Nerdfighteria and the Harry Potter Alliance: Fandom as Collaborative Community

Introduction

This project grew out of an examination of a 2011 paper by Jen Gunnels and Carrie J. Cole which systematically viewed fan production as ethnographic fragments. Their proposal is that a fan is not just an ethnographic subject, but an ethnographer/ethnodramaturg in their own right. They “use the term ethnodramaturg to describe how the fan works within a fictive universe to study and create dramatic story lines [sic] based within that world” (Gunnels and Cole, 0.1). In other words, an ethnodramaturg is someone who creates dramatic storylines using ethnographic fragments.

 Their paper has led me to in this paper critically view how Nerdfighters and Harry Potter fans are similar and how they differ as ethnographers/ethnodramaturgs and ethnographic subjects. Since the Harry Potter fandom is vast and multifaceted, I am focusing primarily on representations of the fandom as seen through the lens of the Harry Potter Alliance, a national nonprofit that grew around the series. My argument is that Nerdfighteria and the Harry Potter Alliance exist on all of the planes of ethnodramaturgy at the same time: they’re communities with a culture, the people in those communities conform to that culture, and they engage in both shaping and critiquing said culture.

Both communities conform to and stretch the ethnodramaturgical framework in similar but slightly different ways, and so the structure of this paper is to first contextualize both communities by establishing their premise, before moving forward to how each fit within the framework and comparing the ways that they each interact with it. Finally I conclude with some thoughts on what we can learn from each community about the benefits of fan production as transcreation and how collaboration can create an engaged community that transcends the original material and becomes an enterprise in its own right, both feeding back into the original material and becoming its own entity that changes its social sphere both on and offline. I use the umbrella term ‘transcreation’ to define the various processes of transforming a creative work from its original format, primarily in the form of fan works such as fan fiction, fan art, and other adaptations.

In this examination of these two fan communities I also call attention to the question of whether fandom or authorial intent and interaction is more important to the work, in particular through Nerdfighteria’s status as either a top-down or bottom-up community due to contributions by John and Hank Green, as opposed to the more autonomous Harry Potter Alliance which is a large part of the Harry Potter community that acts with distinction and separate from J.K. Rowling.

Nerdfighteria

On January 1st 2007, John and Hank Green stopped all textual communication with one another and started the Brotherhood 2.0 Project where they made short videos back and forth every day of that year, making them public on the vlogbrothers YouTube channel, and therefore accessible to a worldwide audience. While the original project ended on December 31st 2007, as of November 2018, the channel has over 3.1 million subscribers and John and Hank Green each make one video per week for the channel, with the topic for each video being whatever they choose, though it often relates to personal and/or current events. The community that has grown up around the Green brothers calls itself “Nerdfighteria” and those within it call themselves “Nerdfighters” in reference to a video John Green made in early 2007.

On July 18th, 2007 Hank Green released a video of him singing “Accio Deathly Hallows” in honor of the soon-to-be-released final Harry Potter book. This video was the first of theirs to reach the front page of YouTube, which did much to add to their following. As of November 2018, the video has had over 1.9 million views. Since the release of “Accio Deathly Hallows” Hank Green has produced additional Harry Potter related songs, including “This isn’t Hogwarts” (a critique on the American public school system), and “This is not Harry Potter” (a passionate ditty about the fact that no other young adult series has lived up to the legacy of the Harry Potter saga).

December 2007 was the first year of the Project for Awesome (P4A), a movement in which individuals create innovative videos on YouTube promoting their favorite charity with the aim that their promoted charity gains more awareness, and donations from audiences. P4A was originally created as a way to take advantage of YouTube algorithms in a hack to promote charities, but has since evolved and been refined in the ten years since its inception. According to the P4A website, “In 2017, the community raised over $2,000,000, including several generous matching donations. The donations were split between two organizations chosen by John and Hank Green, along with twenty-five charities chosen by the online video community.” (Project for Awesome). One of the nonprofits that has consistently gotten enough votes to qualify for a grant is the Harry Potter Alliance (more on this subject below).

The Green brothers have expanded into many other projects on and off YouTube, the best-known of which are the Crash Course and SciShow educational series. These two web series were started via grants from Google, and when the grant money ran out the brothers expanded further by creating the completely optional crowdfunding platform Subbable, which was eventually acquired by Patreon, with the Green brothers agreeing to be advisors for the Patreon platform. (Pham) Furthermore, as the Green brothers’ funding resources have increased they in turn have made an effort to provide modest sponsorship of different clubs, teams, and groups that have reached out to them in support.

