So. What is furry?

That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer.

If you ask any ten foxes or wolves on the street, you’re likely to come up with something like twenty or thirty definitions of what a furry is or, failing that, what a furry is not. Not only that, but those ten canids will simply leap at the opportunity to tell you about it. Perhaps a furry is simply one who is exceedingly willing to tell you what a furry is.

But then I’m writing a book about it.

That aside, you are almost certain to receive a response containing the word “anthropomorphism”. Anthropomorphism is, simply put, assigning or attributing human characteristics to non-human entities. Coyote from Native American lore is anthropomorphized in that he can talk and think much as a man can. Mickey Mouse is anthropomorphized in that he can walk, talk, work, and dress in trousers with suspenders. Garfield is anthropomorphized in that he hates Mondays, despite the fact that he’s a cat, and could probably care less about whether it’s a weekday or weekend.

In very rare circumstances, you might catch the word “zoomorphism”, which works the other way around: assigning or attributing animal characteristics to a human. Loyal as a dog, content as a cat, having an elephant’s memory, and other such similes are just the surface of this, when it comes to furry.

Samuel Conway, also known as Uncle Kage, suggests the following when explaining furry to a non-furry you happen to meet on the street:

  • Lead in with “cartoon animals. This primes the listener to think of something nice and innocent, like Bugs Bunny, and begins not only with a positive association, but with something familiar.
  • Don’t bring up “anthropomorphism” until you’ve got the listener’s full attention. This keeps you from leading in with a big word and concept that may not be familiar to your audience, potentially creating a barrier.
  • Don’t describe what furry is not. If first impressions are what forms the opinion, if you lead with “it’s not about sex and it’s definitely not about sex with animals!“, the listener will come away with a lasting impression of something decidedly different from what you intended.

I’m lucky: I get to be self-referential and use big words like “anthropomorphism” because you’re reading a book, not meeting me on the street. While I do agree with some of Conway’s points as mentioned above for that scenario, there is so much more to this strange subculture than saying “cartoon animals” will ever convey.

For this first section, we’ll explore what makes a furry and why defining the subculture is as difficult as it is.

Participation Mystique

Despite the frequent use of the word, I am more of the opinion that furry is a subculture than a fandom. Part of the problem with being a writer, though, is not only do you have to keep readers interested while you expound on only one topic, but you also have to combat the language as it’s engrained in the minds of your audience. I think that part of the reason that I have such a hard time not referring to furry as “the [furry] fandom” is that it’s a phrase engrained within our subculture due to its historical use. Perhaps at some point in time, furry consisted mostly of a collection of fans, but as it grows, so do the means by which its members connect with it. That’s why I prefer subculture as a word to describe furry: it’s much more all-encompassing and, in the end, perhaps a little more accurate in describing this hodgepodge group.

When I was reading William Gibson’s book Pattern Recognition, I was introduced to the term participation mystique, which comes from early Jungian psychology, adapted from Lèvy-Bruhl in order to describe the means by which we, as people, can define a portion of ourselves through membership in a community or association with an object. Put that way, it’s easy to see the connection with furry.

Appropriate as that is, I don’t think that I could entirely get away with not using “fandom” to refer to furry. While anthropomorphism has figured large in most cultures, I think that what we call furry today stems in large part from a combination of other fandoms, such as those surrounding comic books, cartoons, and science fiction. This eventually coalesced into a more coherent group, though still (and as yet) without a central nexus. It would be unfair of me to discount not only the formative years of the fandom, but also a still-significant portion of furry that relies on their association with some external product that contains that kernel of anthropomorphism.

So much of not only my own childhood, but my early years within furry had to do with the little fandoms that revolved around individual works of fiction. Disney’s Robin Hood, the Redwall books by Brian Jacques, and even less direct examples such as animal companions, talking and otherwise, in Saturday morning cartoons or books such as Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series (embarrassing admission: when I first got into the fandom, I tried to a comic of Sabriel, the first book in that series, with the characters being foxes - lets just say it’s good I stuck with music and writing).

These sources are important to us because they give us an extant product to latch onto, a body of work to study, expand upon, and dream up new microcosms in the macrocosm of their world. For the rare few who are gifted enough to create the world itself, it can be a little (or very) distressing, but the human mind is always adept at treating a fictional world as a fractal, looking closer and finding - or at least adding - more detail. It’s doubly important, then, that furry ‘grew’ up around these sources, at least in part. It allowed us to start with several specific ideas, look deeper into them, and come out with something general enough that a group of individuals from different interests could come together and say “this is us”.

Of course, this led to a new way of thinking about furry, especially once its presence on the Internet began to grow. A new member could find their way inside through some means other than an existing fandom. Despite being a fan of all the classic furry books and films, none of them really struck a nerve with me. It was finding that others had built something new from those roots that caught my attention.

I personally found furry through the website Yerf!, and a few other sites such as Side7 and Elfwood. These sites grew in an organic way out of the BBSes and forums that proliferated in the early days of the ‘net, and focused primarily on the art aspect of the fandom. What hooked me wasn’t so much the fact that they were animal people, so much as that there was this community of individuals all creating visual works of art that focused primarily on these animal people, some of which were incredibly well done and beautiful.

With the disclaimer that this is what I’d call my own entry point into the fandom, I feel that a good portion of those who call themselves furry today follow much the same route: a general interest in the concept of anthropomorphics not necessarily tied to one single source beyond what the fandom has already produced.

I freely admit that this isn’t a very intense association with furry. For a little bit near when I was first getting involved, I did think of myself as a fox (as my character was at the time), and would often spend nights awake in bed, imagining myself confortable with my partner, each of us our cute little fox selves. I know that for some, this sort of self-zoomorphism can become almost a whole-body species dysphoria, extending from feeling as though one exhibits characteristics of their animal character to feeling decidedly uncomfortable being a human.

Here I need to be careful and step aside for a moment to provide a disclaimer. Firstly, I know little about this sort of thing beyond my own simple experiences. I don’t personally experience much in the way of species dysphoria (oh, there are times when I’m disappointed in humanity, but I think that’s more part of the human condition), and beyond that additional phase, I don’t spend much time imagining myself as anything other than human.

Additionally, this idea is treading closer to our sister subcultures of therianthropy and the were (as in werewolf) culture. These are both very interesting groups that have flourished in their own way on the Internet, but not really the topic at hand. Both have their own set of founding ideas and, at times, have come into conflict with the furry subculture.

That said, this focus on the species as it pertains to the self is still important. While I may not dream of really being a fox or whatever anymore, it’s still important for many to wind up with a character that they can identify with. I don’t much feel like a seagull, for instance, so why would I make my character one? There are some who revel in such differences, but it seems that a lot of furries wind up up picking a species that they identify with on some level beyond “boy, it sure would be goofy if I was a seagull!”

We certainly cannot leave out the spiritual aspects of furry, either. While this, like most things, seems to go through waves of popularity, it’s never waned so much as to become insignificant as an aspect of the fandom. This is a topic that certainly deserves its own section, so I’m only going to touch on it a little here, but it is interesting to note.

