The Structure of Furry

09 Dec 2013 |

Furry is not a fandom. At least, not any more.

We're not a fandom because we aren't fans of some specific piece of art. There is no furry canon.

Fandoms revolve around their canon. The canon provides a permanent reference point for all fandom-related activities. We furries have no such thing, and so furry is defined by whatever we, collectively, decide.

Furry is something that is constantly changing, something that is constantly being recreated by we furries. So, not surprisingly, what exactly makes us 'furry' is difficult to pin down.

The biggest common element among furries is the use of an animal-person avatar, our fursona. For most of us, our fursona is a representation of ourself, and we present as our fursona online and in real-world furry spaces.

So, if you meet me online or in a furry space, I'll say "hello, I'm JM, and I'm a horse". If you meet me in a non furry space, I'll say "hello, I'm Matt" (and I'll think to myself "I'm a horse, hahahaha awesome").

JM and Matt are, physically, the same, but they are different identities. My furry identity, JM, is an imaginary creation but a personally important one. Lucky for me that all you other furries are have to accept the premise that I am a horse, which reinforces all those nice personal associations I feel about the horse. You make me feel good about being me. (Thanks.)

I think that this identity-play is at the heart of furry.

It wasn't always this way of course. Furry grew from fandom groups in the late 20th century, and was still largely a fandom/geek phenomenon as late as the 1990s. Then the internet came along, we all found each other, and we created today's community, of animal-people and art and conventions and everything else.

But I'm simplifying. There are still plenty of furs who consider themselves to be furry fans only, and there are furries who don't interact through the lens of an animal-person avatar - like [adjective][species]'s own Phil Geusz, or my old friend Paul Kidd.

Furry is still close to its fandom roots, and reference points like The Lion King or My Little Pony are important for many furs. It's even evident in the most common term used to describe our community: 'furry fandom'. I want to make this clear because our readership includes plenty of self-described 'furry fans', and I don't want to imply that they are somehow excluded from our collective furry excellent adventure.

A furry fan named Perri challenged an article here I wrote for [a][s] last year titled The Second Wave of Furry. He said that the article 'managed to dredge up feelings of being told I don’t belong here because I’m a fan'. He charged me with 'trying to paint the whole community with a wide brush, alienating everyone who doesn’t fit into their view'.

As it turns out, Perri mentioned that he has produced a history of the furry fandom. His history, hosted here, is essentially a long, long list of comics, TV shows, movies, and other media that Perri considers to be 'furry'. His list is not exhaustive, but it sure is exhausting*. He says that such furry media defines furry, because we are its fans.

* WORDPLAY!

I think that Perri's history, which is a terrific resource, proves my point. None of his examples of furry media, which starts with Aesop's Fables and ends with My Little Pony, are furry canon. Some of his examples are important to many furries, but none of them are important to 'being' furry today.

Any new furry entering the community today (and for the past decade or so) will find one implied requirement for entry: a fursona. Furry, today, is about identity—not fandom. With all respect for Perri (and Phil and Paul and whoever else), his approach to furry is an artefact of our fandom days. Furry has changed, and—lacking a canon or other point of reference—furry is going to continue to change.

For most of us, furry is an expression in identity. Collectively, we are experimenting with what it means to be a person, and we're heading out for deeper waters. There are some groups in our wake:

  • The fans. Fandoms have long experimented with identity, such as with cosplay. There has been some research on the value of such identity experimentation. One psychologist has likened cosplaying as 'a form of self-administered mental health treatment'.
  • The catfish. Catfish are people who create a fake online alter-ego, and roleplay as that (human) character. It can go wrong when a catfish forms a close emotional bond with someone, as in the movie Catfish, or the Manti Te'o affair. On a less extreme level, it's common for people to present a shifted version of themselves online: perhaps more outgoing, or in better physical shape.

