A Call for Preservation of Sources for Furry Fandom History
by Dogpatch Press Staff
Guest post by Gamepopper, an indie game maker and animation fan in the UK.
As a British furry who was interested in the history of the furry fandom, I couldn’t help but notice most of the subject was centred around the United States. This was the case in all the articles and convention panels I could find, and most blatantly in the book Furry Nation: The True Story of America’s Most Misunderstood Subculture by Joe Strike. This United States focus continues to this day with videos and documentaries such as The Fandom by Ash Coyote discussing the history of the fandom from the beginnings at science fiction and comic book conventions in California.
As a result, I took it upon myself in 2017 to look into my own country’s perspective of the fandom. This part-time hobby of mine culminated into a lecture at ConFuzzled 2019, The History of the Furry Fandom in the United Kingdom, which focused on the growth of the fandom from the earliest known gathering of twenty fans in 1987 to the present day conventions of over two thousand furries. I spoke about the housecons and fanzines in the nineties, furmeets and mailing lists in the noughties, and the British furry conventions and the difficulties getting them off the ground. I also allowed audience members to make comments and ask questions throughout, which you can listen to in the recorded version uploaded to YouTube.
Watching it in retrospect, I’m still proud of the amount of content in the work, in spite of a few factual errors and omissions that a few people have noted. On the day itself, it went over better than I ever anticipated, with a full room of attendees giving a huge round of applause at the end and many furries coming up to me to appraise my work. One of those people thought that the full history should be written down, and, given the amount of work I had already done, I felt up to the task.
Ever since the convention ended, I have been working on Furry Kingdom, a book about the history of the British furry fandom, discussing the earliest influences in art and storytelling, the numerous events and activities throughout the decades, and the many challenges the British fandom has faced. At the moment, I’ve finished what I want to write for the manuscript and I’m currently searching for a means to get it published.
This book allowed me to write what I wouldn’t have been able to say in the 2019 lecture due to time constraints and limited information at the time. During that period, my research had only scratched the surface, and I had few sources available. Fred Patten’s Chronology and Furry Fandom Conventions were great resources for establishing the base structure, which I then expanded upon using alt.fan.furry, UKFur Forums, various LiveJournals and contacting about a dozen furries from the early days.
Working on the book also meant refining my research methods to uncover every event and piece of noteworthy media in great detail, finding original fanzines and magazines, newspaper articles, documentaries, and contacting even more people to get the fullest picture that I can.
THE PROBLEM OF FINDING SOURCES
So how does one go about researching the history of the furry fandom? The short answer is that it involves a lot of reading and listening. Not just panels, documentaries, and wikis, but the written and spoken word from the events the days they were happening, to find out where the secondary sources got their information from as well as to find information that had previously not been recorded.
How do you go about finding these primary sources for the furry fandom? Well, there are a wide variety of avenues to finding them, but for the sake of brevity, I distinguish them into one of three categories:
- What is currently online: Almost every website pertaining to the furry fandom is a potential source when looking for documents. Any website used to inform and promote a furry convention or furmeet, or a post on a blog, forum, or board, reporting on such events are great sources of information, particularly as the internet has been pivotal for the fandom’s growth from the late-90s to the present.
- From people in the fandom: For my book as an example, I’ve contacted individuals who were involved in running conventions as well as furmeets in the past in order to find out what happened from their recollections and to compare with what was being discussed at the time.
- In archives: This could be from digital archives like archive.org and the Wayback Machine to physical archives like museums and libraries.
Sounds all straightforward, right? I wish it was. The hard truth is that even in the furry fandom, which has been organized heavily online for decades, whose passion in its own legacy is self-evident by the success of books and documentaries, not everything is as readily available as one might assume.
Physical materials (e.g., conbooks, fanzines, newsletters) are incredibly difficult to obtain due to the furry fandom’s limited and often independent publishing runs, and very few of them are preserved and digitised. The best method of ever getting a chance to read most of these is to contact private collectors, but even this is a challenge.
I’m fortunate enough that the plenty of people who I got in touch with for the project I’ve been working on have been approachable and willing to provide any help and information they can. That doesn’t mean everyone I wanted to talk to was either available to contact or willing to respond to a random furry with an interest in past furmeets, conventions, and artworks.
It’s also not just an issue finding sources within the fandom: for instance, I’ve made several visits to the British Library in order to look for newspaper and magazine articles. Imagine my surprise when, despite its extensive collection of manuscripts, microfilms, books, journals, and even issues of science fiction fandom magazines such as Starburst, I discover that not every issue is within their archives.