As there have been anthropomorphic aspects of many cultures back through time, it’s easy to see these creating ‘fandoms’ of their own. This is its own gradient as well: some may latch onto the legends and play into the roles set down for them, while others, seemingly unattached, will admit that they enjoy the trickster aspect of their coyote-sona or the cleverness inherent in being a fox-based-creature.

With something as loose-weaved as furry, it’s difficult to imagine there being anything more than the faintest borders around the subculture. There are, though, and where there are borders, there’s bound to be someone aiming to push them. Beyond simply the species available here on Earth, many are more content to explore the bounds created in science-fiction and fantasy universes. Wookiees and Kzinti are to be found alongside the more terran of animals, not to mention those species found in fan-based literature such as Skiltaire and Chakats.

Beyond even the constructed species of these fictional words lies the only vaguely-defined realm of post-furry, a sub-sub-culture of sorts with the goal of pushing the limits of anthropomorphics beyond the “pure” combination of animal and human characteristics. While this may lead to some rather borderline or intentionally humorous character creations, the postmodernist viewpoint that seems to influence the post-furry attitude serves well with its looser sense of reality.

All of these describe different aspects of the participation mystique involved in being a furry. The way furries associate portions of their own selves with this abstract noun that is “furry”. They identify with the fandom in all their myriad ways, and by virtue of their identities, form the fandom in itself. The question has come up several times about what exactly makes a furry. That’s one of those questions that’s decidedly difficult to answer in a way that’s satisfactory to all. Perhaps the best definition to be found is that a furry is someone who claims to be a furry. There are probably some who fall outside this definition that others would consider as members of the subculture, but it’s part of our mystical participation that it be consensual - one cannot be forced to identify with something. I suppose in that sense, ‘furry’ winds up being more of an adjective than a noun, though the word as an adjective already caries too strong a meaning to be overloaded like that.

That there is a phrase for identifying with a group such as this is evidence that this is not a unique phenomenon. In the context of the aforementioned Gibson book, it was used in much the same way: describing the fascination and partial identity with a fan base for a specific creation (in the book’s case, bits of film slowly appearing on the Internet, and in furry’s, anthropomorphics), but the same idea lends itself to other memberships that form portions of identities in individuals. A good example would be one’s political or religious affiliation, which, for some people shapes a good portion of their lives. To state another example, since we’ve covered the “belief” and “fan” ends of the spectrum, many members of the LGBT community also base their identities on their membership, adopting styles, modes of speech, and mannerisms from what they believe is the norm for such an identity. Of course, this perpetuates its own existence, but such is the way of feedback.

Given these examples, it’s tempting to ask what modes and mannerisms within the fandom are perpetuated by identity with it. There is certainly a good amount of lingo that comes along with our membership, such as the word “fandom” itself. Beyond that, though, there are certain things that do go along with our culture, at least in the case of conventions: certain styles, stances, and actions can identify the furry from the non-furry. It might be wrong to call it a price, but membership with the subculture does seem to come with its expectations. One is no longer necessarily obligated to be familiar with Watership Down or Rescue Rangers (though, at the time of writing, one should apparently be familiar with the exceedingly popular musical genre of Dubstep), for instance. The criteria for participation remain loose enough for us to be a fairly accepting fandom, and it could probably be argued that they have loosened over time, but there are still some lines, however faint and tested by the post-fur crowd (to name only one example) which identify the members as furries.

Participation mystiqe - mystical participation - is perhaps one of the best phrases I’ve found to be used to define the fandom. It’s not something one can or even should whip out when trying to explain the subculture of furry to non-members. The concept of basing part of our existence off something non-spatiotemporal makes it all sound a bit like a strange religion, especially when put that way. However, with all the different levels of identifying with animal avatars represented, plus the consensual aspect of self-identification, I feel we’ve just about got the bases covered: a connection with our characters, no matter the source, and our participation forming a portion of our identity as the crazy animal-people we are.


It is apparently a rite of passage for every website, blog, and individual to take a crack at defining furry. It’s one of those things that means something entirely different to each person involved, yet everyone seems to come to enough of a consensus for there to even be a thing named furry.

However, just as everyone has to take time to explain what they think furry is, everyone else has to explain to them why they’re wrong. It’s clearly a tetchy subject, and it’s worth taking a moment here to step aside and define our terms before we continue to explore issues around the fandom.

“Furry” is an overloaded term. One of the most descriptive definitions of “overloading,” as I understand it, comes from the realm of computer science. When one overloads an operator, that means that one is changing the way an operator works within a certainc lass of items. That is, the ‘+’ operator, given two numbers, will add them together, but given two strings, will turn them into one string by concatenating them. It still retains its essential “plus-ness” as it’s construed in the English language, but subtle differences are made to accommodate its context. If you use ‘+’ with 4 and 3, you would expect 7, not 43; the operator takes into account the context in which it is used.

Similarly, when one is dealing with structured data, one can overload a reference to a piece of that data. ‘ID’ can refer to a student ID, an ID card, an identifying number, or Idaho. We know which one to pick given the context in which ‘ID’ appears.

I like this metaphor when it comes to overloading words in language. In particular, I feel that the concept of an overloaded term intended to mean multiple related yet distinct things is particularly applicable given our propensity toward using flexible languages. That, after all, is why we have metaphors, similes, and poetry at our disposal.

This is part of the reason defining furry is so complicated. Furry can mean something that has fur, of course. It can also refer to an individual who is a member of the furry fandom. Ask just about any furry, however, and they will hardly mention the fandom or subculture at all. “Furry,” they will say, “Is all about an interest in anthropomorphics.” Furry is a label that furries will apply to anything that has to do with anthropomorphic concepts, period, which broadens the definition considerably.

In fact, this label will be applied not only to things that are intended to be taken under the umbrella term, but even to things that the creator strenuously objects to being called “furry”. Steven R. Boyett wrote a book in 1986 named The Architect of Sleep, a novel which features the concept of a parallel universe wherein raccoons, rather than primates, evolved to primacy. The book ended in a cliff-hanger, yet when Boyett learned that furries had latched onto his work as a part of their own subculture, he lashed out with vitriolic remarks and refused to write the implied sequel.

It’s obviously important, then, that we know exactly of what we speak. I know that some will very much disagree with me on the definitions as they themselves apply them, but we have to set a groundwork for the words that will be used here, even though there will be a glossary of terms provided at the end:

  • anthropomorphic

In its various forms, “anthropomorphic”is used to refer to anything that is given human traits. Specific to our purposes, however, this will usually refer to animals, either of Earth or of some fictional planet. The human traits can be anything from a regular animal that can speak to a human with a few animal features, such as cat ears. However, it should be noted that in some instances, a more proper would be “zoomorphic”. * zoomorphic

Zoomorphic refers to something that has animal characteristics. For our purposes, this probably refers to humans. * furry (n.)

  1. A member of the furry fandom. Sometimes called a “fur”. If you really look back in the past (say, ten years ago), you may find “furre” as well.
  2. An anthropomorphic critter or zoomorphic person in fiction or art.
  3. furry (adj.)

