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Harry Potter and the Problem with Online Community

Thursday, July 16, 2009 at 03:22 AM EDT

Image copyright Warner Brothers

Thoughts on a couple items of interest that I ran across today:

First, after reading Steven Greydanus’ review of the new Harry Potter (which I’m dying to see, but don’t know when I’ll find the time), I noticed a link at the bottom to an older post he wrote comparing Rowling’s presentation of magic with that in Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. I trust my own love for the series is well enough established (and see the excellent series of reflections at Non-Modern), but of all the criticisms of the series I’ve read, I think Greydanus’ is the most sensible. Though a few of his complaints have been dispelled by the later books in the series, on the whole he offers some good reflections, especially concerning seven “hedges” he notes Lewis and Tolkien both employ (but Rowling does not) to set magic in its own separate and clearly fictional world. For instance:

Rowling has created a situation entirely unlike anything in the stories of Middle-Earth or Narnia: a mythology of a secret, mystic elite who possess hidden lore and power unknown to the rest of the world. This is an idea that the human race has always found strangely compelling and attractive; it’s the root appeal of every mystery religion, gnostic sect, and secret society that has set itself up against the public teaching of the Christian faith, the gospel proclaimed openly to all. It’s not a taste to be indulged or gratified, even in imagination.

Of course, once you actually get into Rowling’s mystic elite, it turns out to be only a fancifully transformed version of ordinary society. For example, Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft, despite the exotic curriculum and all manner of magical goings-on, is really just a traditional British boarding school. Still, especially in the early chapters of each volume, in which Harry puts in time in the Muggle world before a year of study at Hogwarts, Rowling’s stories do cater to the perennial human attraction to the idea of a secret world of knowledge and power enjoyed by a small elite while forever excluding the unknowing majority.

This is a legitimate criticism, but I think it skates too quickly over the fact that for Rowling magic is simply a (fictionalized) corollary for technology. It is a metaphor, not a real-world possibility. Those in the story who have access to magical powers, like we who in real life have access to technological power, are not inherently better or worse for it, and they are no more “saved” by magic than we are saved by technology. Both magic and technology present a range of opportunities and dangers that would not otherwise arise, but Rowling’s world is filled with the same heroes and villains as the real world–with or without magic. There, as here, “It is not our abilities that show what we truly are. It is our choices,” as Dumbledore so well puts it (recently quoted by Carmen). And there, as here, it is not esoteric knowledge and secret power that save, but self-sacrificial love.

Second, and speaking of the importance of love, and the unique dangers of technology, Don’t Eat the Fruit has a thoughtful post on one important way online community differs from real-life community that I’d never thought much about. Whereas in real life an important part of community is learning to simply be present, the new social media can sometimes make this more difficult in online communities:

In the early days of the Internet, we didn’t have easy-to-use sites where we could quickly post, tweet, comment, and so on, so we just “browsed” the web. But today, even the most technically illiterate person can write or post all the time. While this is a lot of fun, some people are not [sic? now?] saying they feel the need to be be online all the time and can’t stop checking and posting, checking and posting…

In New Media Frontier, Matthew Lee Anderson helps explain this phenomenon by pointing out that, “We cannot simply be online and influence others like we can be in a concert hall or with a friend and have influence … [Online presence requires a person to] act intentionally in some way … through writing comments or linking or posting a video response.” (p. 63).

In other words, the only way to be online is to post, comment, tweet, or some other intentional act. Of course, you are free to simply browse, but then no one will know you’re there.

This really resonates with me. I frequently wish blogging could be more like such a community, were one can simply be most of the time, only speaking up when one truly has something meaningful to say, but too often it feels more like a burden to constantly have something to add. I feel like I need to post something of substance now or no one will be around when I do finally write something worthwhile. Some days I’d rather just be online, enjoying what other people have to say without feeling a need to speak up for fear of being forgotten.

Other days, I wonder if I ought to spend less time on the internet altogether, and focus my attention on building real community in the real world. Funny thing, though, I think that would take just as much intentional action as anything online does…