While Nerdfighteria as a whole continues to develop, the brothers still consistently post on the original vlogbrothers channel, with the over 1,000 videos on the vlogbrothers channel remaining the closest thing to a core ‘text’ of the Nerdfighter community. What the community consists of, however, is much more than those videos. Every Nerdfighter is involved with the content produced by the Green brothers at different levels. With so many forms of production; however, it would be impossible for everyone to keep up with them all.

While the majority of the Nerdfighter community is online, there are a number of different mediums through which Nerdfighters and members of the online Harry Potter community alike have come together offline. Fan conventions and conferences are excellent opportunities for online communities to solidify their connections offline in addition to the relationships that they create with one another online. Over the years a number of conventions have popped up surrounding the Harry Potter and Nerdfighter communities, and often a large overlap can be found at both. Both Hank and John Green have been attendees and guests during different years at LeakyCon, one of the largest consistent Harry Potter conventions. In addition to the convention NerdCon: Nerdfighteria, Hank Green is also responsible for the creation of VidCon, a convention for people who are invested in the YouTube platform from the creator and/or fan side. Since its creation in 2009, VidCon has expanded from being a US based convention to also including conventions in London, England and Sydney, Australia, and in 2018 was acquired by Viacom.

Other ways that people from online communities have gathered together offline include meetups based on locational Facebook groups, or through the website meetup.com, where Nerdfighters from different locations have come together to form their own local Nerdfighter communities, and additionally some colleges have Nerdfighter clubs.

Another big way that John and Hank Green have brought Nerdfighters together has been to go on tour. Hank Green has been on multiple concert tours as a musician, particularly with his band Hank Green and the Perfect Strangers. Both brothers have also gone on book tours, occasionally appearing as guests at each other’s tours. While some people who attend the tour may be doing so for the book only, it tends to be the case that attendees of events are also Nerdfighters, and thus the presentations, while focused on the book, also cater to the Nerdfighter audience. Often there is considerable fan engagement between the Green brothers and attendees of events, including a great deal of audience participation.

Given that both brothers are authors, one might assume that their books might act as a sort of core text for Nerdfighteria, but that is not necessarily the case. While the brothers do promote their books on the vlogbrothers channel, the books are not mandatory reading for participating in the community, although reading them does help to understand certain inside jokes and references.

Gunnels and Cole discuss fan works primarily in terms of production that is detached from the original source. However, the Nerdfighter community is distinct from many other fandom communities in that while the Green brothers undoubtedly have influence and may be seen as directors of where the community should go, it is the collective of Nerdfighteria that ultimately makes the decision of whether or not to accept their direction. In her paper regarding Nerdfighters, Paper Towns (John Green’s third novel), and Foucault’s theory of heterotopia, Lili Wilkinson brings up the subject of the structure of the Nerdfighter community in comparison to that of the Harry Potter Alliance:

Unlike the Harry Potter Alliance, the Nerdfighters don’t form a bottom-up community—it’s created and curated by the Green brothers, and is largely driven by their values and interests. A fan community headed by the subject of fandom is rare, and implies a fundamental conflict between Green’s utopian, collaborative vision for the Nerdfighters, and the actual realities of the community. This conflict is worth exploring, as it also reflects a contradiction within literature for young people—namely, in writing for and about children, we are positioning them as other, and by attempting to teach them to be like us, we imply that they are currently less than human.

(Wilkinson, 1.8)

            I wholeheartedly disagree with Wilkinson’s description of Nerdfighteria as a primarily top-down community, because while it remains true that the Green brothers have influence over Nerdfighteria and their fan community, it is not the case that they have created all aspects of it or that their values and interests are what most drive the community. Both brothers have done well for themselves and have accomplished a great deal since the creation of the vlogbrothers channel; however, they could not have done so without the contributions and support of those who enjoy the content they create and put forth.

To illustrate this point, let us look at a few examples through the lens of Gunnels and Cole. In their analysis they explain that fans are simultaneously consumers/observers and producers of culture, and in this light, fandom can be seen as a sort of ethnographic fieldwork, as fans familiarize themselves with their source material via participation. In the case of Nerdfighteria, the fans themselves are a large part of the source material, since the project that began as a day to day vlog conversation between two brothers expanded to include the Nerdfighter community. Every year the brothers put out a Nerdfighteria census to survey the community and from that extract what the collective of Nerdfighteria wants to see more or less of in terms of future content. In this way the Nerdfighters are much more than fans, in that they are community members.

Gunnels and Cole are focused on a view of the ethnodramaturg as a participant in the fandoms of fictional universes, which does not precisely align with Nerdfighteria, as Nerdfighteria is not centered around a fictional universe. Nevertheless, their framework can still be applied to those within the Nerdfighter community. The clearest example is in the form of Pizza John.