Of or pertaining to the furry fandom * furry fandom or furry subculture

A loosely organized, decentralized group of individuals held together primarily by their interest in anthropomorphic art and concepts and by their self identification as members of the furry fandom.

For our purposes, we will restrict our definitions to these in order to constrain our focus to the sociological phenomenon that is the furry fandom, rather than the history of anthropomorphic art and concepts throughout the past. The latter subject is a very large one and hardly appropriate for a layman to go on about at any length, given the amount of writing already existing on it.

One additional point that should be added to the definition of “furries are those who call themselves furries” is the idea of content. While I’ll get into the idea of social currency later, it’s necessary to note that furries are particularly interested in creating or enjoying content - be it visual, written, or participatory art - that has to do with anthropomorphics. This, perhaps more than any other aspect, is what blurs the definition of the fandom. Whether or not it was intended to be furry art specifically, art may be considered furry art if it’s enjoyed by furry. This is the source of the strife with Boyett’s book, and part of the reason for the confusion in definitions.

Doxa

There were many sources of inspiriation for writing this. Not simply sources of furry information, or of stuff that might make it into the book, but sources that provided inspiration for the structure and for some of the ideas that show up here. Jon Krakauer’s investigative non-fiction work Under the Banner of Heaven, for instance, is one of the first books that got me reading that genre of writing. Dale Pendell’s Pharmako Trilogy helped solidify that, but also added in the more active role of the author that I’ve started to prefer in my own writing; when working with a subject that is an important part of the author’s life, it’s difficult to leave the author out of it, so it’s probably best to include them within the work itself.

More pertinently, though, it was Hanne Blank’s work Straight: A Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, that introduced me to the concept of doxa.

Doxa, from the Greek meaning “popular belief”, has come to mean something very specific in sociology today. Doxa is everything that goes without saying in a society. In Blank’s book, she uses it to describe the fact that, for the majority of our western society, it goes without saying that heterosexuality is the norm, that homosexuality has to do with two people in a binary gender system engaging in sexual activity or feeling romantically attracted to each other, when, on close inspection, neither sexuality nor gender are quite so simple. This is part of our doxa, part of what we just assume is the case via popular belief. It is rarely taught explicitly, and in fact rarely ever mentioned out loud because it is so common a belief.

This concept shows itself primarily in language and communication, though it’s also visible in many of the social structures of the society. One of the most common linguistic elements surrounding doxa, Blank asserts, is markedness, or marked categories. That is, two or more categories related by a rule and an exception, or a general category and a specific category. For a pertinent example, one might consider the unmarked term “marriage” and the marked term “gay marriage”. Or perhaps in the language of media, this could be “advertisements” and “girls’ advertisements”, which in Chandler’s “Semiotics for Beginners” is marked by “significantly longer shots, significantly more dissolves (fade out/fade in of shot over shot), less long shots and more close-ups, less low shots, more level shots and less overhead shots”.

All of this, of course, got me wondering about what sort of doxa and marked categories exist within the fandom. Culture as whole has the givens and the goes-without-sayings, and individual subcultures, as parts of that whole, are just as susceptible to their own specific doxa. There are, for example, stages of growth of an individual within western gay popular culture, and those, in their own way, are a sort of doxa, if it goes without saying that younger members of that culture go through their phases of discovery.

One of the big problems with discerning doxa amid that noisy channel of communication that is language and media is difficult, and it is most often found when it is challenged, such as when one notices a marked category. After all, doxa is not a static thing: it changes and grows or fades as the society around it advances or declines. Here are just a scant few examples noticed within the fandom that could be called doxa, though as they’re all either currently being challenged or have already been challenged, they may sound a little dated to furry ears. To be sure, finding any sort of doxa that is currently well-entrenched is nearly impossible - it’s difficult to ask oneself what one takes for granted, after all.

  • Everyone has a personal character

Perhaps a decade ago, in about 2000, it seemed as though the first thing you did was choose a species and attributes that fit your personality and did your level best to let that character become you. Everyone had a character that fit them well and only a few had alts, which were mainly used to either sneak around or separate adult aspects of their interactions from more general aspects. However, over time, many individuals started to create different characters or at least different morphs to correspond to different aspects of their personality. It wasn’t so much that one was just a foxman anymore; one was a foxman when chatting with friends, a foxgirl when questioning one’s gender identity, a wolverineman to roleplay stronger emotions, and so on.

While this was likely the case in those earlier years and just not as visible, it appears that things have become more clearly separated now as we get into such things as character auctions and “adoptables”, where one creating a character no longer has much to do with the personal aspect of having a character. Now that the doxa of having a personal character is being challenged, you see more and more people on FA having journals listing their many characters, only a few of which they may have a personal connection with beyond simply “this is mine”. * Furry is dramatic

A meme will often move in a certain arc shape that has become familiar. There is a larger meme of drama within the fandom, but even that one can be seen to be moving in certain ways. Whereas before it was considered implicit that furries were going to be dramatic people, now it is something that we hang lampshades on nearly constantly and it seems that a lot of that default-to-drama attitude is starting to fade away. Just like all of the smaller bits of strife within the larger world of drama, the drama itself is starting to move in that same arc. It is a doxa that is being challenged by the very fact that we’re so willing to point it out and name it. * Furry is unpopular or uncool Kathleen Gerbasi, referencing a Vanity Fair article on the fandom, mentions, “The furry stereotype promoted by [the article’s author] indicated that furries were predominantly male, liked cartoons as children, enjoyed science fiction, were homosexual, wore glasses and had beards (male furries only), were employed as scientists or in computer-related fields, and their most common totem animals were wolves and foxes”, which does seem to fit in nicely with our own exploration of what might be the default furry in the fandom. Needless to say, it doesn’t paint the picture of what one might call a cool or popular guy.

However, as the fandom has grown and changed, it has entered into a marketing feedback loop: the more furs there are out there with purchasing power, the more money is to be made on them by creating products to suit their tastes, which in turn, helps to broaden the audience of furries out there. At some point, it became cool and hip to adopt some items that could be seen as related to our fandom, if not necessarily to be furry oneself. Spirit hoods, tails, and kigurumi pajamas are some examples of how this doxa has been challenged even from outside the fandom itself.

As a more ingrained example of doxa, let’s look at a few defining factors in the creation of one’s character within the fandom. While we’ll get more into character creation and avatars in a later part, it might be useful to see that several pieces of the idea of what would be a standard character do indeed stem more from doxa than anything else.

With any society come a whole heap of internal stereotypes. With programmers, there are the hierarchical nerds who strive for alpha status, the quiet smart people who do cool things, the loud smart people who also do cool things, the designers, architects, and engineers. In music, things generally follow the lines of instrument or voice part, but there are some ideas that cross boundaries, such as the dramatic opera singer, the crazy instrumentalist, or the lazy genius. One could, perhaps, measure the strength of a subculture by counting the amount of inside jokes contained within it. Furry is far from immune to this, and there are several recurring threads.

