Unveiling of Pottermore and J.K. Rowling's secrets: worth the wait?

Saturday's launch of J.K. Rowling's Pottermore, the new website about all things Harry Potter, comes after an extended test drive. Some see crass commercialism. Others see 'amazing' world.

By , Staff writer

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    The Harry Potter-themed website opened today.
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UPDATE: Pottermore.com did not launched as announced on Oct. 15 and instead has informed interested fans with the following at the site’s official blog, “The Insider”:

“Since the launch of the Beta, we’ve seen really high levels of activity, and interaction with the site has been phenomenal. This affects how quickly we can give everyone access. As a result, we’ve decided to extend the Beta period … and take a different approach to the way new users are brought onto the site.

From the end of October, registration will be opened to everyone and we’ll be giving access to registered users in phases. Access may be granted quickly, but please note it could also take some weeks or months, depending on demand."

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Spoiler alert. If you’re not a Harry Potter fan, run!

Pottermore.com launches Saturday, and if you don’t already know what that is, run! (It’s evidence that so far, you’ve escaped Pottermania and don’t want to get sucked down the drain of more to come.)

More likely you do know, and all you want to see is exactly how this “unique online reading experience from J.K. Rowling” will allow you to study her characters' backstories more deeply, including those of Dumbledore, Professor Minerva McGonagle, and Hogwarts Castle itself. In her own YouTube video, Ms. Rowling promises to tell fans all the information she has "been hording all these years,” in this, her response to the hundreds of fan letters she says she still gets every week.

Now that Pottermore.com has been fine-tuned over 2-1/2 months – with the help of 1 million specially-selected fans, seeing what they like and what they don't – its unveiling promises avenues for fans of all ages to interact, blog, suggest story lines, play video games, and more.

“They’d been pumping this up for months as this ‘amazing, online, digital, interactive experience,' and we were all scratching our heads, ‘What does that mean?’ ” says Amy Shook of the Harry Potter Alliance, a not-for-profit organization that tries to engage young people in activism using the stories in the Harry Potter books as a model. Now, as one of the 1 million who've explored the new site, Ms. Shook affirms, perhaps unsurprisingly, “It is amazing and really neat.”

Shook and other fans, as well as moviemakers, marketers, literature mavens, English teachers, sociologists, and academics, are also asking the harder questions: With all that is going on in the world, will this be the tool that Rowling hopes it will be? Will it be new and different, or just another niche universe for the rabid Harry Potter fan?

Or, perhaps most momentously, is this the moment from “Puff the Magic Dragon” in which Jackie Paper moves on and grows up? (“Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys….”)

Their answers show Pottermore to be a media/marketing/movie/literature event that has the potential to be a social Rorschach test for years to come.

“This is a far different situation than when Jackie Paper moved on,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. Because 14 years elapsed between Rowling’s first Harry Potter book (June 30, 1997) and the last movie this year, many young fans had never experienced a time when there were no forthcoming Potter books or movies.

“This is not like a bunny or blanket or inert toy they can discard,” he says in a phone interview. "Whereas many Disney characters (Cinderella, Snow White) started as books, then became movie characters, then themepark mascots, dolls, Halloween costumes and all the rest, the Harry Potter characters will have a chance to live online in perpetuity.”

The outcome could range from the crassly commercial to the seriously intellectual, say some analysts.

"A tell-all Harry Potter website sounds like a cyberversion of a Star Trek convention,” says a skeptical Ben Agger, director of the Center for Theory at the University of Texas, Arlington's Sociology Department. He notes that Rowling wrote seven novels in the decade between 1997 and 2007 and that a 10-year-old who began reading the first novel when it was published would have been 17 when the series ended and is now 21.

“One can view this either as a restorative walk down memory lane or a commercial enterprise designed to reinvigorate the sales of Potter books, movies, and memorabilia at an historical moment when more people surf than read," he writes in an e-mail. "Pottermore.com sounds like a lame effort of the culture industry to recycle its successes, capitalizing on young people’s unquenchable thirst for a fantasy life in which kids are empowered and most stories have happy endings."

Shook and others say anyone who thinks Rowling is in it for the money is mistaken and doesn’t understand her motives.

"Yes, I think there is plenty of appetite for more Harry Potter. People don’t like for things to end and, let’s face it, Harry Potter is ingrained in our culture,” says Rob Weiner, popular culture librarian at Texas Tech University. As newer generations are exposed to the books and films, the rabid Harry Potter fan base is likely to grow, he predicts.

Pottermore.com offers a way for fans to stay connected and to feel a part of something bigger, as well as for authors and creators to interact with admirers of their works. "I do think this will be a unique experience for all involved," he says.

Shook, a mother of three teenagers, says what makes the site interesting is that book text appears onscreen and readers can click on hypertexted references to learn more at will. Features range from learning more about the backstory of Petunia Dursley, before she allowed Harry Potter into her house, to taking the same classes in potions that Hogwarts students do.

“I love trying to mix these potions and, I must say, it’s not as easy as you would think,” she says. Get the ingredients wrong and a visual explosion appears onscreen.

“It would be far better if they added the sound of a ‘kaboom,’ but what the heck, this is a work in progress and maybe they will think of that,” she says.

Staff writer Gloria Goodale contributed to this report.

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