Even Fred Patten had difficulties researching for his book on Furry Fandom Conventions:
“…about half the 116 conventions never replied to my e-mails, or sent a brief reply that their purpose was to have fun, not to engage in bookkeeping, and they didn’t keep any records of their previous years.… You can tell in my book which conventions sent me information, and which didn’t.”
Yet the worst challenge, however, is filling the gaps in events where information is lost forever. Anything made of paper can get burned, torn, or damaged beyond repair, or even intentionally thrown away or shredded. Digital media can also be lost, despite the phrase “Once it’s on the internet, it’s there forever”. Forums go offline, websites end up going to Error 404, servers shut down and get dismantled, and although archival services like the Wayback machine exist, not every website has a snapshot to go back to.
For example, mailing lists were one of the ways furries communicated online, sending emails to entire groups through a central email server. Although predominantly text-based, some hosts made it possible to send photos and videos through mailing lists. As usenet was used less and less in the late nineties and before web forums became commonplace in the mid-noughties, mailing lists was an efficient method of communicating with fellow furries amongst particular groups, especially for British furries. Before 2006, there was not only a mailing list for UK furries as a whole, hosted by Critter.net, but also mailing lists for each region of the UK, where they discussed their fandom interests and arranged local gatherings that led to the traditional furmeets of today.
However, mailing lists have all but vanished from the internet. Most of the original mailing lists weren’t removed due to ill-intentions, but due to lack of interest from the time. Many such as the HantsFurs Mailing List were deleted by their owners simply because places like the UK Fur Forums had become more popular by the late-naughties.
There were some that were hosted entirely by the furry fandom itself that fell victim to a more dire fate: hardware failure. This was the case for Critter.net, which hosted several mailing lists, websites, and news servers, but which suffered a catastrophic failure in 2014. The act of two drives failing and data being inaccessible, as well as backups being impossible to decrypt, leads to a bleak result. “Everything. Every database, document, photo, website, email. Gone.” as Frysco, the owner of Critter.net, described the outcome.
Yet the greatest cause of loss came not from within the fandom, but from the companies that hosted it. Although there was eGroups before it, most furries used Yahoo Groups to set up mailing lists, since it was considered the largest host of discussion boards that provided the resources to set up a mailing list for free. Unfortunately, Yahoo’s parent company Verizon Media officially announced that they were discontinuing Yahoo Groups in October 2019.
What was worse, they weren’t going to preserve all the messages, images, and videos, shared on the service forever. In fact, users had until December to archive mailing lists by themselves before the data would be deleted (they would later extend it to January 2020). After that, the only evidence of a mailing list’s existence was an empty page, until early in 2021 when the Yahoo Groups pages were removed entirely.
It’s currently unknown how many furry mailing lists have been preserved or archived. In my efforts to rescue some, I only managed to collect four. Although there was an extensive grassroots effort to archive as much as possible from Yahoo Groups, it will take more than a lifetime for one person to find out if any furry mailing lists are amongst its collection.
WHY IT MATTERS
I know what some of you are thinking: so what?
It’s no lie that I’ve had these kinds of comments from friends when I complained about the loss of mailing lists.
“I don’t want messages I posted when I was a teenager to be online forever!”
“Some things are best left forgotten.”
“Who cares about an old mailing list?”
As someone who has been on the internet for nearly twenty years, I can empathise with the embarrassment at the thought of something I’ve written on the internet when I was a kid being available to be read decades later. That doesn’t change the fact that all posts and comments, even the irrelevant and cringeworthy, are worth preserving to reflect what the culture was like at that moment in time.
To analogise, historians all over the world generally accepts newspapers as a vital primary or secondary source of information for historical research. They generally accept so much that many libraries archive national and local newspapers, either as physical copies, digitized scans, or microfilm, for people to look through.
Chronicling America, part of the United States Library of Congress, is one of the largest archives of American Newspapers, with digitized collections dating back to the mid-eighteenth century. Not only can you read the headline news, but all the columns, small articles, adverts and comic strips too. And yes, it’s definitely possible to find stories that descendants would find embarrassing.
Yet every page is preserved and archived not only for the completion factor, but also because even these little stories can tell us about the culture of the country, state, county, town, and city.
Message boards and social media tell the same thing for the furry fandom: what jokes were being thrown around, what the big issues were, whether they be local or within the fandom as a whole. Even the few I managed to archive were incredibly resourceful for my research, helping me figure out the story of how the Northern Furs and MidFurs, two of the three largest furry regional groups in the past, formed and set the standard for furmeets for the rest of the United Kingdom.
WHAT SHOULD BE DONE AND HOW?
