How furries resist a commercialized fandom (Part 3)

by Patch O'Furr

Furry fandom often has DIY ethics (intentional or not). That can mean nonprofit volunteer-led events, and directly supporting each other’s art instead of just consuming corporate products. A Daily Beast reporter asked about it and I shared lots of info that didn’t all make the news — so here’s a followup in 3 parts.

Part 1 looked at the roots of fandom, with fans being “fans of each other”. Stigma and undermining showed how the fandom didn’t just follow the path of least resistance, it broke out under pressure. A sense of outsiderness and self determination has stayed ever since.

Part 2 looked at conventions making a platform for industry and expression that keeps the group untamed. Relations with the media got better while making a certain fandom identity (instead of letting others make it). It can even connect to deeper identity of members, because it lets them be who they want to be.

Furries care about fandom identity with a kind of tribalism. When members say they’re prone to “furry drama,” it can come from conflict about who defines it or benefits from it. That’s how The Daily Beast noticed conflict about a luxury “designer fursuit” brand, which usually wouldn’t matter to anyone except furries.

I told the reporter: “I think it really struck a nerve. It really got to the root of this possessiveness that the subculture has about itself and what it built for itself.”

It’s a case for looking at resistance to commercialism. Backlash at the brand was provoked by tone-deaf marketing, where bringing a mainstream approach wasn’t workable with art based on unique personal identity. Also, luxury brands don’t get made from scratch when others go back 100 years. (Fans in-the-know could compare this with furry brand Hyena Agenda, whose stuff speaks for itself without rubbing the wrong way against a certain fandom identity.)

The brand website touted work by a “designer, not a tailor”. That was taken as unfair to hard-working artists, and even called an attack. Of course, it was brought out by angry critics taking screenshots and insults to Twitter (who was attacking who?) Thousands joined in, despite the maker turning out to be just one fan. Her commitment was marked by previous dance comp wins, and a record sale of a self-made fursuit. The marketing came from nervousness about flopping, and it was a youthful, regrettable misreading of the culture. The backlash didn’t resist corporate behavior so much as punish a fellow fan for a mistake.

As resistance, perhaps backlash at one member was the wrong approach for the right reason. It came with some good intentions to protect the tribe. But that can fester and turn toxic — especially while chasing commercially-viable respectability.

Reactionary protectionism has led to attacking people for making the fandom look too freaky, like infamous furry in the media, Boomer the Dog. But targets like him can be long-time fans, artists or harmless eccentrics, and losing them would make the fandom less interesting. It’s a kind of infighting where nobody is harsher to furries than other furries. It leads to hazing, trolling, and undermining cons.

Part 2 looked at Robert Hill (a furry since the 1970’s), and free expression at the roots of the fandom. When freedom bloomed, prudish reactionaries came to chop it down. It goes all the way back to the “Skunkfuckers” posters at cons in 1989. A SoCal fan who was there (who wants anonymity) says the posters came from the same person who found the fandom in 1989 and went on to spread a malicious myth about ConFurence. The first furry con was smeared as being run by “gay-pride activists” who advertised to “outsiders” and ruined the fandom by being too freaky and gay — as if the pure roots had no such influence.

A supposed commercial ad was key to the myth of fandom’s ruin by outsiders. The myth persisted for decades — but there was no such ad. The same source stuck to their habit of lying, and went on to spread myths about the end of Rocky Mountain Fur Con in 2017.

This same source shows a line from 1989 — through the Burned Furs — to the Altfurry hate group who were rejected by the fandom in 2017-2018. (Imagine pushing a grudge for decades during so much growth.) That source was suspended from Twitter while altfurries were banned from websites and cons (which led him to troll FurAffinity with a failed lawsuit.) This brings up how healthy resistance can be not just reactionary, but coordinated for progress on many fronts.

Resisting hate groups rose to a rare level of pro-active success unified with a message, “Nazi Furs Fuck Off.” It’s borrowed from punk musician Jello Biafra, who led the Dead Kennedys and wrote “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” in 1981. In 2018 he gave furries the ultimate seal of approval for their efforts — despite complaints in the name of respectability about the message having a bad word. (Never mind the obscenity of genocidal fascism.) Oh my pearls!

Decentralization can both support and limit noncommercialism and resistance. Fandom has overlap with punk subculture with how it rejects hate groups, or supports nonconforming identity. (With a cool fursona, even normal people can defy expectations to act grown up.) But punishing one fan for acting like a mainstream brand didn’t necessarily reach past Twitter or build anything. It wasn’t so much resisting as just reacting.

“Resistance” can mean something unintentional, like friction. It doesn’t necessarily mean a deliberate anti-commercial mission. At the roots of fandom, noncommercialism probably meant doing DIY things the mainstream wasn’t doing. Now, when some furries make a living from business with other fans, you can call it organically indie. That’s not exactly a coordinated alternative, like socialistic co-ops.

Worker co-ops and unions exist elsewhere with furries involved. But those aren’t really big in fandom (although co-ops could fit.  And it’s still worth pointing out how they share and control their own production, charity they do, and their nonprofits and cooperative groups — like the Furry Convention Leadership Roundtable or Furry Writers Guild.) It would be powerful to have one for artists more pro-active than patchwork Artist Beware efforts.

