Muggle Magic: What the Mirror of Erised and the Two-Way Mirror Teach Us about Social Media (Part One)

By Ian McLaughlin

Smartphones affect all aspects of our lives, including our psychology and social interactions. They connect us to all the information we want, but they have to prioritize it. Current information technology prioritizes our search results based on what it thinks we want to see, which creates the potential for echo chambers. Literal echo chambers can be quite useful for studying acoustics. Metaphorical echo chambers, like those created by social media, are environments “where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own.” Some refer to the human tendency toward echo chambers as homophily, and communities that exist within and function as echo chambers are homophilic communities.

Because of the physical and functional similarities between smartphones and magic mirrors, comparing them informs us about how we fall under the spell of echo chambers and how homophilic communities enhance that effect. Part One of this essay focuses on Harry’s and Ron’s experiences with Mirror of Erised. Part Two will take a look at Sirius’s Two-Way Mirror. These mirrors reflect how social media provides content, giving us a better understanding of echo chambers, what they do, and how we can avoid constructing and amplifying our own. Studying the parallels between magical and mundane technologies helps us better use the magic mirrors we carry in our pockets and purses. After all, none of us want to waste away, “entranced by what [we] have seen…not knowing if what they have seen is real, or even possible.” (SS Ch12)

Echo chambers are often blamed for increasing political, social, and personal divides. Some worry that social media makes finding and becoming trapped within echo chambers much easier because it is “possible to spread manipulative narratives with phenomenal ease, and without very much money.” However, echo chambers are not new. The tendency toward homophily—creating communities based around sameness—has existed throughout human history. And communities based around any type of sameness also tend toward sameness in thought. Every case where a group, religious zealots, political parties, families, or resistance movements has banded together with a shared philosophy or understanding of the world is a homophilic community.

The symbols of mirror and echo have become linked because echoes, like mirrors, distort and clarify information. The earliest example of this connection is in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, the myth of Narcissus and Echo. Narcissus is enthralled with his reflection in the water. He refuses to look away, so he does not notice that Echo has fallen in love with him. Narcissus’s inability to look away from his reflection reveals his desire to be loved. Yet doing so causes him to lose his only chance at getting what he most desires.



We can minimize the distortion of physical echoes and mirrors but never eliminate it. Mirrors will always invert an image. Echos will fade. When ideas are repeated, they change and become symbolic houses of mirrors. This echo chamber can confuse the listener’s orientation toward information, resulting in misunderstandings and deception.

Examining the mirrors in Harry Potter shows the duality in social media. Both Erised and the Two-Way Mirror provide access to information that the user would otherwise be unable to see. The Mirror of Erised reveals “not your face but your heart’s desire.” The Two-Way Mirror is a closed-circuit Facetime call. Each of these mirrors demonstrates an aspect of social media, the ability to call up visions of desires instantly and to communicate instantly via visual and verbal methods regardless of the distance between two people.

Furthermore, these magical mirrors, just like actual, mundane mirrors, have a rigorous orientation for use. A person who wants to use a mirror must face it, or the reflected light will not reach their eyes. Conversely, only one surface of a mirror reflects light. When light reflects off the mirrored surface and provides an otherwise inaccessible vision to the viewer, the mirror becomes active, reflecting and revealing. An everyday example is when a performer or presenter uses a mirror to gauge how they will look to an audience.

These levels of orientation are similar to the orientations required for a person to use social media. A computer, tablet, or smartphone screen has only one surface that emits light the user must face to see what it shows. Furthermore, users must access social media via websites or apps. Content must then be situated among other users’ accounts in some way that allows user interaction. These orientations place the social media user in particular positions regarding physical, social, and cyber spaces, not least with the social media developers and their business goals and ideological models.



Social media users are more likely to construct echo chambers if they have an orientation toward information directed toward self-agreement. The tendency to surround ourselves with others who share our perspectives and opinions about the world, known as homophily, is a human universal. We all want connection, which is most comfortable when we agree with those around us.

Harry first found the Mirror of Erised by accident. He wanted to investigate the library’s Restricted Section, researching a lead in his quest to protect the Sorcerer’s Stone. However, he had to flee from unfriendly staff. Only by slipping into an unused classroom can Harry free himself from pursuit. This situation places everything in this room into a mental space of secrecy and rule-breaking. If Harry had found this room in another manner, its objects would have a different, perhaps less potent, significance.