Species Breakdown

One definite theme within the fandom is that, to quote an old page, “The Animal Kindgom is full of a plethora of amazing and interesting species, and so you’ll probably be a Fox or a Wolf”. Canids seem to far outstrip other species as far as representation within the fandom. An informal poll shows them making up nearly a third of all respondents. There are even stereotypes that go along with each species (though these have, admittedly, weakened over time), such as that “foxes beg for it, while huskies are just targets”.

Default fur so far: a wolf.

Age distribution

Age also plays an important factor in the fandom. It could be that something about furry speaks to those just coming of age, or that the liberal nature of the subculture fits in well with the general liberal nature of youth; the oft miss-attributed quip “if you’re not a liberal by 20, you have no heart…” seeming appropriate. With its widely espoused (and practiced, though perhaps to a lesser extent) values of acceptance and tolerance, it’s not really much of a surprise that a good portion of furry falls into the 18-25 age group. I was pretty firmly entrenched within the fandom, myself, by sixteen or so, and here I am, twenty-five, and writing a slightly satirical blog about furry - which I still love plenty, mind!

Default fur so far: a 22 year old wolf.

Sex and Gender

Geekdom, particularly computer geekdom, has almost always been dominated by males. The reasons for this are many and complex, but it seems to be a nearly universal truth that the technologically literate castes for the last several hundred years have been made up primarily of men. Furry, which is made up in good part by communications taking place on the Internet, can no more escape that than it can escape certain episodes of certain television shows or, if you’ve been around for a while, certain articles from certain magazines. Gender in furry is a complicated enough issue to warrant several of its own posts, but for now, let’s call it decidedly male.

Default fur so far: a 22 year old male wolf.

Sexual orientation

Now is when things start to get hairy, if you’ll forgive the pun. The stereotypes still exist, but have less basis in reality. Perhaps it would be better to say that the basis is less readily apparent, though. Take sexual orientation: if one were to go by the way people act, the art that’s posted, and the relationships formed online, one could pretty easily leap to the conclusion that the standard fur is a gay male. However, this doesn’t quite appear to be the case. Rather than showing up as predominately homosexual, respondents seem to be fairly evenly divided among different quanta of sexual orientation. With the decidedly affirming nature of our little subculture, it’s easy to see how this could lead, first of all, to the even distribution of orientations, and second of all, the more visible and vocal nature of the more homosexual portions of the population. It could possibly be construed that society as a whole is likely divided up fairly evenly along Kinsey’s scale, but that, due to social, evolutionary, and personal prejudices, we’re left with a more uneven seeming distribution. Even so…

Default fur so far: a 22 year old gay male wolf.

Importance of sex

The waters get even muddier as we move on, and even the stereotype gets harder to pin down. Furries have a reputation of being highly sexual people. More so than their reputation from the outside, however, furries pretty strongly believe that their subculture is full of highly sexual people. Things get weird here, especially, because most respondents don’t consider themselves to be very sexual people. Stranger still, most respondents believe that the majority of the general public views them as highly sexual. This is certainly a tough metric to judge, and it would be hard to rank the fandom amongst other subcultures when it comes to sexuality, but it appears that furries, by and large, assume that furries are pretty oversexed.

Default fur so far: a 22 year old gay male wolf looking to get laid.

And now we’re getting into some pretty speculative territory. From within, it seems that most of the fandom is made up of socially awkward people who care very strongly about one thing, which is likely to be computers or games - that is, nerds. Nerds that drink. ¬†eeks that party. People who don’t communicate effectively with each other, but never stop trying. I have no graph to go along with this; it’s partly based on introspection into my own outlook and partly from listening to others when they talk about the fandom. I would have left this out due to it being so hard to pin down, but considering how large it figures in all of the satires of the fandom, I’m not sure I could justify that.

Default fur: a tipsy, awkward, 22 year old gay male wolf looking to get laid. Cute, huh?

RandomWolf

So, given our wolf guy here, what’s right and what’s wrong? Sure, he’ll fit in pretty well, he’s certainly welcome within the fandom, but what, in his construction, is just due to demographics and what’s due to stereotypes? Judging by the few datasets we have, our RandomWolf here is probably a young adult male wolf due simply to the make up of furry itself. Given any one member of the group, and that member is likely to be a male canid somewhere in his early twenties. As for the awkward, gay, and oversexed parts, though, these aspects of our fictional character are more likely stereotypes than anything (however attractive or not you may find them).

Just like any group, our nutty little fandom has its fair share of preconceptions, misconceptions, and stereotypes. We’ve got our in jokes and our quips (I’ve heard “by and large, furries are bi and large” enough to turn the study of it into this article, after all), and we’ve got our reactions to those. As a group, we’re introspective enough to recognize trends and turn them into stereotypes. The visualization on sexuality in the fandom is most telling: there’s the way we perceive ourselves, the way we perceive our fellows, and the way we imagine the world perceives us - they may not always align, but that’s just the warp and woof of subcultures, and I think just adds to the fun.

It’s important to note, here that there is a blurry line between doxa and opinion. One can hold an opinion as a belief and even believe in it quite strongly, but doxa are things that we implicitly believe are true about the society in which we’re embedded, things that we take as fact. The reason that the line is blurry is that, not only is it sometimes difficult to disentangle opinion from perceived fact, but that as doxa shifts and changes over time, it can veer closer or farther way from opinion.

Watching the shift and change of what we take as given within the fandom is a good way to watch the way our subculture grows and changes, itself. As we watch these ideas shift from doxa to a division between orthodoxy and heterodoxy - that which is accepted as normal, and that which is seen as going against the norm - to an accepted variety, we can see the way that new members influence the fandom and how external factors can change our social interaction. The perceived sexualization of furry and the consequent backlash from both older and newer members can be seen as part of this, for example, and there are even visible artifacts such as the numerous “not yiffy” and “no RP” groups on FA being tagged on artists’ and watchers’ profiles alike. That is just one example, however, of a shorter change that has shown how the fandom is shifting along with its members’ participation.

So is doxa good or bad? That’s a tough question to answer. Doxa may be one of those things that “just is”. It’s an artifact of the way we work as individuals as well as the way our societies are built. Certainly, some doxa cause harm to individuals and minorities, and even within those minorities, sub-doxa of a sort can cause additional problems in the form of backlash, but commonly held beliefs and ideas are part of the glue that holds us together in cultures. Even within our own fandom, there are several currents and ideas that form the shifting background of whatever furry is. Equally difficult to ask, then, is what is the next doxa? What new ideas will we find out we are taking for granted when they’re challenged? What commonly held beliefs will lead to contention in the future of our small group of animal-people? While it is difficult to look within ourselves and figure these things out now beyond searching for marked categories, it certainly bears exploration once they come to light.

Meaning within a subculture

This is an idea that has been tumbling around in my head ever since I started this site. In fact, I suppose you could call a lot of my earlier posts a sort of fumbling around as I tried to articulate this idea. The idea that I’m talking about is the concept of what furry is. That is, not only what a makes a furry a furry, but how is furry a thing, and where did we all come from. A lot of the articles on this site have come at this idea from different angles, but usually focusing on a single aspect or in a stream-of-consciousness manner.

