Anti-social behaviour caused problems at three different furry events in recent times. These incidences are rare, and there is nothing to suggest that they are becoming less rare. However the fact that three issues occurred coincidentally has led to many of us wonder about furry culture.
Ultimately, each person has personal responsibility for their actions. Beyond that, furries in general hold a collective responsibility for behaviour and self-policing. And finally, organizers are able to influence the culture of a group event.
So how can organizers of large furry gatherings create a culture that reduces the chance of a problem?
To briefly recap the recent problems at furry gatherings:
- Oklacon, which was held in a public campground, was cancelled after congoers had sex in public the night before the 2014 opening ceremony. This brought a long-simmering cultural conflict between Oklacon and park managers to a head, and the application for Oklacon 2015 was rejected.
- A few problems at Rainfurrest 2015 (which I attended) led to the organizers publishing an open letter to attendees, stating that behavioural problem was putting the con at risk. The Seattle Airport Hilton subsequently cancelled their contract with Rainfurrest.
- A lewd act during a 2015 Londonfurs meet was witnessed by barstaff. The Londonfurs organizers issued an open letter stating that this had harmed the relationship with the venue. Part of the venue was closed to the furs for a few months, although it has since reopened.
The ideas I'm presenting here are based on the Nudge philosophy described by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (link to book). To "nudge" is to present information in such a way that doesn't place any rules or restrictions on behaviour, but does influence behaviour. The US and UK governments both have "nudge units" that have helped improve the effectiveness of government services, and such techniques are commonly used by private industry as a way of maximizing profits.
An example of a government "nudge": posters of eyes in areas of high crime have been shown to significantly reduce illegal behaviour. Here's a picture of eyes in a bike theft hotspot in Newcastle, UK:
This poster reduced bike theft by over 60% in a two-year trial.
For a furry convention or gathering, a successful nudge should be inexpensive or free to the organizers, in terms of both cost and time. It should reduce the risk of anti-social behaviour, but without actually applying any new boundaries. In Nudge parlance, this is "libertarian paternalism".
That's not to say that there shouldn't be boundaries on behaviour. Boundaries, for the most part, already exist as part of the gathering's rules, and they are enforced by punitive measures.
It's usually easy for an organization to enforce behaviour using punishment. It's a simple enough equation: if you do this, we will do that. It's always necessary to some extent, but it can have negative consequences, familiar to anyone who has helped organize an event. Creating and enforcing rules creates a natural "elite" group, which can quickly escalate into an us-vs-them situation.
Any resentment towards the elite organizing group from the attendees can feed conflict and anti-social behaviour. This can reinforce the status of the organizers as an unwanted authority group, at least among some attendees. So while hard boundaries and enforcement are sometimes necessary, they should be minimized.
The ideas presented here follow that spirit. They are based on successful "nudges" applied elsewhere, and neither place a significant extra load on organizers, nor introduce new punishments.
1. Identify and target high-risk groups
Where possible, organizers should identify and target high-risk groups. This should be done in a way that doesn't obviously single out high-risk groups, for example by sharing a message that is only of interest to some people. The 6-2-1 message, reinforcing good personal hygiene and health during the con, is a good example of a successful nudge that targets at-risk groups.
The organizers should test their assumptions with data where possible. For example, in a large convention where organizers may be worried about room damage: what rooms are at higher risk of damage? The cheaper rooms or the larger party rooms? Furries who are resident for the whole con or just one night? What about rooms that leave a "do not disturb" sign out for the entire con? Organizers can work with the hotel to identify high-risk groups and target messages accordingly.
2. Take advantage of human social behaviour
The behaviour of people is influenced by those around them. This can be used to reduce high-risk behaviour. For example, if furs who don't allow housekeeping into their room are at greater risk of room damage, organizers should reinforce the normality of having your room cleaned by spreading a message like "86% of attendees allow housekeeping to clean rooms each night".
3. Observation is a moderating influence
Overt observation of activity significantly reduces anti-social behaviour. Organizers can make people feel observed by taking photos as part of the registration process (perhaps only targeting high-risk groups). Security should take photos of poor behaviour in preference to creating conflict, wherever possible.
If specific high-risk individuals have been identified, organizers can point this out with minimum conflict by slipping a note under the door of their room. By writing their real (non-furry) name on the note, it will reduce the feeling of anonymity that can come along in a large gathering.
Organizers can expect some controversy in reaction to these measures. Furries are a group that resents observation, on personal liberty grounds. In response, organizers should be clear that covert observation already exists, as part of the registration process and in the hotel in general. All they are doing is making observation more overt.
4. Reward good behaviour at risky times
Security personnel can be armed with small bags of jellybeans, and hand these out to well-behaved but at-risk congoers. This might be drunk people in the bar, pot smokers (where legal), or room parties. This creates a reciprocal social environment: the giving of small gifts have been shown to increase positive community behaviour.
5. Make attendees feel like part of a team
Organizers should minimize use of us-vs-them language, especially in text. Some conventions ask attendees to sign official-looking "no ghosting" contracts at registration. These may do more harm than good, in that they provide positive reinforcement to people who will already play by the rules, and increase the sense of outsiderhood among potential offenders. So called "chastity contracts", designed to reduce sexual behaviour among teenagers, are similarly flawed.
Social media plays an important role. The con "live" Twitter feed should be manned around the clock, with each tweeter introducing themselves by name. They should directly acknowledge any rumours or incidents, as honestly as possible.
This will help create a feeling of fellowship between attendees and organizers. If people feel like they are part of a team that is working towards a common goal, they are less likely to be disruptive.
6. Make the venue feel like part of a team
This is not a nudge, but a worthwhile step. Dogpatch Press recently ran a piece looking at how large conventions manage anti-social behaviour, highlighting the value of showing the hotel that the organizers take behavioural problems seriously. For the hotel managers, perception is reality - showing them that you are "on their side" will help maintain a good relationship.
Many conventions will, of course, already be applying these nudges in one form or another. Others may have learned from experience that some don't work, or come at too high a cost. Anyone with experience is encouraged to comment below.
This article has come about, in part, following an in-depth discussion with the chair of a very large convention. He wanted to note that, while the recent problems are outliers, outliers occur at every convention.
The reaction of organizers to problems are a part of the puzzle. As a start, cons should avoid giving problematic people any limelight (positive or negative), and the organizers should learn from inevitable negative experiences.
There are a lot of large furry conventions and gatherings. The recent small spate of problems don't indicate that furry behaviour is getting worse. But organizers can learn from them, and help create better furry environments.