Pizza John is one of the most recognizable symbols of Nerdfighteria. The original and most iconic Pizza John image is a white on red contrast picture of a mustached John Green with the word PIZZA in all caps underneath his face. The image was originally created in 2011 by a Nerdfighter named Valerie Barr, who at the time was a regular Nerdfighter and later became an official employee for the Green brothers. John in particular liked the design, and so they decided to start selling it as a shirt, and the Pizza John grew in popularity, enough so that they started a yearly event called Pizzamas. In 2014 Hank Green made a video on the vlogbrothers channel where he recounted the history of Pizza John and attempted to explain the phenomenon and the evolution to that point:

But this Pizza John face is so like weird and recognizable and bold and somehow fitting into the nerd aesthetic in a way that you don’t really understand. And also requiring just a little bit of bravery to even wear in public that it became kind of like a Nerdfighter badge. Pizza John shows up in a lot of places, and it’s pretty cool to see him showing up in a lot of places. Why Pizza John? How did it happen? I don’t know. Things like this happen and we want to explain them, but we can’t. And really, if we could It would be less special. So, what is Pizza John? Why is Pizza John? I don’t know. I don’t…I don’t know.

In any case, a few years ago, we decided that Pizza John is popular enough that we’d make some new Pizza Johns that would be limited edition designs of Pizza John. We called it Pizzamas, and that was that. There were no extra videos. Then last year we did it again, except instead of with different designs, we did it with different products. Now we’re doing it again with both different designs and different products. And also, extra Vlogbrothers videos. We just want more; we just want to experience it a little more deeply. And also remember that it’s been a long time. And that things have changed a lot, but not the important things. This is a video project between two brothers talking to each other, even though their lives now are a lot weirder than they used to be. And it’s a community of people who have some shared values. Valuing equality, and the knowledge that the world is complicated and it deserves to be understood complexly. Sometimes people ask me how long I’m going to be doing this for, like what’s your five-year plan? Where you going from here? Kind of thing. And I’m like ‘Are…are you kidding? I will be doing this forever!’ That’s the plan. 81-year-old Hank. Toothless, mumbling about Pizzamas 2061. I’ll see you then.

(“The History of Pizza John!”)

            This excerpt epitomizes one of the key facets of Nerdfighteria, which is that Hank and John Green’s many creative projects are motivated by not only their connection and relationship with one another and the continuous conversation between them, but also by the support and participation of the Nerdfighter community. The shared values of those within Nerdfighteria are what drive Nerdfighters, but also are what drive Hank and John Green. When Hank Green says that he will be “doing this forever” it is a promise to Nerdfighters that he will stay engaged with the community, and that he values the community.

As of 2018, Pizzamas is still an active and exciting part of the Nerdfighteria calendar, quite literally as one of 2018’s products was a 2019 calendar that was filled with Pizza John inspired art submitted by Nerdfighters from all backgrounds. This reinforces the idea that the fan Nerdfighters should be considered as more than ethnographic subjects but as active participants in shaping Nerdfighteria.

Ultimately, both the use of the Nerdfighter census as a guide for future and current content and the development of new facets of the community grown organically from Nerdfighteria that are subsequently adopted by the brothers prove that, more than being simply a top-down or a bottom-up community, Nerdfighteria is a collaborative community that exists on a spectrum of give and take between both the viewers and the Green brothers, who all together can be considered Nerdfighters.

The Harry Potter Alliance

The Harry Potter Alliance is a global non-profit that promotes social activism through the themes of Harry Potter and other fandoms. There are over 225 local chapters around the world working on campaigns regarding issues such as immigration, economic inequality, and LGBTQ rights. Some of its core values are that through unironic enthusiasm, love, and community engagement (online and off), positive change can be made in the world. The Harry Potter Alliance provides a space for its members to be both creative and mindful, to engage with what they love deeply but also critically, and to expand that into the “real” world. In other words, the Harry Potter Alliance is a neat example of how this subset of Harry Potter fans conform, communicate, critique, and shape how Harry Potter exists as a cultural icon in the world.

The Harry Potter Alliance was formed in 2005, before the creation of the Brotherhood 2.0 project, but nevertheless the close involvement of both within the Harry Potter fan community quickly brought them together as the overlap between Nerdfighters and supporters of the Harry Potter Alliance grew. This overlap was cultivated by the frequent mention of the Harry Potter Alliance in vlogbrothers videos, such as in a July 2010 video where John Green encouraged viewers to vote for the Harry Potter Alliance to win a grant from Chase community giving (“With Esther”), which the organization did in fact receive upon a surge in votes after John Green made the video.

