Reputation in the Furry Fandom: Zaush, Sasho, and Judgment by Social Media

08 Mar 2014 | Kyell Gold

Following the close timing of two events that caused a good deal of drama in the fandom (explained below), some of the [a][s] contributors exchanged e-mails to discuss the situations and what they and the response to them said about the fandom. Below is a slightly edited (mostly for clarity and continuity and to exclude the names of contributors who did not wish to be included) transcript of the e-mails that went around for a couple days, followed by “closing statements” from contributors who wished to make one. What follows are the opinions of the individual contributors, which should not be taken as any official position of [adjective][species], and which are offered in the spirit of [a][s]’s mission of figuring out just what the heck we are doing in this wonderful furry world of ours. As some of the contributors note, this topic is not particularly relevant to being furry, but it is relevant to the furry fandom.

Topics covered in the roundtable:

The “FA drama”: Dragoneer announced that Zaush would be joining the Fur Affinity code revamp team. Some members who had been working on an FA revamp already felt that Zaush had been given too much authority and that their work was being thrown out; Dragoneer and Zaush dispute this. In addition, the elevation of Zaush to a position of authority in FA brought back the story from a few years ago in which he was accused of sexual assault.

Links:
Initial Accusation from Yiffyleaks
Zaush on Twitter
Summary of accusations on Vivisector
Another accusation on Twitter
And another on Livejournal
Zaush's recent response to the rape and FA revamp issues

The “FC drama”: after Saho was announced as the con chair for next year’s Further Confusion, somebody revealed that he had previously been arrested for domestic abuse and supplied details.

Tweets:
https://twitter.com/FuzzWolf2000/status/426026956316897280
https://twitter.com/FuzzWolf2000/status/426027268725411840
https://twitter.com/FuzzWolf2000/status/426027311561859073
https://twitter.com/lupinesilver/status/425158407231127552 (police report on the domestic abuse arrest)

The Yar putter story was featured on Grantland.com. In the course of investigating claims of a “miracle putter,” the reporter found that the inventor was a trans woman. She later committed suicide, possibly related to the uncovering of her past.

http://grantland.com/features/the-dr-v-story-a-letter-from-the-editor/

Links have also been left in the discussion at the point they were added.


Roundtable discussion

Kyell Gold:
Hey smart people,

Since yesterday, I've had things kicking around my head that I wanted to say about the FC/FA dramas that've been going on, mainly addressing the points:

1. Leaping to judgment on social media/the way we abbreviate things and therefore change them (eg. the first I heard about the FC drama was "FC con chair beat up handicapped roommate," implying "roommate at FC," which was not true, and in fact the rest was not true either; the handicapped roommate was the one who tried to break up the domestic assault).
2. Whether unsavory/criminal behavior in a different arena does or should affect an individual's suitability to lead or direct community institutions.

Either of those could actually be an article, and then I thought that they are actually fairly big ideas and it might actually serve this topic better to have a discussion among several informed parties who might have slightly (or very) different points of view on the whole thing.

What do you guys think? If yea, who wants to be included? I was thinking basically an e-mail chain over a couple days that I (or someone else) could then edit into a reasonable article. :) I'll kick it off tonight or tomorrow when everyone's had a chance to respond.


JM:
Hi everyone

Gosh, well, this is pretty serendipitous timing. Just a couple of hours ago I emailed Makyo with a proposal regarding possible [a][s] coverage of the FA foofaraw (the FC one is news to me).

I had also reached the conclusion that it's a complex situation that would be well served by a diverse group of moderate voices. It my hope that it would provide a thoughtful counterpoint to the ongoing shouting match between extreme opinions on either side.

My idea was to do a bit of research, to come up with primary sources of information rather than relying on hearsay or rumour. And then use that dossier to solicit articles from various people: everyone here, plus our guest writers, plus other interested parties. The resulting responses could then be posted over a short period of time, perhaps one per day.

So, yeah, count me in for sure.
[...]


Jakebe:
Count me in! I've been thinking a lot about this -- not only about the FA/FC thing, but about the growing prevalence of the whole "pitchfork mob" thing in general. It's a really troubling trend, and we should definitely address what's happening in our community.


Klisoura:
I certainly think it's good for [a][s] as a credible lens on the fandom to report on topical events. […] I have heard nothing about this FC spat. From what I can tell the FA, ah, foofaraw is one more in a lengthy number of such squabbles it has attracted, which I think is an interesting entrypoint in and of itself.