The one thing I want to advocate for is that we the furries have the responsibility to preserve the furry fandom’s work, whether it be its art, advertisements, even our discussions. That’s all well and good, but that’s why we need to discuss how we should go about doing that.
One way is to talk more about our history, either through writing articles, running panels, or producing documentaries: any way to tell interesting stories about what our fandom has gone through. They don’t need to be broad; stories could be told of individual conventions, activities, or even musicals.
Another way is to support archives and archivists, to motivate them to preserve more content so that people can read through and understand more about the furry fandom’s long legacy.
Lastly, for the online sort of thing, support the non-profit archive.org and try to make extensive use of saving web pages to the Wayback Machine. That way if a website ever goes down, when an article or a wiki page has a deadlink, there should be a chance that there is a cached or saved version on the archive.
There are many more possible avenues to archiving work, although for bigger places such as DropBox and Google Drive, use caution. No matter how big the company that runs the website is, it has no guarantee of keeping data on its servers forever.
WHO IS DOING IT?
Authors and Journalists
Of course, I’m writing Furry Kingdom, which focuses on the History of the furry fandom in the United Kingdom, and I’m certainly not the only one writing about furry history:
- Joe Strike, who wrote Furry Nation, is currently working on a sequel titled Furry Planet, which aims to cover the furry fandom throughout the world.
- Grubbs Grizzly, a columnist for Ask Papabear and organiser of the Good Furry Award is also working on his own book, titled The Furry Book.
- Thurston Howl has been the publisher of several non-fiction anthologies called Furries Among Us.
- Choco Pony is slowly working on a book on convention history, which not only include furry conventions, but science fiction, anime, and brony conventions as well.
- As previously mentioned, Fred Patten did extensive chronicling of the furry fandom over the years, once in Retrospective: An Illustrated Chronology of Furry Fandom that was originally published in Yarf magazine back in 1996, as well as a book on Furry Fandom Conventions from 1989 to 2015.
- It doesn’t have to be books, as Ash Coyote demonstrated with the feature-length documentary, The Fandom.
- Culturally F’d have done numerous videos on the subject of the furry fandom, from conventions to fursuits.
- Dox, a History BA graduate from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, wrote a thesis on the furry fandom’s history and culture and has done panels on his own YouTube channel for the online convention RAMCon.
- It’s not just YouTube: users on Twitter can follow accounts that have been regularly posting classic furry art, such as the Ancient Furries and Vintage Funny Animals.
Collectors and Curators
- Some conventions have archived content from past events, such as EuroFurence, ConFuzzled, and NordicFuzzcon.
- Sylys Sable and Changa Husky have extensively uploaded several pieces of paperwork surrounding the early furry fandom, ConFurence, and Califur to the ConFurence Archive.
- Summercat is the owner of the Furry Library, which has an extensive collection of furry literature, from comics to fanzines. This one also has a Patreon in need of more donations.
- Plenty of video footage and photos, primarily of fursuiters, are viewable on the Fursuit Archive.
- Before he passed away in 2018, Fred Patten had donated his personal collection of books and fanzines to the University of California, Riverside Library, and made regular visits to organize them. Since his passing, the collection has remained in storage with no staff to carry on his work.
Academics and Researchers
Believe it or not, there is a field of study for fandoms and fan culture (as Dox pointed out in one of his panels): Fandom Studies.
Although there isn’t an academic specialist in studying the furry fandom’s history apart from Dox, Christopher Polt, PhD has been teaching anthropomorphic art and animation history at Boston College.
The companion website for my Beast Literature course is now live and public! If anyone would like to see what we're doing and follow along, feel free to browse. I'll publish the individual components one week at a time, so check back regularly! https://t.co/6uN1TTERWw pic.twitter.com/J3BLcNTVJm
— Tofte | Christopher Polt 🏳️🌈 (@CBPolt) January 31, 2021
We live in a fortunate time where many of the pioneers of the furry fandom are still part of it, appearing and speaking at furry conventions. We are also fortunate to have the mountains of information that fandom historians have at their disposal. That doesn’t mean that it’s safe forever, or that there is no more to be found. Information will disappear if we don’t make an active effort to preserve it and share it. We should support our archives and any and all researchers creating content sharing our history.
This doesn’t just go to the fandom in the United States, I wouldn’t have been able to do a panel at ConFuzzled, let alone write a book if dedicated historians like Fred Patten didn’t lay the groundwork for me to look further. If I started later than I did, I wouldn’t have been able to save even a few mailing lists that proved valuable to my research. Not to mention that most of what I’m looking for was written in English, so there is potentially more valuable information in other languages to record the history of the furry fandom around the world. All of it needs preserving, even if some of it makes us cringe.
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