Postfurry 101: The Pledge

“The time has come,” the buni said,
“To talk of postfurry:
Of lava lamps — and cordyceps —
Of drones — and hypno-beams —
And narrative positivity —
And how to feast on dreams.”
— With apologies to Rev. Dodgson

Hang around in my social circles long enough and somebody will eventually use the term “postfurry.” It’s a term that’s been around a while, had its share of supporters and detractors, and generally gets invoked both in the positive sense of “that neatly fits into our bucket” and the negative of “yeah, we really are like that, aren’t we?”

What you won’t often hear, though, is what it is. The word itself has become a label, a vessel into which every person who’s picked it up has poured some set of signifieds independently of each other, until it overflows, dribbling mutually incompatible notions over the sides and staining the carpet a rich shade of bewilderment. Is it a slur? Is it a community? Is it an aesthetic? Is it a philosophy? What does the word mean?

I can’t won’t can’t tell you.

What I can tell you, for some values of “I,” “tell,”, and “you,” is what I mean when I use the word “postfurry,” so that if I drop it into a conversation, instead of having to repeat a massive block of text or carry a little card around for people, I can say, “go look at the essay I wrote about it if you’re interested.” Likely within a few years, I’ll have to add errata and provisos. In a decade or so, I’ll shudder and cringe and make all manner of excuses as to why I haven’t updated this tatty old thing. Nevertheless, it’s good to have a spot from which to begin a conversation, even if it’s the wrong spot.

So, with that, let’s start unfolding.

Before we can really talk about postfurry, we have to talk about furry. It seems logical, doesn’t it? Postfurry is whatever the modifier of “post” stuck onto “furry,” so if we want to understand postfurry, we have to understand furry. So, figuring out what we mean when we say “furry” seems a necessary prerequisite to explaining and exploring postfurry.

What a rabbit hole of an opening.

Folks, I’m pushing a third of a gross in revolutions around the local stellar mass, and people have been arguing over what furry “means” longer than I’ve been here. Now, I sort of self-indoctrinated when I was eight and discovered that reading about people getting turned into animals made me feel funny — you know, down there — but I didn’t get into any kind of formal community based on funny animals until college, and the arguments were already going strong before I ever showed up.

So, before we get to me and my opinions on what furry is and what it means, here’s a small sampling of folks who’ve had opinions on the subject: the hot heads, the cold hearts, the high flyers, the down low, the squeaky clean, the fabulously filthy, the head of the fandom, and its sucking anus.

Having introduced the backup vocalists, though, here’s my take on the melody: “furry” is an interest in human-like characteristics in non-human species, or vice versa. That’s it. No frills, no strobes, no fuss, no muss, no messy cleanup, no bad taste, no aftertaste, no upsetting the nerves. Anything and everything that’s more than that, in my opinion, isn’t about furry, but epifurry. They’re more related to the fandom that’s evolved around furry, and the community that’s evolved out of that fandom, than they do with furry itself.

However, it turns out — in seeming antithesis to my initial post — postfurry as a concept isn’t just “post-plus-furry.” That is, it isn’t just about applying all the things covered by “post” to “an interest in human-like characteristics in non-human species or vice versa.” Postfurry as an idea — and as a community — have absorbed a number of epifurry characteristics as core to its nature. Some of them run so deep that to not include them in the “what is furry” part of “what is postfurry” would be to ignore a significant chunk of postfurry’s history and current formulation. Seeing as many communities are best understood in historical context, it seems both reasonable and relevant to acknowledge the elements of furry fandom that served as seeds for the concept of postfurry:

Declarative Identity
Ubiquitous within the furry fandom is the idea of the fursona, a portmanteau of “fur” and “persona“, which many — though admittedly not all — within the fandom take to be the lens through which we see each other, and how we wish to be seen in turn. So common is this concept that in many circles, it’s metonymous for membership within the fandom.

And yet, selah: what it does it say about a community, that it nigh-axiomatically equates membership with expression of a self-as-Other? What is “identity” in a community that takes it as read that the first step towards belonging is the creation of one or more persistent alter egos? When one member of the fandom has to describe a second to a third, primary fursona species is almost always one of the identifiers that’s given. Consider this in any other context:

  • “You know Cassie, the blonde girl in Accounts Receivable that likes to play pirate outside of work.”
  • “This is my friend Ash; they’re a grad student in chemistry and would like to be a vampire.”
  • “You’ve met Bob, right? He mostly plays Shamans when he’s in WOW. I bet he could answer your tax problem.”

