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23 May 2016updated 12 Oct 2023 10:12am

A half decade of total secrecy: how I became a successful Harry Potter webmaster

Like all the scions of Harry Potter webmastery, I ruled with a gently fascist temperament.

By Nick Hilton

It’s 1999 and we’re in La Porte, Indiana. Emerson Spartz, a home schooled 12-year-old boy, has just launched MuggleNet, a site which would offer sun-dodging Harry Potter nerds around the world an online sanctuary.

I was six, I suppose, when Spartz launched MuggleNet. At that point, I was deep into my religious phase, and didn’t really have time for either Harry Potter or the internet. It wasn’t until 2002 that I fell in love with the boy wizard and the concept of lying indoors reading, rather than speaking to other children (or God).

Because I waited until 2002 to get interested in the series, I also missed the opportunity to teach myself how to properly use the Internet. Like most 90s kids, I was pretty au fait with Google Images and MiniClip, but the idea of building, as well as using, the internet was completely alien to me. Which makes my decision to become a successful Harry Potter Webmaster all the stranger.

My first foray was a Geocities website called VHPTO. This stood for ‘Voldemort and Harry Potter Theory Organisation’ and was the first in a long line of overly complex acronyms. I was only 12 when I launched this website and I was its sole contributor and, to the best of my knowledge, its sole user. That said, I do also remember admitting making it to my school friends; an early slip in what would become a half decade of total secrecy.

Around the same time I also created my first forum, which was an intersectional hangout for fans of Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, West Ham United and the 70s TV show M*A*S*H. The Venn diagram of these interests left me alone in the middle, on a forum of my own creation, talking to myself; a neat metaphor for my teenage years.

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Neither VHPTO nor the mongrel forum ever caught fire and I spent most of my days hanging out on the forums of Veritaserum, another Harry Potter website created by Matthew Vines (who is now a super interesting LGBT Christian activist). It was there that I hit upon what I’ve subsequently realised is the only million dollar idea of my life: Trivia Duelling, a game where users ask questions in a group, scoring points for getting it correct before concocting their own, fiendishly tricky, riposte.

I launched thanks to a generous genius grant from my parents, which I used to pay some Australian web-designers to do the difficult bit (i.e. the designing, coding and general maintenance of the site). Once their work was done – and my work delegating to them also complete – I started running the site in earnest. Because the name didn’t scream Harry Potter in the same way MuggleNet, Veritaserum or The Leaky Cauldron do, members on the forum began trivia duelling on subjects as diverse as Eragon and Lord of the Rings. This was unacceptable to me.

Like all the scions of Harry Potter webmastery, I ruled with a gently fascist temperament. I had a clear vision for Trivia-Duelling, and the failure of the general public to come on board with it still haunts me to this day.

After a slow year of running Trivia-Duelling, I decided, like any neoconservative 13-year-old would, that the answer was to amalgamate it into a bigger, overarching corporate structure. For reasons that elude me, I named this organisation The Royal Academy of Harry Potter. I like to think that if a Royal Warrant had been issued for an unofficial Harry Potter fansite, we would’ve been a shoe-in.

This site was my crowning achievement: we brought more than twenty sites into the network, and won a series of awards – lost to the tides of Internet history – for ‘Best Harry Potter Network Site’ (Harry Potter fansites were, at this time, obsessed with masturbatory awards ceremonies).

My co-founder was a Canadian kid called Kevin. I will always think of Kevin as a kid because, even at the time, he was younger than me. He was like 11, or something crazy. Kevin loved wrestling and computer coding, which made him an ideal ally because he was smart and strong. I have no idea what happened to Kevin after the website closed, but the password he concocted for our admin panel is the same one I still use for my Internet banking. That’s a profound legacy.

The zenith of the Royal Academy of Harry Potter’s output was when, in advance of the 2007 publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we self-published an anthology of fansite histories grandiosely entitled (I could never do anything at that age without incredible pomposity) Fanorama: The Birth of Harry Potter Fandom. When I published it I was unaware, having failed to perform a rudimentary Google search, that Fanorama was also the name of queercore magazine described as the ‘grand-daddy of the queer zine scene’. I suspect many people who bought the book were subsequently disappointed with its content.

I don’t really remember when or why I gave up on my dream of becoming a great Harry Potter webmaster, but it was probably related to the crippling shame I felt about the enterprise. I have nothing tangible to remember from this period in my life, except for a couple of copies of Fanorama and the nostalgic pleasure of the Wayback Machine. The best and worst thing about your Internet history is how hard it is to pin down. In hindsight, failing at my teenage endeavours has allowed me to bury this part of my life in a manner Emerson Spartz never can. But at least he got rich, so we’ll call it a draw.

This piece forms part of our themed Internet Histories week. See the rest of the pieces here.

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