When I write posts for [a][s], I do so in what’s called the “watercolor strategy”, as named by Daniel Chandler in The Act of Writing. That is, for the most part, I start at the beginning, and when I get to the end, I stop. It’s a strategy that, to my mind, would work almost solely for the introspective writer, one who internalizes a subject, then blasts it out on to paper (or screen). The idea is that one works as one does with watercolor, where there is no real way to correct a mistake or change what one has done - one must simply start at the beginning and continue until one feels that the work is done, then stop. There is no editing along the way, as there would be in the “oil painting strategy”; with oils, one has the ability to paint over the paint already in place without worrying about muddying the painting or ruining the paper. As Chandler quotes in the section on the watercolor strategy, “rewrite in process … interferes with flow and rhythm, which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material” (Plimpton, 1989, quoted in Chandler)\cite{chandlerWriting}.

In a lot of posts, this has worked well. I think that I often work in short enough sections that I can hold most of the article in my head with only the barest of sketches taken down mostly as reminders to what I had already planned rather than a true outline (which would be the “architectural” or “bricklaying” strategies).

My process has occasionally come back to haunt me in that I’ve incompletely captured an idea. It happened very early on when I wrote about the default furry, which eventually turned into the post about doxa: what I was trying to name in the “default furry” post wasn’t so much trends in character creation as the fact that there is a factual basis for much of what we take for granted within the fandom.

One of the big things that keeps me coming back to these subjects is the standard artist’s complaint that I’m never really satisfied with the product. I can barely even call myself an artist, here - so much of what I’ve done with [a][s] is rehashing ideas I’ve heard of or learned about in a non-furry context within the context of furry, and this piece here is no exception. Rather, I’m one with artistic habits.

I was unhappy with both of my posts on “participation mystique”. It’s such a wonderful concept and fits so perfectly with the contiguous fandom that I couldn’t get it out of my head. All the same, I couldn’t seem to get down exactly what I wanted to with it. The first post turned into an idea of how members identify with the fandom, which is close to, but not exactly participation mystique. The second post veered off course and into (still related) waters of the definition of our subculture.

That those posts feel as though they inadequately captured what I wanted to grates on me, so I feel that, as the person best in a position to correct my mistakes, I probably ought to. In order to do that, however, I’m going to have to start with a little bit of background that I’ve picked up over the last few weeks of study and years of background on the subject even if it isn’t immediately applicable to this furry site, and I’m going to have to abandon the watercolor strategy and at least work toward the architectural strategy. It may be a bit of a long travel, and I’m sorry if I wind up coming off as boring, but I believe that a lot of these ideas are pertinent to figuring out what is going on with the fandom, and why the concept of membership is important. If nothing else, I find the concepts very interesting, and I think that many others will as well.


A Linguistic Introduction

I’d like to begin here with a basic introduction on some of the linguistics that are involved in exploring meaning in the fandom. There’s a very important reason for this which I’ll go into more depth on later, but for now, it will suffice to say that language is important to us because our fandom is wrapped up in it. We describe our characters, we write stories about furries, and, above all, we communicate; we are a social fandom. Language is always important to subcultures such as ours which subsist on social interaction.

There is an argument to be made that language, rather than being a defined entity, is simply a collection of idiolects. Dialect is a commonly known word, of course, but language can be broken down further to the speech patterns used by an individual. Each person’s pattern of language use is unique to them, just as their handwriting and fingerprints are unique. This is their idiolect. The argument here is that, despite prevailing attitudes within the United States and elsewhere, a language is made up of its mutually comprehensible dialects, which are spoken by individuals with all of their unique idiolects.

I bring this up not only because it’s fascinating (to me, at least), but because there is another step in there that’s missing between idiolect and dialect, and that is the sociolect. A sociolect is the subset of a language that is shared among a social group. While this may have started with the difference between the language spoken by different social classes, with the growth of the middle class, particularly of skilled workers, the number of recognized sociolects has grown. My partner, a machinist by trade, is able to share this language within the social group of other machinists. When they go on about “thou”, “scrap”, “tombstones”, “jobshops,” and “print-to-part,” they can understand each other within the context of their social group.

Similarly, the fandom has started to pull together its own sociolect formed of the collected idiolects of its members. That we have our own “jargon” with words like “fursona”, “hybrid”, and “taur”[2] that goes along with our membership to this nebulous group helps to define the fact that we have become a more well-defined subculture, or, to put it better, a community. A community, in this sense, is a coherent group composed of multiple actors, and that is just what we are within the fandom: we act within and upon it, both taking from and adding to it by way of our membership. It works to say it either way: our sociolect is a combination of our idiolects because we are a community composed of members, and we are a community composed of members because we have our sociolect as a combination of our idiolects - our ways of communicating made up of those who communicate with each other.

Language hierarchy

Put this way, we can come up with a sort of hierarchy of language. A language is comprised of dialects and sociolects, subsets of the overall language based around social, economic, or geopolitical groups. The dialects and sociolects, in turn, are made up of the individial idiolects of their members. There, of course, some mixing due to new speakers of the language and borrowed terms, but also due to the fact that individuals often belong to more than one social group, and thus may take part in more than one sociolect or dialect - my partner is a machinist, but he is also a furry, for instance. A good example might be the apparent dichotomy between “realistic” and “toony” furry art, perhaps due to the overlap between the furry subculture and the art world (whereas “realism” isn’t something I hear much at my own job as a programmer).

Much of this focus on our means of communication ties into the Internet and the prominence of its role within the fandom. There’s really no doubting that a good portion of the fandom “grew up” on the net. The ways in which it facilitates communication between individuals or groups regardless of geographic location fits in so well with a fandom that bases so much of its existence around social interaction. There are a few terms that become important due to this fact, namely “text”, “corpus”, “medium”, and “modality”. A “text” is a unit of communication, whether it’s a journal post, an image and all of its associated discussion, such as comments, or a web page like this. A “corpus” is a collection of related texts - this post would be a text, but [adjective][species] would be a corpus - though it can be taken in broader terms, such as the collection of all different texts on FurAffinity - images, journals, comments, user pages - or simply the collection of all texts within our subculture: the furry corpus, if you will.

“Medium” and “modality” are similarly intertwined. The “medium” is, obviously enough, the way in which a text reaches us, and the “modality” is what the text is constructed of. For instance, words and language would be the modality, whereas that can be divided into written words read off a screen on a web page, or spoken words shared among a group of friends at a convention. The reason I’m bringing up these terms is that, taken together, they form our social interaction within the fandom, and the reason that it’s important is because, in particular, our choices of media and corpi are language in and of themselves: that is, that we rely on the Internet for so much of our communication, whether out of necessity or desire, and allow the idiolects that we’ve formed on the ‘net to creep into our verbal communications with each other is something of a statement in and of itself.