Taking that for granted, it seems like the 1970’s fandom roots synched with a creative new wave, when punk was a revolt against corporate product, with a DIY, Be The Media ethic. Proto-furries weren’t so intentional, but you can still find a similar indie spirit in the fandom. That’s part of their fear of selling out to well-funded forces beyond their control.

The fear can be real because capitalizing on communities can drain them to death.

How commercialism creeps in and complicates the fandom: There’s an exchange when fandom had roots in the mainstream, built an alternative place, and then influences the mainstream back. To win over fans as consumers, outsiders might tiptoe up to a line between respectable and weird, but not cross it. They may get resistance while the line protects independence. In fandom or out, engaging can be shaky for projects that need serious support (like a movie that needs a budget to get made right.) Worthy projects can fail because you can’t please all the people all of the time. Others can succeed by pleasing people while scamming or exploiting the base that made it possible.

If furry is commercializing, it can be seen in success of furry game devs, Youtubers, or Esports stars (like SonicFox). On the outside, furries show up in commercials/ads and music videos of non-indie artists. Psuedo-fursuits at Walmart or cheap knockoffs at DHGate may rise closer to fandom quality.

Actual outside money investment can be seen with Second Life (who did some outreach to furries), or Amino Apps (who sponsored Youtube channels). The biggest so far was the 2015 sale of FurAffinity (the fan-built art hub) to IMVU (a big Silicon Valley company).

There was uproar, and I interviewed company staff about the sale in 2015. But predictions of doom about corporate changes didn’t come to pass. FurAffinity stayed the same ever since. Rumor has it that the site was acquired because of some benefactor at the company, more to keep it stable than to make lots of profit.

The history of FurAffinity has more points to notice. There was losing payment processing in 2010 due to porn on the site (perhaps showing a tradeoff to keep artist freedom, or a fork between commercialism and fandom for its own sake.) Then there was the 2016 Paddington Bear DMCA to remove content from the site, showing conflict between mainstream brand control and user-driven art.

In fandom merchandise, the biggest, longest, most slippery thing is Bad Dragon, the fantasy dildo maker with significant non-fandom customers, and owner of furry kink and social websites. Their site seemed to reduce some obvious fandom ties to position it to sell. It’s one of the few fandom businesses that has made anyone rich. They have gotten many allegations of sleazy business, with little effect. (Who expects respectable horse dongs?) Apparently their customers like what they sell. It shows the limits of resisting commercialism, and how freaky free expression can bring it as well as protect from it.

On a relatively more respectable side are apparel sellers like Pawstar (how many furry dealers have over 160,000 followers — and looking at their engagement level, are they even real?) Their goods seem more cheaply mass produced than most stuff in dealer dens, and it’s unclear how much fandom is involved. There’s also Artworktee who seems to aggressively push shady methods of acquiring business and followers (although some people really like their products), to the point of startup-style growth hacking.

  • More: ArtworkTee and the heart of the furry economy
  • Thread: Managed by a guy responsible for an art theft scandal in Brony fandom in 2015, it used ripped-off memes to boost a “Furry Memes” account to over 10K followers, and then conveniently rebrand it as a news site managed by that same guy in 2019.

There’s a tour from furry roots, through building independent subculture, to a boom in activity. Here’s a few current happenings with that.

Corgi Events is now running a chain of cons in multiple states under the same for-profit model. Of course this doesn’t necessarily mean anyone’s profiting a lot. It’s not unusual to use that model for simpler paperwork and a not-for-profit outcome. It could just mean more cons. Or it could raise the risk of a certain problem with unpaid volunteers shared by other cons, and a bump in the road for their future and the type of support that got them this far.

Furry Weekend Atlanta recently made a leap to inviting Mystery Skulls (the biggest mainstream musical act that’s ever played a furry con, as far as I know), and advertising on billboards. The ad drew heated protest on Twitter – but again, the limit of such resistance comes up if they got free advertising as a nonprofit.

Howl Toronto dance organizer Dralen Dragonfox comments:

Recently there was some uproar about the billboards put up for FWA, and not just in the context of rising ticket prices and paying DJs. There was an undercurrent of “who exactly are they advertising to?” Part of it is that people are very protective of the fandom because, as we all know, it’s been burned a few times in the past by sensationalism, hyper-focus on sex, and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment towards a culture with a great deal of sexual diversity. Setting aside the childish “ew” factor, the fandom gets portrayed as weird and bizarre instead of just quirky. But in terms of commercialization, there’s a real fear that the very things we get hammered for (sexual diversity, sex positivity, plenty of PDAs) will have to be scrubbed or suppressed in order to gain “mainstream” commercial acceptance.

Where will this lead? Follow the money and watch the biggest cons, with milestones like 10,000+ attendees at Midwest Furfest 2018. Anthrocon’s public relations helps draw millions in tourist spending to Pittsburgh, while they have the fandom’s most unique fursuit parade. It’s the only one where a city blocks off a public street for furries. Speaking for myself, their parade is one of the wonders of the furry world and one of the best fursuiting events I’ve ever done. Anthrocon’s thousands of regular parade watchers are the type likely to take fandom closer to the mainstream — at least with spectators on the edge who cheer for it — and if you’ve been in that parade, more love isn’t a bad thing.

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