Furries think nothing of, “Oh, you mean Kera? The cute fat cheetah with purple fur?” when amongst themselves. That’s a valid persistent identifier in an offline context in the fandom. We’re known to each other more often by our pseudonyms and our declared species than our legal names. I myself get called “buni” far more often than I do any variant of my government handle, so long as there’s any appreciable quantity of furries around. It’s actually kind of weird when other furries call me by my legal name; it feels formal, like someone’s trying to implicitly convey the need for discretion or an outsider context despite mutually acknowledged membership in the club.

Even more noteworthy is the fact that this act — the determination and assertion of a fursona’s facticities — is viewed by most in the fandom as inviolate. Directly negating someone else’s expressed identity is considered rude under even the best of circumstances, and outright verboten in others. People will choose to interpret aspects of others’ fursonae, and may use them to make determinations about their creators’ character or personalities, but almost nobody will outright say, “no, you can’t be that,” and those who do are almost always seen as breaking an unseen rule of fandom: you are what you say you are.

It’s worth noting as an addendum to all of this that the bulk of the furry fandom’s early development as a community happened while pseudonymity was the norm online. Most early furry spaces were MUSHes and the like where declared identity wasn’t obviously connected to the “legal” self. This disconnect, likely as much an artifact of technology as intentional social design, became a core aspect of the fandom, because it encouraged people to represent themselves as their avatars, and for others to accept that representation as first-order equivalencies.

Much hay has been made elsewhere of the Nymwars, so I don’t think I need to rehash them here. That said, I think it’s important to connect a thread. The “Web-2.0” idea of “one self everywhere” that so many companies — organizations depending on advertising revenue that relied on being able to sell to me as an individual — have been trying to push is, in many ways, anathema to large parts of the fandom explicitly because this idea violates one of our cultural norms. The outrage over marginalized and at-risk communities was all real, but those protests carried an urgency that I don’t think some of us would have felt if we hadn’t also been fighting for preservation of a cultural touchstone: the right to choose who we are, and to have that choice be recognized.

Implicitly Negotiated Reality
Given the seeming preponderance of evidence that environment impacts behavior, it’s worth asking what impact the environments in which furry came of age as a fandom have had on the development of its culture. To do that, we have to look at the environments themselves and ask what their norms are, and how those can be applied to our understanding of the fandom.

This is where I have to briefly step off of research into speculation, but I think I can do so safely. It’s my supposition that, for the majority of the fandom’s history, social engagement with other members of the fandom has primarily occurred in spaces mediated by the metaphors of remote embodiment and role-playing. Now, that’s a hell of a supposition, but hear me out. These are some of the relative ages of the biggest image sites in the fandom, many of which have social communities attached to them:

In contrast, take a look at the ages of some of the big MUCKs:

By the time the first websites that we think of today as “central furry sites” came online, furries had been role-playing as their avatars for several years. Further, the first art archive with an integrated social component, FurAffinity, didn’t show up until nearly fifteen years after the first MUCK; prior to that, most communal engagement with art happened through shared links in those embodied spaces. Yes, I’m aware of IRC, but the protocol only predates FM by two years, and while I don’t deny the impact that IRC has had on the social behavior of furries, I believe that IRC and related spaces share a lot more in common with MUCKs than they do forums, in terms of embodiment.

That’s had a powerful influence on the shape of the social norms of furry as a community, compared to other fandoms and compared to non-fannish interactions. We’re used to thinking of ourselves and each other in light of this alternate form of embodiment wherein the vast majority of “what happens” has been mediated by the concepts that govern improv and role-playing. Combined with the above unspoken rule about not negging somebody’s facticities, it’s fostered an environment in which the unspoken norm of communication is implicit negotiation not just of what is, but of what could and should be happening. The realities of MUCK characters — and by counterprojection and mere exposure, many members of the fandom — are far less about static details and far more about what the people involved have agreed is happening at any given moment.