To that end I think Jakebe's angle is very strong. The Internet has gravitated towards pitchforkism, to which "unsavory behaviour" is often used as a means rather than an end (I think here about the meta-reporting around Assange or Snowden, and the occasional bits of commentary we saw around whether these were being preferentially reported on rather than other more central topics).

Alternatively the Yar putter story also describes a very interesting arc, where pitchforks are concerned. In the fandom's case, who's driving the narrative? To what end? Or is it completely organic, that on the Internet, mobs occur and the nucleation sites are irrelevant?

Makyo, I know you and I have talked about The Goff before, and I think some of that work has shown up on [a][s] in the past — has anybody written about context collapse as it regards the fandom specifically or online communities in general? boyd tends to write about online as it mirrors or recapitulates real-world relationships but for the most part this is almost entirely online...


Kyell Gold:
Links to tweets about the FC thing:

https://twitter.com/FuzzWolf2000/status/426026956316897280
https://twitter.com/FuzzWolf2000/status/426027268725411840
https://twitter.com/FuzzWolf2000/status/426027311561859073
https://twitter.com/lupinesilver/status/425158407231127552 (police report on the domestic abuse arrest)

I think the Yar putter story (http://grantland.com/features/the-dr-v-story-a-letter-from-the-editor/ for those who haven't read it) is similar but different; the fandom stories are both aimed at people in positions of power. The impression I get is that the Yar putter story arose out of ignorance, while the fandom stories stem from a desire to enact justice ourselves: look, we can punish this bad person by removing their power in the community (get FC to name a different chair, leave FA for another site). There is perhaps some pride in our community, but I don't see the discussions being of that tone ("how can such a thing happen here?"); I see more the vigilante justice angle. We often feel powerless in the face of crimes going on in our world, so when faced with bad behavior in our community, it makes us feel righteous and empowered if we can do something about it. The problem is that we demarcate the situation too quickly, because we want to line up on the side of good, which is easiest if we define the other as bad.


Klisoura:
I was directing the Grantland story (thanks for linking) to Jakebe's E-mail, mostly. There's an interesting case study at the simplest level ("we should've consulted a style guide"? Really?) but there's also a meta-story around how, when, and why the Internet mobilizes. I have seen people writing about this chaotic lynch mob mentality in the recent past (the woman who tweeted that AIDS joke comes immediately to mind) because it seems to point to a darker side of the Internet's ability to bring people together, at least in the popular narrative (cf. the Arab Spring).

I have no idea how old it actually is. I was in high school when I was, through various LGBT connections, swept up in the controversy over the then-new J. Michael Bailey book The Man Who Would Be Queen, which had a strong Internet dimension. In that case the response, which in retrospect was probably disproportionate and not entirely rational, had clearly defined loci (chiefly Lynn Conway and Deirdre McCloskey) and at the time this was acknowledged. There was a sense then, too, of vigilanteism; Dr. Bailey was in a position of authority, and trans folk had even fewer advocates then than they do now.

The sense of righteousness is probably important. I also observe that there is sometimes an insular sensitivity that people in the fandom have — the sense that, being already looked down-upon, furries have to be quicker to address transgressions. So there's also an element of what is not quite self-preservation, but is a sense that it's not just righting a wrong done to someone else, but demonstrating that one is a good steward of the community.


Kyell Gold:
I think the "metafurry" angle really is served by examining the reaction of the community. A lot of this isn't specific to furry, but Jakebe's described well the way reputations grow and echo in the fandom, and certainly the reliance of furry on FA and the part that played in this are important. After all, the rape allegations around Zaush first surfaced a couple years ago; it was only when he was appointed to help redesign FA (and then was counted as staff, apparently, so he fell under that protection and comments deemed harassing to him were deleted) that things came back and got worse.


JM:
Here are some links that can serve as source material for the FA thing:

http://archive.is/vtPdV
http://tinypic.com/view.php?pic=2enszue&s=7#.Ut1yvrSwppg
https://forums.vivisector.org/index.php?topic=442.msg4109#msg4109
http://tinypic.com/view.php?pic=250m1jp&s=7
http://bridgeportcat.livejournal.com/96818.html?thread=707122#t707122

It's mostly screencaps and message logs that provide pretty compelling evidence that Zaush has coerced young women into sex, and has otherwise acted in an unwelcome fashion.

I think a lot of the problem lies in that both issues are unsatisfying in their complexity. There is no outcome that is "good", just shades of badness. People, especially (I suspect) literal-minded furries, are inclined to look for an ideal solution to a problem. And that doesn't exist in either of these cases.