Put another way, our medium is important because it involves the concepts of human-computer interaction (HCI) and computer (or, more specifically, Internet) mediated communication (IMC). The first, HCI, is important because computers are not free-form entities through which we may communicate however we want. Instead, we communicate through the specific media of SecondLife, through comments on submissions on FA, through MUCKs, MUDs, IRC, and IMs. The actual means of interaction within each is different from each other, and certainly different than other media. For instance, posing actions, and thus role-playing, are quite simple on MU*s and IRC, and thus more common, whereas the same is not true of instant messages and the less-immediate form of comment threads and forums. The latter concept of IMC becomes particularly evident in SecondLife, where the action taken by your character on the screen is distanced from reality by necessity. Shooting a gun, turning a cartwheel, or doing a dance are all usually thought of physical activities offline, but on SecondLife, they are all the result of commands typed in by the user or accessed via the mouse on a head up display.

It’s an easy thing to say that communication is the basis of our subculture, but more difficult to express it in terms of the source and result of a sociolect comprised of the colliding idiolects of its members. While that is far from the only thing that furry has going for it, it’s a definite signifier of our being a society in our own right, and one of the easiest to perceive, once one takes a step back. We have settled our concentration certain media for a variety of reasons - the ease of constructing an avatar on the Internet, the mediated sharing of texts through different websites and services, and the ‘net’s way of connecting individuals across distance. Our choice of media is a form of communication in a way, though not simply due to the benefits to be gained from it. There is more, though, to be sure.


On Semiotics

When I first heard about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, I rejected it immediately. It states, in brief, that the way we conceive of the world around us, the way we assign meaning to things, is shaped entirely by the language that we use to describe that meaning. I think that part of the reason that I had such a negative reaction to the idea right off the bat was that I learned about the hypothesis via the constructed language lojban. The idea behind lojban (always written with a lower-case ‘l’) is that, if the way we think is shaped by the language we use, than a language that is totally and completely “logical” ought to help one to think totally and completely logically.

That idea really grated on me for a few reasons. First of all, I was in a Madrigal choir at the time, and while the Madrigal came from the Renaissance period, much of the words to the songs spend time evoking romantic imagery. That, and much of the songs we performed weren’t exactly Madrigals in their own right, but composed later in the Romantic or Neo-romantic eras. Put simply, I was a teenager inundated in romanticism - the concept of being able to explain everything only with logical terms and without the metaphor inherent in romanticism didn’t jive with me. Additionally, having been brought up by two atheist parents, I was going through my own spiritual renaissance at the time, and so I was always finding these neat, non-spatiotemporal, sometimes ineffable ideas around myself, whether it be religion or something more new-agey.

I was a non-Whorfian, basically. I believed, at the time, that we fit words entirely to the meanings that exist independently of those words. There is certainly an argument to be made for that, as well. We all, in one way or another, are able to perceive what a “tree” is. There’s a way for us to scientifically define it, and there isn’t necessarily a way for us to claim that a tree is only a tree because we have all conceived of the language for defining what a tree is.

I’m no longer fifteen, though, and things have changed. I have had my own experience with the way that meaning comes to us through language or signs of some sort, not least of all with my attempts at such things with these articles. I think that I might now call myself a believer in Moderate Whorfianism. In his book The Act of Writing, Daniel Chandler explains that many linguists would find extreme Whorfianism hard to swallow, but may accept a weak version of it as defined in the following way:

  • the emphasis is on the potential for thinking to be ‘influenced’ rather than unavoidably ‘determined’ by language;
  • it is a two-way process, so that ‘the kind of language we use’ is also influenced by ‘the way we see the world’
  • any influence is ascribed not to ‘Language’ as such or to one language as compared with another, but to the use within a language of one variety rather than another (typically a sociolect - the language used primarily by members of a particular social group)
  • emphasis is given to the social context of language use rather than to purely linguistic considerations, such as the social pressure in particular contexts to use language in one way rather than another.[1]

This leads us to the next topic of discussion: semiotics. There is argument as to whether or not linguistics is a subset of semiotics, or vice versa. Whereas linguistics aims to tackle the use and meaning of language, semiotics aims to tackle the use and language of meaning. They are certainly closely related - given that language, written language specifically, but also speech, provides a measurable, non-objective metric to study, much of semiotics deals with the use of words within a certain context to either ascribe or convey meaning, as well as the additional meaning conveyed via word choice.

Beyond that, however, semiotics also takes into account such things as the medium and modality of communication, regardless of whether it has to do with words. Semiotics is just as comfortable looking at body language and posture, meaning conveyed through the layout of a web page, or even additional meanings conveyed through art, which most definitely has something to with our own subculture. That is, rather than focusing on language itself, semiotics focuses on the meanings conveyed between actors within a community. It is not that linguistics has nothing to do with meaning, nor that it doesn’t take the social context into account, simply that that focusing specifically on those areas is the realm of semiotics, instead.

The process of ascribing meaning to a sign - be it a word, a gesture, music, or some aspect of a piece of visual art - is known as semiosis. Semiosis isn’t something that happens on it’s own, we don’t ascribe meaning to the word “tree” without having some framework in which to ascribe that meaning. Signs are parts in the whole of sign systems or “codes”. A code could be a language, but using that word in particular is a poor choice, because language always takes place within some context and carries additional signifiers along with it. “Tree” said calmly, for instance, carries different connotations than “TREE!” shouted fearfully. Even in a text-only environment such as this, the punctuation and capitalization are signs in and of themselves. All of this is taking place within a cultural context, as well. With language in particular, the sign (a word) is a portion of a code that is shared among actors in a community, whether it’s the community of English-speakers (a language) or the community of people interested in anthropomorphics interacting online (the sociolect of furries on the Internet).

This all goes to show that semiotics goes beyond the individual. The webcomic xkcd recently performed quite a feat[3] by displaying a different comic to different viewers. The comic that was chosen depended not only on the viewer’s choice of browser, but also on their location and even the size of their browser window. The title of the comic was “Umwelt”, which is the collection of sign-relations (briefly, the pair of sign-meaning, or the triad of sign-interpretant-meaning) that make up one’s perception of the world. We cannot help to do anything outside our umwelt, other than to assimilate new meanings into it through semiosis.

We aren’t nearly so solipsistic, though, and so every time our umwelt collides with another through interpersonal relationships, we influence each other. When umwelten group together naturally through an attractor such as a mutual interest, we wind up with a semiotic niche. That is, when a social group forms, a sociolect can form with them due to the way the group steers semiosis, the way it finds meaning.

These semiotic niches work much the same way as umwelten, in that they can converge and share boundaries - they all, after all, take part in the world of meaning around them, known as the semiosphere. That is, something like furry will share its meaning not only with Internet culture, but also western culture, anime culture to some extent, and, as a whole, belongs to this whole perceived world around us. Beyond the semiosphere, “language not only does not function, it does not exist.”[4] Without some framework for meaning, be it words, visual art, music, or anything, there is only formless thought.