There is an element of wish-fulfilment in all of this identity play, and that's true for furry as well. Furry goes further because we are not constrained by a fandom canon (the cosplayers) or by the requirements of the real world (the catfish). We get to create a persona from scratch.

Not surprisingly, furry has proven attractive to those people who don't fit into the mainstream world very easily. We have a lot of young people, who may be attracted to furry in those confusing years where they are no longer a child, but not yet an adult. And we have a lot of square pegs: the LGBT, the zoophiles, the fetishists, the borderline autistic, and so forth. All of these are people who might find special value in experimenting with an alternate identity—and so they may be drawn to the furry world.

A further part of the attraction of our community is that there are no rules about what 'furry' is, or isn't. We have no formal structure, and nobody is in change. Those furries who act as leaders essentially do so on merit: they are people who are respected, or perhaps provide a service to the community, or otherwise stand out from the crowd. We don't always collectively choose the most capable leaders, but it's a nice change from the real world where people can rise to high positions for other reasons. The furry community is decentralized.

Our structure, then, is quite anarchic. Our community is made up of people engaging in a kind of extreme identity play, and our leaders are organically selected. It's the sort of structure that is common on the internet on a smaller scale—a group grows around a small nucleus, before imploding and fracturing when it becomes too large.

Small furry groups grow and fracture all the time, but the wider community holds together because of a core, shared idea: we all identify as furries. It's an environment that promotes wider togetherness, even while drama and chaos often reign on the smaller scale.

This structure—leaderless and decentralized, but strong—occurs in other internet-based communities. The only requirement is that the central idea is compelling enough to maintain continuity amidst the drama. Such groups are often called 'loose collectives', and the best example is Anonymous.

Furry and Anonymous share the same decentralized structure. But there is one big difference: Anonymous is driven by a central idea that might be defined as negative, in that it's a reaction to a perceived wrong—in this case (and very roughly), disenfranchisement from society. Positive central ideas are rare, because it's always easier for people to bond over a common enemy—Keynesian economics, say, or the Church of Scientology. Furry's positive focus is rare.

This doesn't mean that furry is 'good' and Anonymous is 'bad': there are elements of both in both communities. But it does mean that we act in fundamentally different ways. To generalize, furry is creative rather than destructive; proactive rather than reactive.

The structure of furry is driven by our shared interest in exploring identity as an animal-person. This is a personal exercise, but we are drawn together because we mutually reinforce each other's animal-person identity. Furry is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Or to put it another way, we are having a voluntarily shared delusion.

Furry, then, is necessarily self-referential. New furries look to fit in, and so they adopt the community's norms, such as creating an animal-person avatar. This helps settle and define furry culture, while simultaneously we challenge the status quo by exploring the edges of what it means to be a furry. Our growth and change as a community happens unpredictably, as successful furry ideas are embraced (YCH auctions) and anachronistic ideas are discarded ('burned furs').

[adjective][species], this website, can be seen as a microcosm of this natural growth and change. The site is subtly changing as we write new articles, and as the readers respond. Successful ideas take on more importance, as they provoke more content from either one of the regular writers or one our growing numbers of Guest Articles. The site has a life of its own, a life collectively defined by the consumers of the site itself. (Even this article was partly provoked by a yet-to-be-published Guest Article that I'm helping to edit. It's about leadership and penguins and it's terrific - look out for it.)

Furry will continue to grow and change. Soon enough, the furries of 2013 will find themselves perplexed, and possibly unwelcome, in whatever the new furry world brings, just as Perri-the-fan finds himself today. And some of us will hark back to the good old days of 2013, back when JM was engaging in awesome wordplay on [adjective][species].

The desire for things to stay static is a natural conservative instinct. It's easy to stay fixed, and to look back on the past with rose-tinted glasses, while the world has moved on. Most furries are young and so will not have experienced this, but all of us will be able to think of someone who refuses to engage with today's world on today's terms. It requires effort to look to the future with optimism, not just back at the past with fondness. I, for one, am looking forwards to where furry will take us next.