The Nerdfighter and Harry Potter communities facilitate each other in a number of ways, such as the Project for Awesome grants mentioned above, and additionally in the case of the yearly fundraiser made by the Harry Potter Alliance, for which John and Hank Green often donate perks to be distributed to people who contribute to the fundraiser at different levels. For example, in 2012 Hank Green released a limited run of a musical album containing solely his Harry Potter related songs as a perk. While that campaign is over, the album can now be purchased from the DFTBA Records website, which is an online merchandise marketplace created and maintained by Hank Green and which hosts the majority of Harry Potter Alliance merchandise that is sold on the internet.

The Harry Potter Alliance draws on many fandoms for inspiration for its campaigns, but its core values rely very much upon those of the Harry Potter series. The core of the Harry Potter series is the power of love, emotion, and human connection above that of oppression and tyranny. One of the core values of the Harry Potter Alliance is that “the weapon we have is love” (“What We Do”). This motto is taken from a line in the song “The Weapon” by Harry and the Potters, which reflects the ending of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The song is in reference to a prophecy that Dumbledore reveals to Harry at the end of the book:

The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches … born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies … and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not … and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives … the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies …

(Rowling 2003, 841)

According to Dumbledore’s interpretation of the prophecy, he believes that the power Harry has against Voldemort, the Dark Lord whose reign of terror temporarily stopped when he failed to kill Harry, is the power of his heart, as evidenced by how the depth of Harry’s love for his godfather Sirius, and the pain Harry experienced because of that powerful emotion at Sirius’s death, are what enabled Harry to escape from being possessed by Voldemort.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth book in the series, is a major influence on the activism with which Harry Potter fans tend to involve themselves. The text thrives on the conflicts caused by the various injustices that Harry faces throughout the novel, which starts with Harry’s isolation at the home of the Dursleys, where he has been cut off from his friends and is tormented nightly by dreams of the murder of his fellow Hogwarts student Cedric Diggory, who died the same night that Voldemort was resurrected. Harry’s anger and fury at being lied to and kept out of the loop with regard to what the Order of the Phoenix is doing to combat Voldemort’s return is compounded when he is confronted with the fact that the Ministry of Magic is denying that Voldemort has returned at all. Furthermore, the Minister has installed his senior undersecretary, Dolores Umbridge, as the Professor for Defense Against the Dark Arts, which according to Hermione means that “the Ministry’s interfering at Hogwarts,” (Rowling 2003, 214).

Harry is battered at from all sides in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and as a result the text takes a very anti-authoritarian stance, and the young characters, upset with their Professor Umbridge’s teaching style, eventually band together to teach themselves since the Ministry is refusing to educate them and protect them, uniting against both the Ministry and Voldemort and calling themselves “Dumbledore’s Army.” The students are of the opinion that if no one else is going to step up and protect them, they have to learn to defend and protect themselves and their loved ones.

The Harry Potter Alliance embodies these characters by declaring itself a real-world Dumbledore’s Army, and in 2018 is running a continuous campaign called “Dumbledore’s Army Fights Back.” The campaign focuses on the character of Neville Longbottom and is an expansion on the original campaign which was “Neville Fights Back.” On their page describing why they chose Neville as someone to shape their campaign around, the Harry Potter Alliance website explains that “When we first met Neville, he was insecure, inexperienced, & scared of school bullies. By the book 7, Neville fearlessly leads the resistance at Hogwarts & faces Voldemort head-on.” (“Dumbledore’s Army Fights Back”). Neville is an incredibly important character in the Harry Potter series not only because he undergoes this incredible amount of growth, but also because he is the alternate child of prophecy; until Voldemort attacked the Potter family, the prophecy was ambiguous and could have referred either to Harry or to Neville. In fighting back against Voldemort’s regime as he does, Neville shows that even though the prophecy wasn’t about him, he still has the power to make great change, thus proving that destiny doesn’t define what people are capable of.

Neville is the ideal character to epitomize the campaign and is also a pivotal character to consider when examining the political influence of Harry Potter holistically. While Harry himself undergoes many emotional changes throughout the series, it is Neville who has the most dramatic and meaningful character growth throughout the Harry Potter saga. Harry, as the subject of the prophecy, is supernaturally marked as extraordinary, and thus his growth is set apart. Neville was passed up by the forces of prophecy and is more of an ordinary child, and thus shows readers, and kids who grow up reading Harry Potter in particular, that one does not have to be ‘the Chosen One’ to make a meaningful impact on the world.

