in our conversations with staff members. An important part in this decision may have been fan perceptions climbing bottom-up: With most of its staff being volunteer members and with its vast variety of participatory forums, the HPA as an organization has extremely close contact with its member base. The general consensus within Harry Potter fandom that it is alive and kicking, thank you very much (strongly aided by the announcement of Pottermore), may have been a contributing factor to launch Imagine Better as an additional venture, rather than a replacement of the HPA.

As Slack reminded us at LeakyCon, few people – within the fandom and outside of it – had believed that the HPA would succeed as a civic organization. But it has. Imagine Better now takes on the next leap. Its attempt to apply a similar formula to other fan communities offers us a fascinating test case on the intersections between fandom and civic engagement. We are excitedly following it as it “opens at the close”.

Neta Kligler Vilenchik is a third year doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California.Neta graduated Summa Cum Laude from Tel Aviv University, studying communication and political science, and received her MA in communication, summa Cum Laude, from the University of Haifa in 2009. Neta’s research revolves around young people’s involvement in civic action through participatory culture practices, an interest she has been pursuing as part of the Civic Paths research team under the guidance of Prof. Henry Jenkins.

She is also part of an effort to develop a measure examining people’s active construction of communication ecologies in pursuit of different goals, within the Metamorphosis team under the guidance of Prof. Sandra Ball-Rokeach. Finally, Neta is fascinated by the relations between individual and collective memories as they relate to the media, as well as in memory’s role in shaping national identity. Her work takes an innovative approach to the study of collective memory, combining quantitative and qualitative methods to investigate the role of media memory in shaping collective memories.