I can't help but think that this adds fuel to the fire: the vigilantes want justice, and the apologists want to ignore the whole thing. And neither of them have a perfect, or even particularly good, case to make. So as you say, it's easier to paint an opposing party as 'bad', rather than accept that one's own position is imperfect.

Still, I do think that it's okay to make a judgement. Should Zaush help run FA? Should Sasho be chair of FC?

I have my own opinions, which I'm going to keep to myself for the time being, because I don't really think it's important. But suffice to say that neither the vigilantes nor the apologists would be especially satisfied.


Jakebe:
Thanks so much for the links, guys! That's an awful lot to read but I'd better get educated.

In regards to the FA thing, I really think that the fandom's reaction is not *just* about Zaush, or *just* about Dragoneer, but a whole lot of different things coming to roost. There's been a low-level dissatisfaction with the administration of FA for a while, from outages to the time it takes to get anything done to the seemingly-inconsistent reactions that the admins have regarding blow-ups. There's a bit of a "good old boys" club perception that's solidified at this point, where it really feels like Dragoneer and company are more interested in protecting their own than doing what's best for the site and community at large. […]

Zaush has been a controversial figure for a long time, and any goodwill he might have had jumping aboard the project evaporated early when the people previously working on a redesign were booted. He has a fairly terrible reputation amongst large swaths of the fandom, so — even though there may not be solid evidence for it — it's easy for a lot of people to believe that he would force himself on women at the very least. Between the perceived corruption and unprofessionalism among the current FA administration, the feeling that the FA community has been underserved for years (fostering the attitude that "Dragoneer doesn't care about the little guy") and Zaush's bad reputation, it's a fairly perfect storm.

I think what I would like to focus on is the argument on both sides upholding either Zaush or the accuser. Both sides are jumping to conclusions based on the unproven statements of either party involved, and the only difference for most of us is that Zaush already has the reputation. On the other hand, those asking for proof have to realize that definitive "proof" of sexual misconduct is incredibly hard to come by, and without witnesses, some sort of recorded evidence or an admission by the accused, all we HAVE is heresay.

The specific situation is thorny enough, but the reaction to it has proven to a fertile ground for all manner of discussions about our community that has long been overdue — the pitchfork mentality/instant social justice phenomenon that's been sweeping through Internet circles for a while now (which might read as an apology for Zaush) and the overwhelming ignorance about sexual assault and victim-blaming that's been uncovered in the wake of the accusation (which might read as support for his accuser).

The Grantland issue is a really fascinating one, by the way. I read the EIC's apology three or four times, and I have to say I'm quite impressed with it. I think he's openly admitted his ignorance about trans* matters, pointed out exactly what he could have done differently to prevent this from happening (for example, pointing not just to any style guide, but GLAAD's style guide *specifically* for writing about trans* people in a journalistic setting) and outlined exactly what he planned to do moving forward to prevent a recurrence.

The staff of FA could learn a lot about that. They're trying to be more transparent, Frith bless 'em, but they have a lot to learn. They need to realize exactly what the fandom is complaining about (a difficult thing to do, given the deafening outroar surrounding it), address those points directly, and admit where they're wrong. They need to be specific about why they're choosing the path they are (in this case, keeping Zaush) while being sensitive to the unhappiness of people who hoped they would choose differently. And they should directly address an intolerance of sexual harrassment and any code of conduct they have for their admins and staff.

But that's just my opinion. :)


Kyell Gold:
Zaush's recent response to the rape and FA revamp issues: http://www.furaffinity.net/journal/5434971/

Thanks for the links. Reading through them (I hadn't seen the full text of the Dragoneer/Ferality exchange before), I think Dragoneer comes off better than my initial impression. The distilled version of Dragoneer's behavior is being reported as "he told her 'stay quiet or you'll get shit on,'" and while that's not entirely inaccurate, he did treat the situation more thoughtfully than that. She's not asking him whether she should report a crime to the police; she's asking him whether she should post something on his site and also advising him that someone might be using his site to abuse women. He at least said he would look into that (no evidence whether he did or not). He was truthful with her about what would happen if she just posted allegations and advised her to seek out corroborators to her story and/or provide evidence—and he *did not tell her not to do it*. Could he have gone further? Sure. He could've said "I'll monitor your post and will advise people that uncivil discussion will lead to suspension/banning per FA rules."