An entire generation grew up as the Harry Potter books were released, and thus those books were hugely influential upon that generation. Anthony Gierzynski and Kathryn Eddy compiled several years of peer-reviewed research into Harry Potter and the Millennials: Research Methods and the Politics of the Muggle Generation, in which they engaged with the text and with those from the Millennial generation to examine how Harry Potter has influenced that generation politically and what the consequences of that influence may be. Their reason for focusing on a single generation, the Millennial generation, is simple, yet purposeful and sensible:

While the stories in our entertainment media can affect generation after generation, some stories, because of their timing, have their largest effect on a single generation. The Harry Potter story, which exploded onto the cultural scene just when the Millennial Generation was gaining awareness of the political world, is one such phenomenon. While the story of Harry Potter may continue to affect subsequent generations, its biggest impact will likely have been on the generation that experienced the series while growing up during the ten plus years the series literally dominated the culture.

(Gierzynski and Eddy, 4-5)

            Anything that influences the Millennial generation politically is incredibly important, especially since, according to the Pew Research Center’s analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, Millennials became the largest generation in the U.S. workforce in 2016 (Fry, April 2018) and are said to surpass Baby Boomers as the largest living adult generation in 2019 (Fry, March 2018). As the Millennial generation grows more prominent, their influences become that much more important to examine, and more than simply a story. Harry Potter informed the Millennial generation politically as “the books offered a primer to an unformed generation on how to push back against the dominant culture and what it looks like to take a principled stand against tyranny” (Willison). The Harry Potter Alliance has taken that primer and used it to form actual social change.

One of the largest campaigns completed by the Harry Potter Alliance was “Not in Harry’s Name” which was a campaign for Warner Bros to make sure that all chocolate produced for Harry Potter products was ethically sourced, amidst reports that the chocolate being produced was coming from child slavery. This was confirmed as a victory for the Harry Potter Alliance in late December 2014 when “the Harry Potter Alliance was notified that Warner Bros. would make all Harry Potter-branded chocolate Fair Trade or Utz certified,” (“Not in Harry’s Name”) and is a prime example of how fans and fan activism have changed how the Harry Potter texts are manifested in the “real” world. 

Given the amount of knowledge and experience that John Green has with both the Nerdfighter and Harry Potter fandoms, it is useful to consider his opinion about the substance of fandom as he reflects in a video regarding ten years of Nerdfighters and particularly the experience of NerdCon: Nerdfighteria:

Ultimately, fandoms are made interesting not by the content, but by the people who choose to build communities around the content. Like Harry Potter is an excellent book series, but what makes it special is finally not JK Rowling, but readers, choosing to respond deeply and enthusiastically and without embarrassment or apology by dressing up or writing and reading fan fiction or singing that the weapon we have is love.

(“You are here” 1:33-1:55)

            The implication here is that J.K. Rowling, as the creator of the original content, is not the one in control of the fandom, but in fact the community that was built around that content is what makes up the substance of the fandom. This is not a killing off of Rowling or a complete disavowal of her influence, but rather the articulation of the idea that what has sprung out of Harry Potter is beyond what she alone could have been capable of, and while her works are the inspiration, she is not the one who ultimately decides in what direction her works will take the people who have internalized them into their own ways of being in the world. This plays further into the idea of the fan as a consumer and a producer of culture.

The unique structure of the Harry Potter Alliance as enabled by their strong online presence is noted in scholar Henry Jenkins’s description of the organization, and he explains that this structure allows them to reach out in ways that other activist organizations might not be able to:

The HPA’s regular online exchanges become places to negotiate the group’s sometimes competing priorities. Unlike most activist groups and charities, the HPA is not defined around a single mission: rather, it embraces a flexible framework inspired by Rowling’s content world, enabling it to respond quickly to any crisis or opportunity and to its dispersed members. This mixture of strong leadership, dispersed membership, social networks, and flexible structures informs many contemporary forms of activism, ranging from the US Tea Party movement to youth uprisings in the Arab world. The Harry Potter Alliance demonstrates how the pop culture worlds central to fandom offer particularly rich resources for supporting collective action and reaching young people who have not yet embraced political identities.

(Jenkins, 3.4)

The ability of the Harry Potter Alliance to connect with so many issues is not simply because of its flexibility as an online entity, however, but also because of the applicability of the Harry Potter canon to many real-world social justice and inequality issues.

            A major discussion point in Jenkins’s essay is the idea of “cultural acupuncture”, proposed in a TEDx talk given by Harry Potter Alliance founder Andrew Slack in 2011 (“The strength of a story: Andrew Slack at TEDxTransmedia2011”). In the talk, Slack explains this term as an extended metaphor for how fantasy is not an escape from the world, but an invitation to go deeper into it:

We dream at night, all of us, but our culture dreams through our books, through our movies, and through our stories. And when we work with our stories, we are doing cultural dream work. And when we work with those stories that we’ve put a lot of energy into, we are doing cultural acupuncture, and like an acupuncturist uses needles to make the energy flow more healthfully in the body, in short, cultural acupuncture is identifying where the energy is in our culture and then taking that energy and redirecting it to create a healthier body for our world. And stories are our needles. Stories are what resonate. Stories are what can renew our soul as individuals and as a planet.