Semiotic hierarchy

If we were to modify our language hierarchy to be about semiotics (helpfully done in advance), it would look something like this, then. Similar to the idea that languages are made up of sociolects and dialects, which are in turn made up of idiolects, so too is the semiosphere made up of semiotic niches, which are in turn made up of the umwelten of individual members, the combined basis for creating meaning in the world around us. This is, of course, a necessary gloss over the field of semiotics, which is quite large. The goal of this article isn’t to go into commutation tests and syntactic analysis of furry works, though, just to provide a groundwork of the concepts of language and semiotics in the fandom.

It is within this construct of signs and meaning that we not only form our ideas of what means “tree”, what an image of a tree is and what it represents, but what abstract concepts such as our subculture are and what they’re made up of. As individuals and members, or even as outsiders looking in, we build the sign-relations, we come up with the meaning of what is and is not furry, each to our own. It is where those interpretations meet and generate a coherent idea of furry within more than just the individual’s point of view that we wind up with the furry fandom itself.


Tying it all together

At some point, the furry fandom started to coalesce. Some would put it in the 1980s - a reader and friend posits that the fandom really got started September 1st, 1980 at Noreascon with Steve Gallacci[5] - some would put it much, much earlier, and some perhaps later, into the ‘90s when the Internet became truly accessible. For the sake of this article and much of this site in general, we’d probably go with some time in the mid to late ‘80s for the source of the fandom. This was the time when the umwelten, the spheres of meaning for individuals, began to collide in enough numbers to form that critical mass that led to the formation of a subculture rather than a collection of enthusiasts. Furries doubtless existed before, as is certainly evident even within our own readership, but the furry fandom as a culture phenomenon, the basis of study for much of this site (rather than individual furries themselves), relied upon this interest being actively shared among ur-members.

It was a sort of participatory semiosis that helps to define the exploratory beginnings of any new social group. It wasn’t so much that individuals hadn’t come up with the idea of fox-people before, as that now they were in the process of finding meaning in the fact that there was a cultural identity to be had, and assigning it to the signs of “funny animal” and furry, to foxes and cats leading extraordinary or banal lives, to the very feeling of membership. In her book Straight, Hanne Blank makes a similar argument that the growth of heterosexuality (and its complement, homosexuality) was due in part to the process of self identificiation, the semiosis among individuals that reached a critical mass after a few influential authors such as Freud became widely read.

In short, I tend to focus on what I’m calling the “contiguous fandom”. That is, a fandom made of of members which share the borders of their umwelten, the meanings attached to the sign that is ‘furry’, in order to create a coherent whole of a fandom. This is the importance of membership; it is the act of being actors in a community that helps to define the community as an entity.

Another way to think of it is that this is our participation mystique. By basing part of one’s identity on one’s membership to an idea or community, one helps to define both oneself and the thing of which one is a member. To put it in the terms of linguistics above, we readily adopt our sociolect. Remember here that we’re taking into account all of the signs available to us. Not only are we taking in this social interaction using words in a furry context, but we’re always taking in the visual aspect of furry art and the participatory aspect of conventions, fursuiting, and so on.

Beyond just adopting the sociolect, however, we’re continuously adding to it. We aren’t just passive observers, but we are actively participating in the creation of new texts, whether it’s voicing our appreciation of art, taking part in role-playing, or even running a silly meta-furry blog where one talks about the semiotics of the furry subculture.

Given the contiguous fandom, I can’t continue without providing some thoughts on what’s “outside” that mostly coherent group of individuals that make up furry. There is also importance in not being a member, in not having that participation mystique. When it comes to signs in semiotics, there is a loose division into dyadic and triadic signs. With dyadic signs, you simply have one entity assigning the meaning of what a tree is to the sign “tree”, but in triadic signs, one has the additional context of just who it is that is doing the assigning alongside what is is that is being assigned. This is the interpretant sign the one to whom “I” and “you” hold meaning as opposed to one and the other, and, although it’s abstract, it becomes very important when it comes to membership.

When someone says “I am a furry”, they are using a dyadic sign to signify that a portion of themselves is defined as a member of the furry community. However, when someone says “that person is a furry”, then the sign shifts to being triadic: the interpretant is taking an active role in specifying that a sign (“furry”) signifies an object (“that person”). Someone can always construct their own sign relations at any time, but when it involves a third party, it has the tendency of muddying the waters of the semiotic niche (after all, if it were straight-forward, there wouldn’t be much discussion to have).

What this means is that someone can certainly contribute to the sociolect without necessarily becoming a member of the society which owns it. There are more than enough examples of this to go around: Watership Down and “Robin Hood”, or perhaps Coyote or Raven or Jackal. The creators of these signs and contexts did not necessarily take up membership in the furry social group, but they certainly did add to the niche of language and meaning that has been carved out over the last thirty years or so. This is complicated even further by the fact that the niche is made up of a community of actors rather than just one: something like Coyote as trickster may seem plenty furry to one member of the community, but only tangentially so, if at all, to another.

There are a few problems surrounding this concept of furry as a semiotic niche, and they have to do with the depth at which one analyzes the fandom, or the distance from it one stands. If, for example, one were to step back from furry a little ways, one can look at it a different way and see it in the context of a related field: genre theory.

Furry as a genre is, on the surface, not a surprising concept. One can think of furry literature just as easily as one considers fantasy literature, or perhaps historical fiction. There is an underlying topic that lays beneath the corpi of all three genres. However, as Chandler puts it, “The classification and hierarchical taxonomy of genres is not a neutral and ‘objective’ procedure.”[6] The important point here is that the difference between objective and subjective interpretation is, in the terms of semiotics, the act of subjective interpretation is a sign in and of itself. That so many furries today would consider Disney’s “Robin Hood” to be a furry movie holds meaning both in regards to the object of the film and the fuzzy interpretants themselves. It is difficult even for me to interpret the movie outside of a furry context - I saw it first in Elementary school, and even then spent time drawing foxes afterwards. Needless to say, genre’s a difficult thing to determine from within.

This leads us to the second issue of determining a definition from within or without. If we bring back the concept of Moderate Whorfianism, this becomes more evident. In that context, language influences thinking, but if the thinking is the process of defining either one’s membership within the community, or, more dangerously, defining the community as a whole as we are here, then a feedback loop is started. If our contributions to the sociolect modify the sociolect that we’re in the process of studying, even individually, then it becomes even more difficult to pin down. This is quite the problem when studying the fandom from within.

Studying the fandom from outside introduces other related risks, however. It’s difficult to study something like this from the outside, as well, without having some concept of the use of the texts involved within their context. That is, it seems like studying a participatory corpus such as that of the output of our subculture without participating as well has the risk of coming up with an incomplete mental map of what all is going on. A good example of this (and I do mean good - the studies are well worth reading) would be the work of Kathleen Gerbasi, such as her study Furries A to Z (Anthropomoprhism to Zoomorphism)[7]. While the study is well conducted and provides a good, in-depth look at the fandom, entries to her livejournal page indicate an involvement with the fandom not quite at the level of membership, but perhaps above simple scientific observation.

There is, it seems, a bit of indeterminacy when it comes to studying something such as a social phenomenon. By investigating or defining, we change, or at least risk changing that which is investigated or defined. It’s part of the aforementioned feedback loop, as certainly the goal of the investigator is to be changed in some way by the thing being investigated. That’s what gaining knowledge is all about.