I think that leads to another interesting question. Furry doesn't have a central authority of any kind. We look to people like the leaders of FA, the chairs of conventions, and to some degree the other popular figures in the community for guidance in difficult situations because they have the widest reach. Do those people have a responsibility to the community to be role models? I use that phrase specifically to call back to Charles Barkley saying that he shouldn't be a role model, that he was just an athlete. Dragoneer could say that he isn't in charge of the furry community; he just runs an art site. But the fact is that what goes on on that site is a reflection, in part, of what he chooses to allow there, and the same goes for convention chairs. FA chose to ban adult art of cubs even though (as JM recently wrote) the legality is debatable. They also choose to allow just about everything else, and that's more or less FA's style: we just provide the platform, and you figure out what you want to pay attention to. They do ban people for certain behaviors--part of the recent drama as well was centered around people who were suspended and their comments deleted when they tried to post about Zaush. I haven't seen Dragoneer respond to that, if he has at all.

Similarly, I was rather discouraged when I tried to talk to a convention chair about including harassment awareness programming in their convention and got a brusque "talk to programming about that" reply (even though that convention, like many furry conventions, had experienced reported incidences of harassment). Con chairs are, I think, more responsible for promoting responsible behavior at their conventions, and it's been heartening to see harassment policies become common on convention policy pages. FC in 2013 included a harassment awareness panel at their convention; this is not being mentioned in any of the discussion about their new chair.

foozzzball posted a journal today (http://www.sinisbeautiful.com/?p=443) that is related to what Jakebe concluded with, and which I think is something we shouldn't forget: in the rush to stake out positions on either side, people risk making the atmosphere so aggressive and poisonous that it is a deterrent to other people who might want to bring personal issues to light. The science fiction fandom has had a wave of people demanding safe spaces at conventions and other gatherings, and the fact that furry fandom has not had a big harassment scandal does not mean there is no harassment in the community. Friends of mine have specifically reported attempted and successful harassment, always by men toward women ("attempted" in this case meaning "discouraged by a large boyfriend"), at several different furry conventions. I know that conventions now have a posted harassment policy, but I haven't yet figured out how to check that staff are properly briefed on how to handle a complaint brought to their attention. Anyway, the point is: if you were watching this drama unfold over Zaush and a lot of his supporters were talking about how the victim was probably lying, or probably just seeking attention, how would you feel about going public with a harassment complaint? From what I've heard, the incidents have been easy to dismiss as not worth raising a fuss about [Just want to clarify that this is not my thought, but the opinion of the victims I’ve talked to— “well, I felt uncomfortable but no harm was done so I’ll keep quiet”—and one thing harassment awareness tries to change is this reluctance to make waves if nobody was “really hurt,” because if bad behavior isn’t checked, it can escalate], but what happens when one isn't?

The issue of harassment in the fandom has been bothering me for a while, but it's a hard one to get around and probably outside the scope of this discussion. But I do think it's important that the community understand that we have to provide a safe space for people who are taking the incredibly difficult step of going public with personal issues. Otherwise this stuff just gets swept under the rug and people keep on doing it.


JM:
[…]

Doing research for previous [a][s] articles, I spoke with a lot of women who have received unwelcome attention, been sexually harassed, and have been raped by male furries. I think it's a much bigger problem than people realise, because these women simply stop attending public furmeets, and so the problem isn't visible.

I would judge that Zaush's offences are pretty bad, and not easy to dismiss at all. It's wrong to say that it's rape—none of his victims have claimed that—but he has clearly made unwelcome advances, he has clearly coerced people into sex (which is a common form of abuse among furries, based on the women I've spoken with), and it's clear that a lot of women are not comfortable with him being in a position of seniority. And in the end, it's the victims who get to decide whether they have been hurt.

And this is the main point: people don't seem to be concerned for the harm done to the victims. I thought that Zaush's defensive journal missed the point entirely: he addressed the specifics of the complaints about him, but he didn't seem to show any respect for the feeling of his victim, and those women who feel uncomfortable with him in a position of power. He doesn't seem to be sorry for the harm that he's done, and I think that's a problem.

This is why I think Dragoneer has made an error of judgement. Zaush shouldn't be in any staff position on FA because it sends the wrong message to the furry women who use the site. It's easy to feel that FA has ignored the victim and rewarded the perpetrator.

Having said that, and perhaps like you Kyell, I feel that the opprobrium aimed at Dragoneer is unfair. He has been a furry punching bag for a while, and in this case I don't think he's guilty of anything other than a lapse of judgement. I think he has been caught wrong-footed: from his perspective, all he has done is ask a qualified person to help out with the site.


