Yes, that's right, I can't resist pairing off my favorite Harry Potter characters into neat little couples. I'm such a victim of this addiction that I won't even use my real name, just this online handle. As I sit here, gazing with rapt attention at The Leaky Lounge, hitting refresh in the hope that someone will have responded to my latest post, I'm struck by just how serious Harry Potter fans are about our fandom. We've singled out Internet destinations, created community identities, and proceeded to read and post to our hearts' content. We've taken every moment in this series and picked it over with a fine-toothed comb, hoping to solve the mystery of whether Snape is really evil, what happened in the missing twenty-four hours, or even discussing the level of our own excitement over the release date of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. We've personally come to know other people in this community, sometimes without even knowing their names. We've discussed our propensity to "Female Masochism" when it comes to loving Snape; and if that's not personal, I don't know what is. Our virtual world is a family.
Harold Rheingold was quoted in The Journal of Popular Culture as saying that virtual communities "are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace." 1 Where once people of similar interests and ideas would meet face-to-face, now a steady Internet connection and the typed word is sometimes all we use to get these valuable points across. Critics say that this is a problem because it takes away from interpersonal communication, and replaces it with something that can be easily manipulated. They say that virtual communities separate a real person from the person they reveal online, lowering the quality of that vital interaction that created the study of rhetoric in the first place. I disagree, especially when it comes to Harry Potter fans.
Of course we can apply this to our own beloved fandom. We are Harry Potter fans and most of us are proud of it. We have our own language, consisting of inside jokes like Mr. Blood, Vapormort, CAPSLOCK!Harry, and even taking the word "canon" to new extremes. We come from miles in any direction to converge in one common space. It is in this space that we find community and like-minded people with whom we can revel in the glory of similar goals and interests. People of all ages and walks of life have found a way to join under our "Harry Potter freak flag" so to speak. And don't we all just love it? We spend large chunks of our free time trying to crack codes and theories, making friendships, writing fan fiction, and even discussing our personal lives in this world. Go over to Butter Beer Banter in the Leaky Lounge to find discussions on everything from favorite foods to first kisses. To me, personally, the Harry Potter fan community has become a second home and a respite. I assume most of you can agree.
This need to seek out other fans of the books has led to the creation of many communities under one central community of Harry Potter fans. There are individuals in our fandom seeking like-minded people that transcend the strains of distance and time. In an article entitled "The Approaching Age of Virtual Nations' Mike Dillard says that "One of the most significant sociopolitical evolutions since the formation of cities and states may begin soon: the emergence of virtual nations." 2 Saying that we will soon form virtual nations is a bit extreme, but you have to admit, we each wave a different flag within the Harry Potter world.
There are subgroups in the Harry Potter world that wave the flag of "Snape is Evil." We've got colorful banners displaying our love of Lucius Malfoy. There are pages upon pages of people discussing every alchemical formula they see in the novels, while attempting to uncover the truth hidden in the pages of J.K. Rowling's books. The list of subgroups in the Harry Potter world goes on and on. But as with any real group of people, there are misconceptions. Some groups are seen as on the fringe, or a little too over the top. Perhaps even, if I could be so bold, obsessed.
I am speaking, of course, about the shippers.
"I'm Not a Shipper, But¦"
For those of you who have been scratching your head for the last few minutes wondering why I'm talking about something that has to do with boats, here's a rundown: Shipping is what occurs in a fandom when a person creates a romantic pair out of two characters. In the Harry Potter world, this can be anyone from Molly and Arthur to Snape and the Giant Squid. Even Dobby and Winky have been set aside in a sweet little couplet of socks and butterbeer corks.
I'm a religious poster on many shipping and ship debate threads, and often I'll see people do a virtual tiptoe in and peer into our dark little corner of the world. Some will come in and post that they "don't usually come here, but just wanted to see what it was like." Shipping threads are often avoided for many reasons.
I think perhaps one reason is that we seem a little too passionate about our opinions. Most Harry Potter communities are very passionate about the books, offering a wide range of opinions and theories, but when it comes to romance, it's an entirely different story. These are beloved stories, and the characters have been endeared to us in a way that rarely happens in literature. However, when talking about coupling them off, it's almost like making them seem like more than invented figures in a fantastic story. Romance makes fictional characters tangible, real.
I've noticed, however, that when the mainstream Harry Potter fans speak of relationships, they must usually add the disclaimer "I'm not a shipper, but¦." It seems as though mainstream Harry Potter fans are trying to distance themselves from the world of shipping like it's a bad thing. Are we pictured as akin to the Beatles' fans, painting our faces and screaming at the top of our lungs "Ron and Hermione forever!" before passing out from the sheer excitement of it?
There are some people in the Harry Potter fandom that would rather be friends with a Slytherin than a Gryffindor. There are people who have romantic feelings for Voldemort. There is a whole group of people that are just crazy about the Marauders. There are even fan groups for our favorite web masters and mistresses. There are a large number of subgroups and opinions apart from shippers making up our Harry Potter fandom, and still, I can see some non-shippers shaking their heads and smiling like we are a bunch of petulant children spitting on each other. The truth about shippers is quite different.
Madame Puddifoot's Isn't So Bad¦
I will proudly admit I am a vehement shipper. I've parsed through book after book to debate the relationships between characters. I've posted with ferocity against people who didn't share my view. I've written fan fiction, essays, and even watched videos based on shipping. I'm part of a community within a community, where like-minded people have come together to discuss something very near and dear to their hearts.
