Last week I was discussing possible favours for my sister’s forthcoming wedding. This conversation took place, as 98% of 21st Century wedding related conversations surely do*, via Pinterest – and whilst we were there, Pinterest took the opportunity to point me in the direction of stuff it thought I might like.
It thought I’d probably be up for a book recommendation, which is generally pretty accurate. I like books, and often read them. But what did it recommend, I hear you cry from your tenterhooks. Did it go for an award winner – perhaps My Brother is a Superhero by David Solomons, since I like children’s fiction and it recently won the Children’s Book of the Year Award? Or maybe Booker winner The Vegetarian by Han Kang, since I’m trying to read more diverse range of authors and she’s from South Korea?
Well, dear reader, our survey said: not so much. In fact, out of literally all the books available in the world, the one Pinterest thought I might want a go on was James Potter and the Hall of Elders Crossing – a Harry Potter fan fiction.
Now, I know roughly how this happened. Social media algorithms work by showing users the content that is most relevant to them. They work this out by looking at how often you engage with posts and pages. They also factor in how many other people ‘like you’ engage with posts and pages – so if loads of slightly nerdy, very white, 30 year old females like something, it’s more likely to appear in my timeline.
I mostly use Pinterest to collect book memes for posting on the 12 Books in 12 Months Facebook page, and there are lots of good Harry Potter ones. However, I can’t help feeling it’s a bit of leap from ‘Ha, Dumble Door’ to ‘out of literally all the books available in the entire world, the one you most want to read is an unofficial spinoff about arguably the least interesting character to come out of the HP series.’
The most galling thing for me is, the James in James Potter and the Hall of Elders Crossing isn’t even Harry’s dad, whose characterisation would probably benefit from a Wicked-style origin story. But instead of taking us back to a time where we find out James’s victimization of young Snape was actually a misunderstanding, or allowing us to spend more time with the angsting teenage Sirius or Lupin, this book focuses on Harry’s son James. His main challenge? ‘Living up to the legend of the great Harry Potter.’
Also quite jarring is the fact that according to the blurb, James Jr does this with the help his pals Ralph, Zane, and Ted Lupin – not a girl in sight. For me, one of the strengths of the Harry Potter series is the platonic friendship between Harry and Hermione. Plus we all know he would never have made it out of the first book alive without her.
The notion that this, of all books, is the one social media has picked out for me, is a bit upsetting because I’ve been making a concerted effort for about two years to make sure to read books by and about women. But it seems my behaviour on Pinterest has not reflected that whatsoever, because based on the information they have, it’s lads lads lads at Hogwarts.
To be clear, I am not slagging off this book – I haven’t read it. I looked at a few reviews on Goodreads and they are pretty positive, with many people saying other writers of fanfic should take a leaf out of author G Norman Lippert’s book. According to his website, he’s sanctioned by JK. All of which is rad, well done that dude. I am merely noting that my behaviour on other channels (following Instagram accounts like Well Read Black Girl or Twitter accounts like @Read_Women) has not registered across the board, and that when I first saw this recommendation I was pretty surprised.
As I mentioned earlier, algorithms are meant to work by showing social media users the content that is most relevant to them. However, this only works if you help them out a bit. Essentially, in order to see the stuff I want to see, I can’t just passively scroll through stuff without liking or commenting or whatever. On Pinterest, I can’t just ‘like’ HP puns if I want to be recommended books by Helen Oyeyemi. Instead I need to engage (Fin Wicherly has written a blog post about making algorithms work for you) – or just ignore the wildly inaccurate suggestions. That is usually what I do.
However, as yet there is no way to escape recommendations that make sweeping assumptions about your loved ones. This one from a few months ago is actually what got me thinking about this blog post.
Now, again, I’m not slagging Mills and Boon. They put out some very popular reading material and if it’s your thang, more power to you. But having spoken with my mum, she has confirmed the last few books she read: Sane New World by Ruby Wax, The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes by Anna McPartlin, and she’s currently on Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen by PG Wodehouse. My mother is very well read, the person who introduced me to Margaret Atwood, Kate Atkinson and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She’s not really a Return of the Untamed Billionaire kind of person. But why would the internet think she was? Because she is a woman old enough to have a 30 year old daughter?
Maybe they just deem her ‘too old’ for Harry Potter fan fiction.
*I have no evidence to support this statement