Finally, the furry corpus in particular is extremely difficult to analyze. This is mostly due to the proliferation of texts, media, and modalities. We produce a lot. It is to the point where it’s even difficult to break the corpus down beyond lines other than simply different media. Even those lines are blurred by the profuse cross-sharing of information across media, such as the reposting on twitter of FA journals that link to one or several images, potentially hosted on other sites.

There is, of course, plenty of writing to go by within the fandom. It’s not simply writing for the sake of adding to the furry genre, such as it is, though, but writing in the form of image descriptions, journals, and rants on twitter. The idea is carried further to social interaction with written language, through twitter conversations, comments on images, role-playing, and instant messaging. Beyond the word, however, there is our focus on visual art; whether or not visual art is the primary draw to the fandom is certainly up for debate, but there is a reason that one of the primary social hubs online is an art website and one of the big draws at conventions is the art-show and dealers den.

There are more complex forms of communication than static text and images, though, and here is where things become quite difficult to analyze in any meaningful way. Fursuits, for instance, provide communication in a visual medium similar to that as art - they are pleasing to look at and express the meaning of the character they are intended to embody - but they are also an interactive medium. A medium that can move and talk, can hug and bounce and stalk and take on a life of its own.

And beyond even the concept of extending one’s character into a costume one can don, there is our social interaction that happens on a more mundane basis, yet still within the boundaries of “furry interaction”. There is an acceptable behavior, however ill-defined, that goes along with being a furry. It’s difficult to speak of beyond tendencies and social cues, as many such social customs that come with membership in a subculture or fandom. It has been noted before, though, that one can tell the furries at a furry convention and a furmeet apart from the non-furs. There’s a way that we act, which likely has much more to do with the idea of shared membership and social status than an interest in animals. JM, for instance, writes about the prevalence of geekiness and the behavioral norms that go along with it as they pertain to our fandom[8].

There are subtle cues and portions of our sociolect all over the place, though, and it doesn’t always have to do with direct communication between actors in the community. The subtler things such as structures in websites (Flickr and DeviantArt, for instance, don’t have a category option specifically for species) and conventions (the previously mentioned focus on dissemination of texts through the artshow and dealers areas), or even in media already geared toward social interaction such as MUCKs (again with a species flag) and SecondLife (where one can purchase a skin not only of the species of one’s character, but of the exact color required).

Furry is a heady mix of a full slice of human society that somehow seems to remain topical. We have the glue of our mutual interest in anthropomorphics, but beyond that, we have spread our corpus across several different texts in our own personal ways of generating meaning within the context of our subculture. By the interaction of our own spheres of meaning we have generated our own semiotic niche, however fuzzy around the edges, and come up with this idea of “furry”. There’s no real easy way to pull it apart, even given as broad a topic as semiotics, but by investigating and participating, we always seem to expand it all the further.


Conclusion

This thing we call “furry” is clearly more difficult to pin down than one simple article or even a whole website will cover. It’s something that I’d tried before in a few different ways. In fact, it seems to be something that everyone tries as part of their membership dues. Every now and then, once a month or so, I’ll come across a journal post of someone else’s take on the whole fandom, and the beautiful (and yes, a little frustrating) part of it is that they’re all totally different.

We can make at least one statement, having taken all of this into account, though. Furry is a complex interaction of actors within a social community surrounding an already complex sign-meaning relationship. Beyond that, though, the issue grows complex by our reliance on two main modalities: natural language, which is always prone to misinterpretation; and visual art, which is only barely analyzable, and limited further, anyhow, by the medium of primarily hand-drawn images. Both of these are inherently ambiguous, and often based on aesthetics and identification on a per-member basis. That is, what is furry to one is not necessarily furry to another, or even the creator. The final level of obfuscation comes through the means with which so many interact with the fandom, via a willfully constructed avatar, something which does not match the individual themselves out of necessity.

This article and any like it will have it’s necessary downsides. We didn’t really get anywhere, all told - we defined some terms in order to help us understand the ways in which we interact with our subculture, both through the linguistic concept of a sociolect, a language used among our co-fans, and the semiotic concept of a niche, a set of meanings and sign relations shared by the members of the niche. It’s hard to get anywhere with either, though, especially in such a loose-weaved community. Semiotics and linguistics are all about statements of subtle facts made out in the open. There are concrete tests and analyses to be done (if one could port the commutation test to our visual art in order to find the “graphemes” of muzzles and tails, that could lead to interesting results), but they’re difficult to really do well, and even if they were, it’s not guaranteed that they would lead to any results, nor if any of the results would even be welcome.

There are positives to be had as well, though. I hope that the article has provided more insight into the linguistics and semiotics of the fandom. The ideas of sociolects and genres are a good way to think about this broad base of which we are a part, because they provide a foundation of words on which we can base our own explanations of what it means to be a furry. And, beyond the definitions, it’s nice to maintain a certain sort of disputability. It allows for a greater membership through greater self identification - more people can become furry because the definition of what furry is can accommodate them. And hey, that sense of mystery about the fandom is always nice, as well. It’s a hook for bringing in new members, and for keeping the old ones interested, too.

I know this has been a little out of the norm, but I wanted to actually take my time to research an article and provide a more coherent look at the reasons for studying the fandom, and for this site in general. These things are important to us, too. The meanings we create determine our interactions within the fandom and how they take place. Beyond that, though, by participating in our community as members, we contribute to it. This is how we grow, explore, and find meaning,

Where to go from here? Well, I hope that the cognizance of the signs around us is helpful in a way. Every word, every piece of art, and every interaction between members is a sign from which we can glean a message and to which we can attach our own individual meanings, however mundane. The meanings inherent in these relations surround us and help define our membership, and we’re certainly always creating more. If nothing else, there’s always more work to go when it comes to exploring the furry subculture.

Citations

  1. Chandler, Daniel. “The Act of Writing”. http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/act/act.html accessed April 3, 2012.

  2. Zik. “furry lexicon”. http://pastebin.com/GR7MqsnJ accessed, April 2, 2012.

  3. Munroe, Randall. “Umwelt”. http://xkcd.com/1037/ accessed April 1, 2012.

  4. Lotman, Yuri M. On the semiosphere. (Translated by Wilma Clark) Sign Systems Studies, 33.1 (2005). http://www.ut.ee/SOSE/sss/Lotman331.pdf accessed April 5, 2012.

  5. Geddes, M.” The History of the Furry Fandom, Pt 1” (2012).

  6. Chandler, Daniel. “An Introduction to Genre Theory”. http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/intgenre/intgenre1.html accessed April 7, 2012.

  7. Gerbasi, Kathleen. “Furries A to Z (Anthropomorphism to Zoomorphism) in “Society and Animals”, 16, 197-222. http://www2.asanet.org/sectionanimals/articles/GerbasilFurries.pdf accessed March 15, 2012.

  8. JM. “Geeks”. http://adjectivespecies.com/2012/04/09/geeks/ accessed April 9, 2012.