January 14, 2022

OUT ON A LIMB: Your Bubble is Not the Culture.

n 2020, the year Rowling made her most pointed statements on transgender issues, Harry Potter sales went up for its British publisher, Bloomsbury. In fact, “the paperback edition of ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ was the fifth-bestselling children’s book of 2020 to date, 23 years after it was first published.” This past June, the biggest Harry Potter store in the world opened in New York City to rave reviews. HBO is currently airing several specials celebrating 20 years since the first Harry Potter movie. And despite the pandemic, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has reopened on Broadway. The persistent popularity of Potter probably explains why outlets whose critics insist that the Potter party is over keep publishing pieces about the franchise. Insider, for example, has run over 80 such items—from “What It’s Like to Visit the Real-Life Diagon Alley” to “28 Major ‘Harry Potter’ Movie Deaths, Ranked From Least to Most Heartbreaking”—in the last year alone…

Rowling herself is doing just fine as well. The latest entry in her successful Cormoran Strike detective series, which she writes under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, was an international best seller and moved more copies upon release than any prior book in the series. In May, it won Best Crime and Thriller Fiction Book of the Year at the British Book Awards. (Insider, on the other hand, called this same book “poorly received.”) Rowling’s October children’s book, The Christmas Pig, another international best seller, sold over 60,000 copies in just its first week. (The entertainment site Giant Freakin Robot: “JK Rowling Facing Brutal Fan Reactions to New Children’s Book.”) Simply put, Rowling sells more books in a day than the critics claiming she’s been shunned will sell in a lifetime.

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Much of the current divergence between elite discourse and popular preference can be reduced to a simple heuristic: Most critics are on Twitter; most consumers are not. If you examine the coverage proclaiming the end of Harry Potter or Lin-Manuel Miranda, or castigating any other wildly successful cultural product or personality, you’ll quickly spot a pattern: The only evidence they tend to cite is an assortment of tweets.

But just because something makes waves on Twitter doesn’t mean it actually matters to most people. According to the Pew Research Center, only 23 percent of U.S. adults use Twitter, and of those users, “the most active 25% … produced 97% of all tweets.” In other words, nearly all tweets come from less than 6 percent of American adults. This is not a remotely good representation of public opinion, let alone newsworthiness, and treating it as such will inevitably result in wrong conclusions.

Why, it’s like “Twitter sentiment is a Styrofoam iceberg. You may think 9/10 of it is underwater, but actually, 9/10 of it is visible,” to coin an Insta-phrase. Somebody should write a book about this stuff.

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