Time recently named J.K. Rowling one of the 30 most influential people on the Internet for good reason. New installments of her expansion of the Harry Potter universe for her online community Pottermore have attracted attention and criticism, and there’s a steady flow of updates about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a film and a play both set to open this year that draw on the Harry Potter books without being sequels exactly. That’s not to mention the inspiring viral stories about Rowling that pop up with some regularity. There’s so much going on that Entertainment Weekly has a whole column, “This Week in J.K. Rowling,” to keep readers apprised of her comings and goings. But then there’s ground zero for her active online presence: her Twitter account. And as a lifelong fan, I can tell you that this Twitter account, despite its abundance of Potter-related detail, is really not so great.
Reading Rowling’s Twitter updates, it’s dispiriting to be faced with daily reminders that one of your former heroes is still tinkering with a world they thought you left behind perfectly preserved in childhood. “Stop ruining Harry Potter,” the New York Post put it more bluntly earlier this month. Others have worried about Rowling “falling into the same trap as Star Wars’s George Lucas.” I decided to revisit Rowling’s early tweets to pinpoint where it all went wrong, at least for me.
J.K. Rowling joined Twitter in 2009 but only to say that she would not be tweeting. “I am told that people have been twittering on my behalf, so I thought a brief visit was in order just to prevent any more confusion!” she wrote in her first tweet. She elaborated in a second tweet: “However, I should flag up now that although I could twitter endlessly, I’m afraid you won’t be hearing from me very often……….” before finishing off in a third tweet, “………….as pen and paper is my priority at the moment.” All in all, a succinct, humble, sweet message: Yes, this was the real Rowling, but she was too busy working away to trifle with social media. “Pen and paper is my priority”: It felt perfectly in character for the scribe who invented the Marauder’s Map and Diagon Alley.
Rowling followed up her introductory trio of messages with two tweets in 2010 and two more in 2011, mostly variations on the “I’m busy writing” theme, and a handful each in 2012 and 2013. Here was one of the 2012 tweets, concerning her first non–Harry Potter book: “As you may have heard, I have a new book out later this year. Very different to Harry, although I’ve enjoyed writing it every bit as much.” Admire the two spaces between the sentences and the phrase different to, there to remind us that our dear Rowling remained a digital non-native and inexorably, unfailingly British. Later, when her ruse of using the pseudonym Robert Galbraith to release another book was revealed, she acknowledged it by retweeting Galbraith’s account, all very wink wink, nudge nudge.
Back then, she was the platonic ideal of the author-tweeter, only poking her head up from her self-imposed exile (writing stories for us, her fans) for an announcement here and there. The impulse to engage with fans, to fly off the handle, if you will, is always there, so those who choose not to tweet can seem somehow better, more principled than the rest of us. Ah, but then J.K. Rowling took to Twitter with gusto, and she has never really stopped since.
In 2014, something changed. She began to tweet about the Scottish rugby team, and seemed to feel some early twinge of the hard-wired pleasures that likes and retweets can bestow. Soon she was hashtagging, manually retweeting, posting Upworthy links, commenting on politics—leading ignorant Americans like this one to realize that not only did they know nothing of Scottish politics, they also didn’t particularly want to. The illusion of a refined, above-it-all author becomes harder to maintain when that author is slinging half-baked, sporadically interesting tweets 16 hours a day. Gone is the sense of the novelist posting belabored messages that seemed like they had been fished out of bottles that washed ashore—a special kind of loss when that writer is the creator of one of the most airtight, fantastical, fully imagined worlds we’ve ever had.
As 2014 wore on, Rowling’s rugby tweets continued apace. She started a #wizards4scotlandrugbyteam hashtag, and several more tweets followed, spaced more closely together than usual. She succumbed to that most horrible, and common, of modern plagues: tweeting about a live sporting event. Rugby-tweeting was a gateway drug, and in March 2014, after that “match” or whatchamacallit ended, Rowling wrote, “And I’ll tweet about things other than rugby from now on, I promise.” Soon she was wishing Slytherins a happy pride day and apologizing to Hufflepuffs for not paying them more attention. On May 2 of that year, she marked the 16th anniversary of the Battle of Hogwarts: “I’m having a moment’s silence over my keyboard. I hated killing some of those people.” There’s no easier way to puncture the illusion of Potter-ian world-building than that heavy-handed authorial “I.”
Rowling continued tweeting throughout 2014, mixing it up with fans and referring to her “friend” Robert Galbraith. In September, she got into her first Twitter fight. This was around the time of the Scottish independence referendum, and tensions were high: “Big day in Scotland tomorrow #indyref. My head says no and my heart shouts it - but whatever happens, I hope we’re all friends by Saturday.” I think she tweeted more that month than she ever had before. It opened up the floodgates—after dalliances in sports and politics Twitter, Rowling’s once-quiet Internet persona had transformed for good.
In October, she attempted to disappear again: “Very busy at the moment working on a novel, tweaking a screenplay and being involved in @lumos [her nonprofit for children in need] campaigns. Back when I’ve finished something!” But this time she proceeded to continue to tweet fairly frequently. Now she was just another addict. She had a habit of dropping ex post facto Potter plot revelations: about student religions at Hogwarts—there were Jews but not Wiccans. Tuition to Hogwarts is free. There’s an American wizarding school. Then there was the announcement of the Cursed Child play, the probably-not-final insult to the idea that the series had really ended with Book 7. Hence this tweet parodying it all that has been retweeted and liked several thousand times: “*jk rowling wakes up* what’s today’s tweet *spins large bingo cage* hagrid… is… pansexual and… he later joined isis.” Because that was really how following Rowling started to feel: like she was making up a provocative new element of the Potter universe every single day, just to juice her social media presence.
Reader, I unfollowed her. Actually, to be more accurate, I muted her. “Because you were afraid of what she’d think?” one colleague joked when I explained. Well … sort of? Because if there’s one thing more powerful than J.K. Rowling’s magic, it’s imagining that she cares that I follow her at all.