(“The strength of a story: Andrew Slack at TEDxTransmedia2011”)

In his discussion of the Harry Potter Alliance’s cultural acupuncture Jenkins says that the Harry Potter Alliance “embraces a politics of ‘cultural acupuncture,’ mapping fictional content worlds onto real-world concerns. […] What Slack calls cultural acupuncture is a means of deploying elements of the content world (and their accumulated meanings) as metaphors for making sense of contemporary issues.” (Jenkins, 1.9) From this one can understand that what the Harry Potter Alliance does is to take ownership over Harry’s narrative and transform it into something that speaks to their own life and experience as well as the human condition, performing what Gunnels and Cole call the best kind of ethnography. (Gunnels and Cole 34)

In the previously mentioned example of the “Not in Harry’s Name” campaign, although the campaign was endorsed by J.K. Rowling, it was the fans who decided that they would not tolerate the chocolate produced in Harry’s name coming from child slavery, and thus it was the fans who took ownership of Harry’s story and created a structure that they would fight for in response to the actions of Warner Bros in what they considered the spirit of Harry Potter to be. In this way, one can see that even though the copyright for Harry Potter belongs to J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros, the spirit of Harry Potter belongs to the fan community.

The Overlap: Nerdfighters as Harry Potter Fans

            As we have seen in small moments throughout this paper, there is a great deal of overlap between both the goals of and the participants within the Harry Potter and Nerdfighter communities, particularly as it pertains to the connection between Nerdfighteria and the Harry Potter Alliance.

As a further, concrete, example, one of the perk incentives for the Harry Potter Alliance’s Equality FTW campaign in 2013 was a Harry Potter fan fiction written by Hank Green titled The Womb of Requirement, which donors received as both a PDF and as an audio file, dually narrated by Hank Green and Evanna Lynch, who played the character Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter films. This example shows how Nerdfighters and the Harry Potter Alliance participate in the fictional universe to create real world change in two ways. Firstly, since the fan fiction can only be read/ listened to by those who donate to the campaign at a certain level, they raise money for the Harry Potter Alliance’s charitable productions.

 Secondly, by participating in creating the fan work, Hank Green is engaging in the tradition of fan fiction and transforming the Harry Potter universe into something that speaks to the life experience and human condition in the “real” world (in this case, the frequency of teen pregnancy) and showcasing how the situation could have developed in the Harry Potter universe. The performative nature of this fan work in particular also lies in the fact that there is an audio version that is voiced by an actor from the official Harry Potter films. Even though the fan work is a fan work and not recognized by the institutions that own any sort of copyright, her presence legitimizes the enterprise.

When considering the performative nature of this fan work we can turn again to Gunnels and Cole, who assert that

Examining fan activity as performative, as a doing, and expanding upon this performance in a particular fashion, doing/performing as an ethnographer, gives a different understanding of the fan in relation not just to text, but to an ethnographic discourse created via ethnographic fragments (fan productions). Viewed in this way, the fan’s relation to the core text is a means and not an end. The focus can be placed on the fragments created from the text, leveling the barriers between these fan-created genres and shifting focus to gain a different perspective on fans.

(Gunnels and Cole 33)

Thus, by examining this performance in particular one can glean that Harry Potter fans and Nerdfighters who seek out this particular fan work are interested in one or all of three things: 1. a Harry Potter fan fiction that deals with the subject of teen pregnancy, 2. content produced by Hank Green, 3. supporting the Harry Potter Alliance. In all cases, the fan is engaging with the fan work on a different but still interconnected level and both the fan work and its consumption are thus a means toward not only engaging with the original text but also its manifestation in the “real” world.

Organic Processes of Fandom and when Transcreation Becomes Canon: Black Hermione

            The Womb of Requirement and its use as a prompt for charity is but one small example of how fan engagement can create change in the lives of its creators and consumers. Fan collaboration on this level and higher can be found in all corners of the internet, and while the transcreation of Harry Potter works is prevalent, it is not by any means the only powerful fandom out there.  Furthermore, there are always people in the world who seek to use fandom to further their own goals, often not realizing what an organic process fandom is.

In his speech-turned-blog-post Fan is A Tool-Using Animal, web developer Maciej Cegłowski recounts an extremely collaborative experience he had in the process of improving tags for a social bookmarking site that was widely used by writers and readers of fan fiction. He concluded his discussion with “actionable business information about fandom” (Cegłowski) as well as some observations about fan communities. The most salient of these to this discussion is that fans improve our culture, and that “Fandom teaches us that communities are not about consumption, and they’re not something you can engineer.” (Cegłowski). Fandom is something that develops organically, when a collective of individuals come together because they have similar, productive thoughts about a piece of media, in whatever form that may take. The internet has only increased fandom’s ability to come together and develop itself and enables connections that can manifest themselves outside the internet and have real-world consequences.