Shippers, just like everyone else, engage in discussion to unite and create a more close knit community. In communication theory this is called a Fantasy Theme. Bormann defines Fantasy Theme Analysis as "a method used by groups to intensify the group dynamic based on a communication that allows information sharing regarding issues relating to the group." 3 In other words, a group may seek to become closer through specific information about their common interest. Bormann goes on to say that those engaging in these fantasy themes communicate in narrative form and tell their stories to those who will listen. So, fantasy themes help groups match up on experiences by talking about them.
A prime example of this sense of community is happening over at a forum where I post. There we have an entire group of threads devoted completely to shipping, with each ship having their own thread. There is also a debate thread that gets so heated I often find my face heating up as I'm shouting at my computer screen. However, there is so much more to the shipping community than just our ships. This forum just recently opened up a Deathly Hallows discussion thread, where shippers can theorize together. We've found that all types of shippers of many different opinions have come together and agreed on many theories brought up. It's been the "Hands Across America" of the shipping community, and it has made us all very happy indeed.
Missy, known as LawofJude on the Emma Watson forums, expressed her view of shippers this way: "Shippers ... we are crazy fanatics yet we know we stand for something we believe in and that makes us proud, loyal, passionate, feisty, and even a little crazy." 4
Taking Harry Potter Personally
I've seen so many examples of our Fantasy Themed community in action. Over at Emma Watson's Website forums, there is always a heated debate. But on the same thread, there is a very close community. Someone from the opposite ship as me recently had a baby, and we all took time away from debating to marvel at the child's cuteness. We'll wish each other happy birthday and good luck on exams. Most of us go beyond usernames and address each other by our real names, as though we are old friends. In the Leaky Lounge, a poster named va32h recently drew a comparison between Harry and Ginny's relationship and seeing her husband go off into Iraq. She was aligning her personal feelings to her community. This depth of literary analysis is more than just a shallow wish for Harlequin romance; it's a form of expression.
While looking at fantasy themes in forming communities, I think shippers embody this better than anyone. We apply personal feelings to characters. We love the literature and are attached to the characters Rowling has so graciously created. We all have become closer on various forums because of this. It starts off with a discussion of shipping, and turns into a pretty in-depth knowledge of another person's thoughts and feelings on relationships. Those of you that have braved to peek into the shipping thread on The Leaky Lounge will have no doubt witnessed novel-length posts citing the smallest little occurrence that can be interpreted as romantic.
When I read a post about shipping, and the way someone wants the romantic lives of these characters to turn out, I begin to understand intimately someone's personal feelings on love. I will write long diatribes that wax poetically about the passion and intensity I see between the lines of Ron and Hermione's relationship, while someone else is wary of their interactions because arguing can lead to bigger problems. How often do you find yourself having told someone you've just met your personal opinions about love? Shippers do that nearly every day. I see people bearing their hearts on their sleeves for everyone to see. I feel very close to the people I discuss shipping with.
In my experiences as a shipper, I've even developed some very good relationships. When I become so privy to what is inside someone's heart, I want to know them better. I'm a 23-year-old recent college graduate who, through the Leaky Lounge, has developed a good friendship with a middle-aged businessman. There are shippers who connect on personal levels all over our Harry Potter fandom because of what information is given freely about their core beliefs.
Shippers are more than just Herons, Chocos, Harmonians, Pumpkin Pies, Good Ships, Sunlit Days, Dark Moons, Dinkies and Wobbys, and Dramiones. We're Harry Potter fans. We are people who love the characters and want to analyze how they interact in relationships. Finally, we are a community within a community, exercising our need for social cohesion and similar ways of communicating.
We are all seeking community. We go about our daily lives, mostly normal and droll. Then, we come home, sign on, and find our friends. People with fire in their eyes and love in their hearts for Harry Potter. Shippers are no different in their love of community and their need for a Fantasy Theme. We are just a community seeking out common interests where we can express our personal thoughts and feelings about a beloved piece of literature. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
So next time you accidentally stumble into the shipping thread and see garish avatars with declarations of ships on them, don't turn around and run. You never know ’ a new community could be just around the corner for you. A new understanding of an old character could open up your mind. When you witness the passion and intelligence most shippers have, it could draw you in, and perhaps shipping won't seem like such a bad thing.
Ron and Hermione 4eva¦OMG¦LOL!
1. Reingold, Introduction to Virtual Community.
2. Dillard and Hennard, "The Approaching Age¦."
3. Bormann, "Fantasy Theme Analysis."
4. LawofJude, comment on "The Great Shipping Debate' post #1037.
Bormann, Ernest. "Fantasy Theme Analysis and Rhetorical Theory." Rhetoric of Western Thought, 5 (1992): 365’84.
Dillard, Mike and Janet Hennard. "The Approaching Age of Virtual Nations." The Futurist, 36 (2002): 24’8 http://www.strategicmktg.com/Virtual_Nations.pdf.
LawofJude. Comment on "The Great Shipping Debate." Emma Watson Forums: The Shipper Forum, 25 January 2007. http://emmawatson.net/archives/04/index.php?showtopic=29580&st=1020&p=1370877entry1370877 (accessed 2 February 2007).
Reingold, Howard. Introduction to The Virtual Community, 1993 http://www.well.com/user/hlr/vcbook/vcbookintro.html. As quoted in Smith, Michael J. "Strands in the Web: Community-Building Strategies in Online Fanzines." Journal of Popular Culture, 33 (1999): 87’99.