Tara Isabella Burton: How Fan Fiction Gave Millennials Power Over Their Spirituality

Alan Rickman as Severus Snape. Screengrab via Warner Bros. Pictures/YouTube

Masters voice I can heard (sic) loud and clear. I know when I do wrong, I know when he is pleased.

The way I see things is that we tend to limit ourselves, our believes (sic), our understanding, our willingness… due to what? Society? Because people tend to be afraid of what they don’t understand!?! Oh well, your all’s loss, my gain! Does that make me sick? No more so then (sic) others! .. MY MASTER!!!! (…) I stand where I stand, and ever so proudly

The above was written in the mid-2000s by a blogger who called herself Rose, who, along with a few close internet friends, was part of a tiny but culturally significant pack: online Harry Potter fans devoted to the veneration of one exalted character in J.K. Rowling’s wildly successful young adult fantasy series: Severus Snape.

Snape, the grumpy, antiheroic potions teacher at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, may be an odd choice for religious veneration. And the “Snapewives,” as this small, mostly female subset of fans called themselves, were hardly representative of fandom, even online fandom. But the phenomenon of Snapewifeism can tell us a lot about the way contemporary pop culture and contemporary religious culture have become increasingly fused among the eclectic, “DIY” culture of the spiritual-but-not-religious “nones.”

The intense, emotionally wrought subcultures like Snapewives defined internet fandom in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They laid the groundwork for geographically disparate but like-minded people to come together into “tribes.”

Unlike the generations that have come before us, we millennials grew up able to seek out “our people” without leaving our homes. As Buffy devotees, Harry Potter fans, or gamers, we weren’t limited to the tribal communities we lived in — our neighborhood, our city, or our local churches. These physical realities were for us, far more than for any previous generation, optional: one choice among many.

The proliferation of internet fan culture, with its emphasis on participation and creative repurposing of original texts, has created in millennials a broader sense of ownership over what we consume.

There’s a straight line from Snapewives, whose adoration inspired romantic narratives about Snape, to the 2015 novel “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality,” a sprawling, serialized epic of fan fiction published online over five years. The novel, devoted to all the different ways Harry Potter learns to improve his thinking patterns, emerged from a blog called Less Wrong founded by a rationalist named Eliezer Yudkowsky, a then-30-year-old self-taught artificial intelligence researcher in Silicon Valley.

“Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” has remained among the most popular “gateways” of users to the rationalist movement, and Yudkowsky has attracted funding from other Silicon Valley denizens such as PayPal founder and Trump supporter Peter Thiel for the blogger’s Machine Intelligence Research Institute, which attempts to counter the threat artificial intelligence may pose to humankind.

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Source: Religion News Service