Both the Harry Potter Alliance and Nerdfighteria are able to harness this organic process of fandom because they prioritize the needs of their community and keep their finger to the pulse of what matters to those within the community. They thus prioritize making and advocating for what the community members want rather than what is productive from a purely corporate perspective. In this way both communities are bottom-up communities, for all that they do have leaders and oversight.

These communities have exercised a sort of collective authorship over the works they have adapted in a multitude of ways, for example via the transcreation of Harry Potter into fan works such as fan fiction and fan art, in particular the introduction of ‘Black Hermione’.

The character of Hermione Granger is iconic in the Harry Potter series as one of Harry’s best friends and greatest allies. Countless people have looked to Hermione for inspiration, and within the Harry Potter Alliance she inspired the Granger Leadership Academy, an annual fan-activism based social justice conference started by the Harry Potter Alliance in 2015 that helps attendees develop the skills they need to be change-makers in their communities. The goal of the retreat is to “inspire you to examine your own personal goals and growth, conquer fears, and build confidence; it will challenge you to think deeper about the world around you, your beliefs, and your assumptions; and it will ask you to go out and fight injustice all around the world as part of a global network of Academy alumni.” (Granger Leadership Academy). Suffice to say that, within the Harry Potter community, Hermione Granger is a big deal.

The root cause of conflict in the Harry Potter series is that it serves as a wizarding metaphor for racism, in which “pureblood” wizards who come from all-magical backgrounds are socially positioned as superior to those with any muggle (non-wizard) blood such as half-bloods, and particularly muggleborns, who are witches and wizards with muggle parents. There is even a racial epithet associated with muggleborns – “mudblood”. As the most prominent muggleborn in the series, Hermione was the poster child of the prejudice against muggleborns throughout Harry Potter, and

the metaphor for racism extended to just about every part of Hermione throughout the series — the unfair prejudice she faced, the privileges she was shut out of, the problematic need to have to “prove herself worthy” that manifests in different ways throughout the books — except for the fact that not once in canon was Hermione ever outright depicted as black.

(Lord)

Given that these parallels were so strong, when online fan communities started to collaboratively discuss the lack of diversity in the Harry Potter series, it was natural for them to start seeing Hermione as a person of color. Fan art is “the one visual part of a fandom that the actual fans control” (Lord) and thus when fans started to imagine Hermione as black, artists all over the internet who created fan art of Hermione started creating fan art of a black Hermione. This movement spread and became more and more widespread, with countless Tumblr posts, and articles such as the one in BuzzFeed titled “What A ‘Racebent’ Hermione Granger Really Represents” written by Alanna Bennett, then a Press Coordinator for the Harry Potter Alliance. (Bennett)

            Eventually, the idea of a black Hermione was so strong in the cultural consciousness of the Harry Potter community that when the casting was announced for the 2016 play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the actress who was cast and eventually went on to play Hermione in the show was Noma Dumezweni, a black actress. Thus, even though the Hermione of the Harry Potter films was played by a white actress, Emma Watson, and the Hermiones that appeared on covers of Harry Potter books were white, the conception of a black Hermione – a conception created by fans – succeeded in changing the way that the character appeared in what the author, J.K. Rowling, claims as a canonical text in the Harry Potter universe. (Whether or not Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is considered part of the Harry Potter canon by the wider Harry Potter fan community is up for interpretation and could be considered material for its own academic paper.) Whichever the case may be, the point served here is that Harry Potter fans, via their fan works and participation in the Harry Potter universe, made substantial change to the text, demonstrating that authentic authorship of the series does not solely belong to its original creators, but also lies in the fan community itself.      

Concluding Thoughts on Fandom as Collaborative Community

            Pizza John was inspired by John Green but was nevertheless created by a Nerdfighter and its evolution was cultivated by the Nerdfighter community and blossomed from there. It exists as only one small example of how a mythos of a culture creates itself. Harry Potter fans were able to create a global nonprofit that uses identification with the series to create cross-generational and multicultural social change, altering the scope of how Harry Potter is seen on an international scale.  In a previously seen example, fans were able to have real impact on the level of the manufacture of official Harry Potter merchandise in the case of the Harry Potter Alliance’s “Not In Harry’s Name” campaign. Other Harry Potter fans, by using their fan works and online presence, were able to change manifestations of Harry Potter on the level of casting for officially licensed Harry Potter productions in the case of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

All community is collaborative, to a certain extent, or else it is not a true community. Without a continuous back and forth between community members, there is no way for them to come to a collective agreement on what they unite around. What is special about online fan communities is that the wide availability of the internet and the open nature of fan works have lowered the barriers to access and allowed those who might never otherwise get a chance to communicate with one another to have an equal voice with which to share experiences. The miracle of a shared text is that everyone can read it and form their thoughts and opinions to share with others and learn new perspectives. The miracle of online video is that anyone with an internet connection and access to the websites the content is hosted on is that anyone can watch. A collaborative community and fandom can then use those perspectives to achieve actionable goals. That is exactly what the Nerdfighter and Harry Potter communities have done, and it is both astonishing in its scope and beautiful in its practice.