These metaphors of interaction, over the last twenty-plus years, have produced a community that’s largely aware of and unsympathetic to powergaming. Any given individual’s actions, whatever they are, happen not because just because they say they happen, but because those around them acknowledge their actions and respond to them. A buffer of conscious engagement lies between action and response: every individual is free to look at a scene and decide whether to permit, deny, or ignore the behavior of others. And everyone who engages typically either comes to understand that participation in the consensus reality is mutual, or they get tired of not being acknowledged and leave.

This isn’t to laud furry spaces as perfect gems of consent and eusociability. Furries can do, and have done, terrible things to each other. People can be terrible as well as terrific, awful as well as awesome. Online communities aren’t immune to bad actors, and furry fandom is no exception (TW: Murder). I would be remiss if I attempted to claim that the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory had somehow been suspended for this one group of people. I know better, and so do you.

Rather, I want to make the argument that, on the whole, the fandom has absorbed the notions of improv and digital embodiment as a common set of social standards. We permit what we don’t have reason to stop, we don’t neg other people’s identities, and we support each other when we say who and what we are, and what we want to do and with whom.

Sex and Kink Positivity
And here we are. It was inevitable, really. No, I mean really, I had to go here because this is going to end up informing a large amount of future commentary.

As established to this point, the fandom, for the most part, is really good about tolerating people who make declarative statements about their identities, and implicit negotiation forms a integral part of the understanding the social fabric of the fandom. Now, take that and have a look at some interesting demographics about the fandom. Specifically, take a look at the orientation and gender identity data. If Gerbasi’s results are to be believed — and I have no reason to think they’re not — three-quarters of the fandom identifies as “not straight,” and two percent of the fandom identify as gender-variant in some fashion.

The first number is worth noting mostly for a baseline. Compare that to baseline, where about four percent of the population identifies as non-heterosexual. Four percent… compared to seventy-five. To put that in perspective, the number of non-straight people in the fandom, compared to outside it, is three-in-four compared to one-in-twenty-five. The numbers aren’t just significant; they’re mindblowing.

Now look at the trans counts. Two percent of the fandom identifies as some stripe of transgender. That’s one-in-fifty. Again, looking outside the fandom, the rate in the general populace is about one in twenty-thousand. That… is two-and-a-half orders of magnitude more common. Again, selah: gender dysphoria is four-hundred times more likely in the fandom than outside it. And we haven’t even touched on the neutrois, the asexuals, the genderfluid, the genderfuckers… and Knuckles (TW: Knuckles).

My point being, the furry fandom qualifies as a queer space. It may not be one de jure, but it certainly is one de facto. As such, it’s worth identifying the parts of queer culture that overlap with furry spaces.

For one thing, the furry fandom is, on the whole, incredibly sex-positive, at least as compared to the mainstream (§5.5). Whether or not we’re into it ourselves, we recognize it as an important and healthy part of our community. And yes, though I shouldn’t have to say it, I will anyway: furry is not a fetish.

Now, admittedly, a great many seem to worry — understandably — that the mainstream sees our fandom as sex-obsessed, perhaps even perverted. However, I would argue that the mainstream is itself so negatively-preoccupied with sex that it would view any healthy approach to sex and sexuality as deviant. Remember, this is the country that produced corn flakes to stop people from masturbating.

Outside of just having a refreshingly healthy attitude to sex — at least compared to mainstream Americana, though perhaps not compared to parts of Scandinavia — the furry fandom is home to some of the wildest and most fascinating kinkdom I’ve ever seen. Here, folks, I’m not going to go digging for links. I’m just going to remind folks of Rule 34 and send you on your merry way. Just remember to turn off safe search first and wash your paws after.

Creativity as a form of Social Currency
When I said that the fandom’s been role-playing a lot longer than it’s been sharing media, I said it to heighten the impact that primarily existing in embodied virtual spaces has had on the culture. I hope nobody got the idea that I said it to downplay the importance of art and creativity to the fandom. Far from it, in fact. Our creativity is one of our most amazing assets, as a community. Not only are we a culture that places a high premium on self-expression, but we’ve created an environment in which people feel free enough to experiment.

