Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Fans prepare for the final installment of the series. (Photo: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images. Graphic: Jimmy Hasse.)

“19 years later,” Harry Potter’s biggest legacy is how it shaped modern fandom

Fans prepare for the final installment of the series. (Photo: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images. Graphic: Jimmy Hasse.)

Like many people, some of my favorite memories from high school are of road tripping to concerts with my friends. Only in my case, we were driving to suburban libraries and the musicians were “wizard rockers”—Harry Potter-themed bands who half-ironically, half-sincerely sang about J.K. Rowling’s wizarding series to enthusiastic crowds of (mostly) nerdy teenage girls. Today, Harry Potter fans across the world are once again gathering to celebrate another series milestone. Not the 20th anniversary of the book’s release (which happened in June), or the 10th anniversary of the series’ conclusion (which happened in July), but the fan-established date at which the final book’s “19 years later” epilogue is set. Today, September 1, 2017, marks the day Harry sends his clumsily named son Albus Severus off to Hogwarts, then takes a moment to appreciate that all is well. Fans are celebrating not only with meet-ups at the real King’s Cross Station (which has been decked out with a “Platform 9 ¾” photo op for years now), but also with a big fan celebration at the Wizarding World theme park in Orlando, Florida. Presumably some of those “wizard rockers” are all booked up today as well. A decade after the release of The Deathly Hallows, Harry Potter fandom is still going strong.

Rowling’s book series is credited with all kinds of cultural shifts—from creating a new generation of eager readers, to revitalizing the young-adult genre, to kicking off the current, dubious trend of splitting film adaptations into two parts. But one thing it perhaps doesn’t get enough credit for is just how much it shaped and normalized the idea of modern “fandom” itself. Loving something geeky used to be considered offbeat, niche, or embarrassing. Now it’s the norm, thanks in no small part to Harry Potter.

Potter didn’t invent hardcore fandom, of course. Star Trek fans were publishing fanzines back in the 1960s, and everything from Star Wars to Lord Of The Rings to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes novels has inspired similarly fanatical devotion. But even in the early 2000s, when “geek culture” was being firmly assimilated into the mainstream, the Harry Potter fandom was unique. For one thing, it skewed younger, with all the free time, passion, and lack of embarrassment that entails. The fact that Harry Potter was first and foremost a book series also meant even parents, teachers, and librarians were actively fostering it. But perhaps most importantly, its heyday converged with the global growth of the internet, and kids who had become as fluent in the World Wide Web as the Wizarding World soon connected in a way unlike any group of fans had before—even those nerds who’d spent the previous decade filling up listservs with arguments over whether the Enterprise could outrace the Millennium Falcon.

During the three-year gap between the publication of Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire in 2000 and Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix in 2003, those fans sprung into action to fill the demand for Potter-related content. Sites like MuggleNet and The Leaky Cauldron became go-to hubs for fan fiction and art, weekly podcasts, and endless theorizing. The early squabbles between Harry Potter fans and Warner Bros. that took place as a result redrew the lines between fan art and copyright infringement in the internet age. Eventually, Warner Bros. settled on (more or less) embracing that fan creativity in a way that’s become the norm for just about every geek property today.

In doing so, those enthusiastic Harry Potter fans set the template for 21st-century fandom, bringing those formerly niche pursuits out into the open. As Laura Miller wrote recently in Slate, “Because everyone they knew in real life was also reading the books, kids felt no hesitation to geek out over them, and in the process, geeking out in general lost much of its stigma, for good.” Today you can find Tumblrs and Twitter feeds full of people posting drawings and GIFs and “stanning” for just about any creative property you can imagine. Those “wizard rock” bands my friends and I used to flock to have given way to other nerdy, self-aware groups singing odes to everything from Doctor Who to Game Of Thronesall because, in 2002, a fan named Paul DeGeorge and his younger brother Joe half-jokingly formed a band called Harry And The Potters to perform songs like its most popular hit, “Save Ginny Weasley.”

After The Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, the creators of those original Harry Potter portals translated their enthusiasm to broader spheres. MuggleNet’s Andrew Sims launched Hypable, a site explicitly themed around the idea of “fandom.” Similarly, Potter superfan Melissa Anelli evolved the Potter-specific fan convention LeakyCon into the more comprehensive GeekyCon. Meanwhile, the fandom infrastructure they’d helped to create boosted other young-adult books and films: Twilight was explicitly marketed to Potter fans, and—in addition to spawning Fifty Shades Of Grey, which started as Twilight fan fiction—its success subsequently inspired another wave of Potter-descended young-adult fantasy franchises, including The Hunger Games, Divergent, Percy Jackson, and The Maze Runner.

Even YA’s switch to melodramatic realism, led by John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, can be directly traced to Potter. Years earlier, Hank Green’s catchy “Accio Harry Potter” song first brought major attention to John and Hank’s Vlogbrothers YouTube channel. Since then, the Green brothers have remained major voices in the world of YouTube, creating a legion of supporters known as “Nerdfighteria” who embrace the concept of nerdiness, in all its forms.

Tracking Potter’s influence on pop culture and fandom is like trying to trace an infinite spider web, with Harry at its center. But most of its impact—and its success—can be attributed to just how much the series places identity at its core. Rowling’s four personality-driven Hogwarts Houses allowed fans to place themselves inside the story; declaring an allegiance with Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw, or Hufflepuff gave them the same sense of belonging as rooting for a beloved sports team. Today’s “19 Years Later” events will be filled with fans proudly sporting their House colors, in costumes both official and unofficial. These days you can get a Hogwarts T-shirt at Target—you can’t get more mainstream than that. That’s because Harry Potter normalized the idea that being a fan doesn’t just define what you like; it defines who you are.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.