Jakebe:
[…]

I agree that Zaush and Dragoneer appear mainly concerned about protecting their reputations and side of things, but I wouldn't think that's surprising given their history and positions. I think this is an opportunity for both of them to address the broader nature of the accusations against them, why they seem to have gathered steam and what they plan to do to address that image. Going back to what Kyell asked a little bit ago, the fact that they're highly-visible members of the fandom who wield a great amount of control over one of the main tools it uses means that they have a responsibility to deal with the public/political side of things. I understand that a lot of furries who find themselves thrust in the spotlight have neither the training or desire to manage public perception, and I truly sympathize with that. But stepping up to fill a need in the fandom provides you with a great amount of power, and we all know what happens with great power....

That's really at the base of this issue. Whether he realizes it or not — whether he wants it or not — Dragoneer is a powerful member of the furry community and he hasn't been transparent or responsible with that power in the past. Even though his involvement in this whole thing might be fairly "minor", that lapse in judgement combined with previous ones have really caused this whole thing to get away from him. I don't know if he has people who can tell him what's happening from a public relations perspective, and the best thing to do from here. But he certainly needs it.


This was the end of our roundtable discussion. Not a formal end (sorry, JM), but the point where we felt everything had been said. In order to bring a bit of conclusion to the discussion, I asked all the participants to contribute a paragraph for their “closing thought.”

JM:
Furry is a broad church and there are no police. As a community, I think we have a responsibility to help create a positive, inclusive, and safe culture. We are male dominated and so we, collectively, need to go out of our way to make sure that the voices and concerns of women are heard - much like a heterosexual-dominated society must go out of its way to hear homosexual voices and concerns. In my opinion, Zaush's elevation to his role at FA sends the wrong message: it suggests that the furry community is one where female victims are marginalized.

Jakebe:
As a community of creators and personalities with no hierarchy, no one sets the tone for the furry community but us ourselves. We each have a power that's unique among other geek cultures, and with that there's a responsibility that I don't think enough of us realize. The reactions of indifference, skepticism and hostility towards people standing up for the rights of the "other" within our own community show us that we have issues with that responsibility that absolutely need to be addressed. It also shows us that no matter whether we feel we're wolves or dragons or rabbits, we're still subject to the same flaws of human nature as our mundane cousins. We still struggle with different perspectives, and it's good we're talking about it now instead of pretending that difficulty doesn't exist.

Klisoura:
The ability of the Internet to summon itself into crusading armies/lynch mobs is not new; it predates 4chan and Reddit and Twitter, although they have provided our most recent examples. Relative anonymity and instantaneous, asynchronous communication enable our propensity for tribalism by making these tribes ad-hoc, fluid, and temporal. The standard of membership is minimal — at least, "having a position"; at most, pontification ;) — and the costs, and opportunity costs, of participation are low. Where they are, or can be made to be, attached to themes of social justice (as, for example, cats in bins) it even creates an outsized return on even these minimal investments by lending a genteel sense of vindication to the tribe. So it goes. Now, if furry was a religion, it would have perhaps only one commandment: "we are a co-created fandom." It is a truism deeply held: like Batman of old, with his Batcycles and Batarangs, we esteem ourselves to "furry" versions of everything. Not just fiction, but furry fiction (as distinct from fiction with anthropomorphic elements). Not just ostracism, but furry persecution. Furry slang, furry avatars, furry conventions. It's conceivable that what we have here is not just a standard Internet momentary convulsion of discontent, but a furry convulsion — all the same, on reflection I suspect that, excepting the involvement of a lightning-rod furry website, with lightning-rod personalities at its center, there's nothing particularly furry about it, and furry as a lens does not shed any particularly novel light.

Kyell Gold:
As editor, I get the last word here. :) One of the things I think is really valuable about this roundtable is that we approach the issue from different angles: intellectual interest in the situation, emotional attachment to the community, and investment in the type of problem and protection of the weak. Uniting all of these is the recognition that we are all part of the furry community, a small group that has no elected leaders, and that we bear a responsibility to all members of our community. At the same time, those people who have leadership roles in our community (convention chairs, leaders of community sites) also have a responsibility to be responsive to the community above and beyond the duties they perform in those roles. We’re all in this together, and that means more than just being a bunch of happy anthro animals running around drawing and writing and partying. It means taking care of each other, and that means not only taking care of people who take personal risks, as pointed out above, but also forgiveness for people who have already paid the penalty for their mistakes. Railing against emotional outbursts on Twitter is like shouting at the ocean, but let’s try to weigh issues in our mind before we weigh in online. And remember that everyone involved, whether horse or fox, wolf or rabbit, dog or cat, is a person and deserves to be treated like one.