May I present… the sergal.

Again, selah: look not at what they are, but at what they represent: a fantasy race that became popular enough in the fandom for multiple people who had no interaction with the original source material to build fursonae on the idea. If you don’t like that example, take the chakat, instead, or the citra. These are products of the fandom, evidence of the power of some people’s creativity to inspire and inform aspects of other people’s identities.

Remember these. I’m going to visit them again in part three.

Looking outward, furry is basically a meta-fandom; it can get stirred into pretty much anything with minimal effort: Star Trek, Game of Thrones, Westworld, you name it. It’s like spice melange; you can’t help but get it into everything. In fact, people have made a point of trying to mix it into everything, at some time or another.

The reason why I want to note this, in both directions, is because as Mike Rugnetta once said, furries are a media fandom without canonical media. If anything, furries are fans of an idea, and ultimately, of each other in expressing that idea. I want to take what he says in this presentation one step further, though, and note that in being a fandom-of-itself, furry has a huge potential for remixes, inclusions and occlusions, the introduction of new ideas, and the transformation of old ones. We embrace Death of the Author (CW: TVTropes), almost to a dangerous degree. Any idea that enters the fandom will be adapted to suit individual taste, and we consider ourselves healthier for it. We’ve vaccinated ourselves against outside advertisers all while embracing media meant to include us. We’ve gotten so good at it, we can even see ourselves in spaces that weren’t made for us.

Furry as a whole places a high value on creativity, and on those who can help others manifest their own creative visions. I know of precious few other communities wherein multiple costumers, artists, and writers can make a living on their art. I won’t say that they don’t exist, but I think their rate of occurrence is far smaller in other fandoms. We have at least one game company that survives solely on fandom sales; people spend enough money on Furoticon for its designers to make a living at it. We respect, and reward, those who put their creative talents to use in the fandom.

Play as a Social Good
This last one’s the doozy, because I can’t easily draw connections from what came before, but I want to call this out as an unintended positive side-effect of everything that came before. With so much of the fandom’s socialization happening under role-playing metaphors, and with such a premium placed on the expression of personal and social creativity, the fandom has a real opportunity to be a net psychological benefit, in the form of socially supported play.

Play, which is to say leisure activites and recreation, are psychologically important for well-being, and the fandom has this in spades. With role-playing culture embedded inside furry social dynamics, much of the fandom’s interaction, or at least much of its history, has play as embedded in its social structure.

The other big thing that happens within fandom is the convention scene, wherein large numbers of furries who mostly interact online come together for limited time periods. In essence, we’ve created a rolling series of TAZzes, physical spaces in which the social norms of the outside world are temporarily displaced by those of the MUCKs. Social norms in which people are encouraged to engage in role-play and express their creativity in a positive way.

Cons are, in essence, a kind of recess for adults, a very needed and welcome recess from the so-called real world.

At cons, it’s not unusual for people to treat individuals in costume as what they represent themselves to be, swapping the text of “person in costume” for the subtext of “the character the costume represents.” People shake the thoughtforms of their tails, spread their conceptual wings, and stroke each other’s imaginary fur. It is, or at least has the potential to be, a rolling manifestation of digital tulpas. This has the potential for incredibly positive emotional health. There’s a reason con sex is a thing, and why this particular tradition is older than furry. I think was Delaney who once famously said, “once you’ve imagined sex with an alien, sex with a human who isn’t a woman suddenly doesn’t feel all that weird.”

Admittedly, the potential for emotional complications is huge, and I won’t deny that, but I also know that healthy negotiation and consent is possible. Is it hard? Sure. But is it worth it? Absolutely.

And here, at the last, is where I wanted to get with my analysis of “what furry means to me.” Furry is, at its core, permission to change the social rules. Furry is a space in which creativity is respected, identity and to some extent reality are consensual, and self-discovery has the potential to be low-consequence and thus encouraged and expected. Furry has the ability to provide spaces in which the norms of social engagement are pre-empted, and new rules have an opportunity to develop. Furry is a chance for people to discover who they are in the company of others going through their own revelations. That potential for growth… that’s what makes furry important to me.

Next time, we’ll look into the other half, and explore some — perhaps even many — of the posts in “postfurry.”