Works Cited

Bennett, Alanna. “What A “Racebent” Hermione Granger Really Represents.” BuzzFeed, 1 Feb. 2015, https://www.buzzfeed.com/alannabennett/what-a-racebent-hermione-granger-really-represen-d2yp?utm_term=.qtlKwE5re. Accessed 2 Dec. 2018.

Cegłowski, Maciej. “Fan is A Tool-Using Animal.” Idle Words, 6 Sept. 2013, idlewords.com/talks/fan_is_a_tool_using_animal.htm. Accessed 29 Nov. 2018.

Fry, Richard. “Millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. labor force.” Pew Research Center, 11 April 2018, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/11/millennials-largest-generation-us-labor-force/. Accessed 08 Dec. 2018.

Fry, Richard. “Millennials projected to overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation.” Pew Research Center, 01 Mar. 2018. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/01/millennials-overtake-baby-boomers/. Accessed 08 Dec. 2018.

Gierzynski, Anthony and Kathryn Eddy. Harry Potter and the Millennials: Research Methods and the Politics of the Muggle Generation. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Granger Leadership Academy. The Harry Potter Alliance, 2018. grangerleadershipacademy.com/. Accessed 29 Nov. 2018.

Green, Hank. “The History of Pizza John!” YouTube, uploaded by vlogbrothers, 12 Nov. 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KO5h9WhUT5g.

Green, John. “Surprise….” YouTube, uploaded by vlogbrothers, 11 Sept. 2018, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91jkq2_jdOA.

Green, John. “You Are Here.” YouTube, uploaded by vlogbrothers, 28 Feb. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xkeFUXSdjHw.

Green, John. “With Esther.” YouTube uploaded by vlogbrothers, 5 Jul. 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DKrs3IngoE.

Gunnels, Jen and Carrie J. Cole. “Culturally mapping universes: Fan production as ethnographic fragments.” Transformative Works and Cultures, vol. 7, 2011. doi.org/10.3983/twc.2011.0241

Jenkins, Henry. “‘Cultural acupuncture’: Fan activism and the Harry Potter Alliance.” Transformative Works and Cultures, vol. 10, 2012. doi.org/10.3983/twc.2012.0305

Lord, Emma. “The Idea Of A Black Hermione Isn’t New To The ‘Harry Potter’ Fandom, If You’ve Been Paying Attention.” Bustle, 22 Dec. 2015, https://www.bustle.com/articles/131394-the-idea-of-a-black-hermione-isnt-new-to-the-harry-potter-fandom-if-youve-been. Accessed 02 Dec. 2018.

“Not In Harry’s Name.” The Harry Potter Alliance, 2015, https://www.thehpalliance.org/success_stories_nihn. Accessed 02 Dec. 2018

Pham, Alex. “Patreon Acquires Subbable, Aligning the YouTube Stars.” Forbes. 16 Mar. 2015. http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexpham/2015/03/16/patreon-acquires-subbable-aligning-youtube-stars/. Accessed 29 Nov. 2018

Project for Awesome. The Foundation to Decrease Worldsuck, 2016. http://www.projectforawesome.com. Accessed 29 Nov. 2018.

Slack, Andrew. “The strength of a story: Andrew Slack at TEDxTransmedia2011.” YouTube uploaded by TEDX Talks, 18 Oct. 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rq5NbWmyGWk.

“What We Do.” The Harry Potter Alliance, 2015, http://www.thehpalliance.org/what_we_do. Accessed 29 Nov. 2018.

Wilkinson, Lili. “Nerdfighters, Paper Towns, and heterotopia.” Transformative Works and Cultures, vol. 10, 2012. doi.org/10.3983/twc.2012.0374 Accessed 12 Nov. 2018.

Willison, Margaret H. “15 ways Harry Potter has changed culture since the first book was published 20 years ago.” The Boston Globe, 25 June 2017, http://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/2017/06/25/ways-harry-potter-has-changed-culture-since-first-book-was-published-years-ago/yXGL4pCa6eO1r6dB8yWJKL/story.html. Accessed 12 Nov. 2018.

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