Oct 19, 2015

Pottermore Has Fallen

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For those who have not yet discovered the genius, creativity, and hours of fun to be had on the Pottermore site, you're too late. It's over. In place of a rich, atmospheric virtual adventure, is a slick but dull marketing vehicle, that has been compared by many to Buzzfeed. I would agree, except that I find Buzzfeed more entertaining.

Before this ghastly change, Pottermore was an experience to immerse yourself in. You got to be a student at Hogwarts, sorted into a house, given an account at Gringotts, and able to shop on Diagon Alley for school books and supplies. Users combed through "moments," multi-layered images with hidden potion ingredients, Bertie Botts beans, chocolate frog cards, and loose galleons to plump up their bank accounts. You had to work for things, including Rowling's new writings, access to which was hidden in the moments and sometimes required casting spells and working out puzzles to find. Like a student in a challenging school for wizards, you needed to use your wits and pool your talents. The new site is better suited to the dilettante who's never even read the books.

Pottermore did telegraph the coming changes, but not how drastic they would be. They did not make it clear that accounts would be flushed entirely with all the supplies collected, articles bookmarked, and potions made over years. They simply took everyone's hard work and devotion and threw it away. Their flippant answer to where it's all gone: "website heaven."

There were little indicators over time that the powers that be were losing interest in keeping up the site. The number of moments grew smaller as the books in question grew longer. They did away with comments. But, the first major sign of trouble came when they announced that the upcoming house cup would be the last and that Pottermore would be changing. I followed the unfolding discussion on their Facebook page.

The announcement did not go over well.

A short time later we learned that we would all be graduating from Hogwarts... whether we wanted to or not.

On September 22, they unveiled the new Pottermore.

Immediate responses were largely negative.

Many children, and not a few adults, were in tears.

Media coverage of the change downplayed the negative reaction, if they acknowledged it at all. The press seems to be buying Pottermore's spin, that there's a mix of positive and negative reaction. In truth, the response from Pottermore users was overwhelmingly one of shock, anger, and despair. And, Pottermore's administration just comes across looking like they're in deep denial, horribly cynical about their users, or both.

Page administrators seemed all too ready to push these early reactions down the page with links to articles on the new site. But, the uproar didn't drop neatly below the fold to be forgotten. The shoddy articles with vestigial art from the beloved site – no longer multi-layered or interactive – was salt in the wound for a grieving fanbase.

The furor, far from dying down, got a shot of adrenaline when the many disgruntled Pottermore fans learned what had really happened to all that lovely art. It seems the old site was carved up and sold to Apple for new Enhanced Editions of the books.

Then, there were the disappearances. Even longtime users of the Facebook page found themselves blocked from commenting and their entire comment histories deleted. Admin did this quietly, the only indication being missing comments and replies here and there – comment counts going down instead of up. Sometimes the reply count is ghosted. For example, it might say 3 replies, when you click it, for a flash it says 5 replies, but when it opens there are only 2 replies.

They've made this poor gal look like a crazy person, talking to herself.

You agree with whom, dear? Oh, but it says 2 replies. It's only that her friend has gone invisible.

She used to look like this.

Only the perceptive reader, or one of the deleted, would notice that comments, and entire people, were missing. One minute you see them.

The next, you don't.

Now you see me.

Now you don't.

To get some idea of the scope of the problem, compare the video thumbnail in the margin to the current comment count. The thumbnail is either ghosting past numbers, or it's showing the actual comment count, including hidden comments. According to the the thumbnail of the Enhanced Editions announcement post, there are 364 comments. The number on the post is 236. Over a hundred comments are missing.

The thumbnail for the Pottermore announcement shows 1.3k. At the same time, the actual post shows 902, a shortfall of about 300 comments.

That these disappearances of loyal Pottermore members make the site administration look more like Death Eaters, doesn't seem to occur to them.

It was an awesome rant. Needless to say, it's gone now.

I chatted with Rune Marauder, of Rune's Potions Chamber, who was also banned from the Facebook page. Rune, who blogs on Pottermore related issues, made me aware of some of the deeper problems that have probably been affecting the site for some time. He reminded me that Pottermore and its development partner Sony parted ways last year. There was a lot of optimism and a lot of press, when this happened. In fact, it was the media attention at that time that first made me aware of the site. In retrospect, I think this has been mostly bad for the company.

Rune also directed me to some of the reviews on Glassdoor.com. The picture that emerges from these employee reviews is dismaying. Much like the spin for the new Pottermore, a couple of cheery reviews sit at the top, but that sunny optimism is belied by an overall rating is 1.8 stars.

Most of the reviews are terrible, and at least one employee suspects the positive reviews are "fabricated by management."

This comment also affirms something I've suspected from the outset, when it recommends that the company, "Stop being afraid to involve J.K. Rowling." My suspicion is that Rowling is more of a figurehead. She's an author, not a web developer. Special writings and some of the original concepts are what she brings to the table. Here, CEO Susan Jurevics describes some of her creative input, but explains that she's not involved with the day to day. To realize her vision in this medium, Rowling would need a great management team. It looks from those employee reviews like she doesn't have one.

Much of the divine artistry for the original Pottermore site came from Atomhawk Design. The no longer interactive remnants of that work are scattered about the new site and gracing the digital pages of the Enhanced Editions. Otherwise the visual elements of the new site are so lackluster, so bereft of the detail and atmospherics of the original site, I sincerely doubt Pottermore is working with them any longer. This is incredibly unfortunate.

Pottermore claims it will be phasing in accounts, sorting, and wands again, as well as the elusive Patronus test and some other activities. But, who in the Potterverse ever heard of being sorted more than once? The sorting hat's decisions are supposed to be final. Worse, who could trust Pottermore not to just dump their Pottermore identity, wand, and all their work again, to sell the new features to the highest bidder? That sounds like a sucker's bet, to me.

Why on earth would Pottermore roll out a new site with none of the promised interactive features in place? Why would they present, with all this fanfare, such a pale imitation of the beautiful site they vaporized. Something has gone horribly wrong. Whether it's managerial ineptitude or simple contempt for their legion of fans, I can't say. Perhaps it's a bit of both.

The supreme irony here is that Rowling's work is such a sharp critique of authoritarianism. It is sad to see a once excellent site turn into a sad parody the Ministry of Magic as it became increasingly paranoid, defensive, and ultimately taken over by Death Eaters. The new Pottermore is like something designed by Dolores Umbridge: tightly controlled, a lot of reading, but with no practical application, no magic. It's the new "secure, risk-free" Pottermore.

My aim in this post is to represent the response from Pottermore's disenfranchised fanbase. I couldn't possibly post the hundreds of comments that have disappeared. This page wouldn't load. But, I have taken many more screenshots than appear here. I will continue to upload them to my photobucket for this post. Here, also, are direct links to some of the earlier Facebook posts that were pushed down the page and effectively hidden. They've been diminished by the bannings and deletions, but there is still some excellent commentary to be found. Also worth reading are these two posts on Mugglenet, assuming the comments hold. But, for now, this is the Watch Owl signing off.

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Addendum: I'm adding this slideshow of the entire bucket. It contains a representative sample of the many comments ignored and/or deleted by Pottermore. It cannot contain them all, but I took scads of screenshots and I'll continue to upload them to Photobucket as I can.

Further Addenda: Members of the old Pottermore staged a Candlelight Vigil for the old site. It was snuffed by the Ministry. Find the details here.

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