Furthermore, the physical space around the Mirror is familiar to Harry. Hogwarts is full of such rooms. So Erised’s surroundings are mundane. The room, desks, chairs, and other ordinary classroom objects fade into the background. They require no description beyond “dark shapes…piled against the walls.” The most interesting of these objects is an upturned wastebasket. Harry barely notices these items and the room. They serve only as background features against which the Mirror of Erised is highlighted in the fore. Erised is “propped against the wall…as if someone had just put it there to keep it out of the way.” It does not belong in this space. Erised is out of place, which directs Harry’s attention toward it. Despite the circumstances of his entering the room and the darkness that surrounds him, Harry can see Erised clearly and has the time to examine it closely. In this way, not only do the immediate physical surroundings of the mirror fade into the background, but also Harry’s social and temporal situation.

Another aspect of Erised’s orientation becomes apparent when Harry revisits the mirror, this time with Ron. Both boys look forward to seeing the Mirror, and each is excited to see what the mirror shows the other. When Ron and Harry first use the Mirror together, Harry is the subject of the reflection. However, when Harry stands before the mirror, Ron cannot see Harry’s vision, only his reflection. Similarly, Ron must describe to Harry what the mirror shows when he “look[s] in it properly.” That the visions shown within the Mirror of Erised are invisible to others mirrors social media design. Erised and social media are different because two people face the same screen simultaneously. They can see the same content. However, your social media feed and someone else’s differs dramatically. Each user’s feed is designed to recommend content they would like to see. This one-to-one relationship between a social media feed and its user is integral to the business model.

Where Erised’s success is oriented toward showing desire for its own sake, social media is designed to keep users looking at their screens. Users who look at their screens longer see more ads, and the companies make more money. Social media developers feed users’ confirmation bias by creating and employing recommended content algorithms. These computer programs suggest new content based on the user’s interests—as determined by their viewing history, demographic information, and other factors—and the content’s popularity.

On the one hand, this is good business. The content providers’ business model keeps users engaged with the screen. They decide by asking, “How much time can we get you to spend [on our content]? How much of your life can we get you to give to us?” Content that aligns with the user’s interest and frames of reference is more likely to achieve these goals.

As more people view content, it becomes more likely to be suggested to other users. This positive feedback loop is supposed to provide quality control. However, it just shows popularity. It takes any opinion users want to explore and provides near-infinite related popular content. At first glance, this is what we want, as much information as possible. However, most of this information takes one side of the issue to one extreme while showing few dissenting perspectives. In this way, recommended content algorithms (RCAs) make it easy for viewers to indoctrinate themselves as they see article after post after video showing only one side or simplifying complicated issues. The internet is full of information on all sides of all issues. However, RCAs use our data to direct our attention to the information we already agree with.

The Mirror of Erised also uses information people want to see to draw them back to the visions it provides. When Harry obsesses over it the next day, Ron asks him not to go back, but like many social media users, Harry feels he must look again. He feels drawn to the information he wants to see, what he wants to be true. Dumbledore teaches Harry—and us—about the dangers of this kind of thinking, how we can be “entranced by what [we] have seen…not knowing if what they have seen is real, or even possible.”

Similarly, we are all at risk of becoming entranced by echo chambers, online and off, and often some or all of the information we receive in this way is misleading or inaccurate.

Erised, Albus Dumbledore tells Harry, “will give us neither knowledge or truth” and urges Harry to not “go looking for it again”. This advice reveals that Harry already knew what he desired; the mirror only gave him an image and forced him to acknowledge it. In this way, Erised is a valuable tool as some desires are harder to visualize or acknowledge. However, once the mirror reveals the image, it is essential not to “dwell on dreams and forget to live”. Once Erised—and by extension, social media—reflects a signifier of the user’s desire, the most helpful thing to do is to reflect on that image, determine the desire it represents, and continue living and working toward that goal. The images of our desires that social media shows us are often unobtainable, like Harry’s parents. However, Harry could achieve his core desire, family; it just looked different from what Erised showed him.




Ron also achieved the desire that Erised showed him. While Ron was never Head Boy—a position reserved for seventh-year students—nor was he ever Quidditch captain. He did play a role in winning the House Cup a few times. But he did achieve the desire behind the image he saw. He wanted to be recognized as important in his own right.

Similarly, we can achieve our core desires. However, it will usually look quite different from what social media tells us it will.

Part Two of this essay will examine Sirius’s Two-Way Mirror and how social media shapes our orientation to new information through how we connect to others on the internet. It will also present a brief idea of what we can do about our tendency to create echo chambers and how this tendency might be useful.



Ian McLaughlin (he/him), Hufflepuff, earned his MA in English from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2022 and is currently a Master’s of Library Science student at UNCG. Previous versions of this research have been presented at the Harry Potter Academic Conference (2021) and the Graduate Research and Creativity Expo at UNCG (2022) which are posted on his academic profile.


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