Fur Trade: When a Niche Community Goes Corporate

Talking with a longtime member of the online furry community FurAffinity about the site’s sale, how furries are treated in 2015, and the evolution of highly specific Internet environments.

Second Life is now used mostly for virtual raves or low-resolution sex roleplay, but there was a brief period in the late 2000s when that online world and its user-generated merchandise seemed like they might supplant the entire North American economy. As with every speculative bubble, profiteers appeared. The metaverse of IMVU, which launched in 2004, coerces you to spend money on a vast range of fashions, pets, and décor, all of them also reminiscent of 2004, like the My Chemical Romance song that was probably embedded on my Myspace page back then. It doesn’t actually let you move around, as in the obvious source material Second Life—your dead-eyed doll-avatars just chat with each other from predetermined positions. I had never even heard of IMVU until last week. That was when they announced they were buying FurAffinity, perhaps the single largest online community of people who really love anthropomorphic animals, whether their motives are playful, sexual, artistic, professional, or some fuzzy combination.

I know a few people involved with furry fandom to various degrees, and they couldn’t believe how angry FurAffinity’s users were. It’s a hefty membership—the forums claim nearly 100,000 members—which has currently left 1,817 aggrieved comments on the big official announcement. Said user IvanBunny: “My biggest concern about this whole situation is that an outside corporate entity has been brought into the Furry Community to operate a site who’s [sic] people they likely do not understand. I know this site and other Furry sites have exchanged hands/paws before BUT those transactions were made by Furries for Furries …Furries are not mainstream, and that is a wonderful thing.” The suspicion sounded reasonable: Artists who use FurAffinity to host their work have already accused IMVU of stealing designs. When you’re in the business of customizable trinkets, an audience constantly commissioning new drawings of their fursonas might be the ideal market. But the collective alienation clearly went deeper than that. There had to be a history I’d missed.

As somebody who spent way too much of high school on message boards for terrible nerds, I have a lingering interest in the social dynamics of niche Internet communities. And it felt like the whole furry aesthetic had been undergoing a resurgence—the cultural backwash of ’90s Disney movies, maybe. Not that it ever really went away in comics, where humanized critters have always told gags for kids, or narrated Lewis Trondheim’s diary strips, or, via Art Spiegelman, documented the Holocaust. My friend Rory Frances recently moderated a discussion of cartoonists working in the funny-animals style, and I liked how he described its powers of abstraction there: “A lot of talking-animal stuff kinda works with the idea of a fractured ecosystem and puts it in a more human social context.” With all this in mind, I decided to talk to consult another friend and longtime FurAffinity lurker, J Bearhat, the author of zines such as Gay Apathy. Their fursona is a Shiba Inu.

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I guess the first thing I should ask, just because I’m curious, is how did you first realize you were into furry stuff?

The interesting thing about that is—this is something I’ve discovered is true of a lot of gay people who are into furry stuff—that I was into furry stuff before I was into gay porn. I think a lot of it has to do with the language of intimacy being different. And also, an abstract cartoon depiction of a gay relationship feels less threatening than an actual gay relationship. But for me, it was probably browsing general Internet forums, like Something Awful and 4chan, where gay furry porn would be used for, like, ironic shock value? And I’d be saving it, like, “no wait, this is actually good.”

It’s weird—obviously message boards still exist, but it feels like they’re way less central to the Internet now.

That’s actually something that I always really love, weirdly specific Internet communities—ones that are small and self-contained. I found one that my friend was on that was originally an Animal Collective fan forum that turned into a general shitpost forum. One of the more infamous ones is Bodybuilding.com, which basically for a brief while was the new /b/ (4chan’s massively popular “random” imageboard), because they had some off-topic forum that bunch of people would post on who weren’t involved with the rest of the board at all. I just remember discovering it and being like, “This is basically a secret /b/, hidden away on this workout forum.”

What is your sense of the whole community at FurAffinity, whether the artists or the people who post on the message boards there?

My perception of the community there—because I know a lot of people who are active on it—FurAffinity thrives on the thing a lot of Internet communities thrive on, which is that everyone who uses the site hates the vast majority of other users, and also the administration of the website, but they use it because that’s where everything has become centralized. This one pornographer Artdecade posted a thing recently where he was like, “here’s why people still use FurAffinity”—he had released this game called Willy Bear Beach, and of the people who clicked on it and bought it, the vast majority came from when he posted it on FurAffinity.

So even though there are offshoots—there’s Weasyl, there’s Tumblr, a lot of people use that now, and there’s Twitter and all these other ways to promote themselves—if you’re trying to use the furry fandom in a professional capacity or as a way to get your art seen, it’s usually through FurAffinity. But a lot of people don’t think it’s a particularly well-made website, and the fanbase it attracts is a very obnoxious fanbase. But that’s where the fanbase is.

Obnoxious in what sense?

The roleplaying in your comments section [laughs]. Even on clean art, it’s the same as, like, the comments section on a PornTube website, where you have people engaging as if they’re doing it with the character—but with the added bonus of people then interacting with them and continuing on. So you’ll get a picture, and then you’ll scroll down and there’ll just be … “sexyotter69 says, ‘oh, what do his paws smell like?’” and then a bunch of cat face emoticons. And then someone will join in on that and they’ll just riff back and forth doing increasingly depraved things. And it’s just a picture of, like, a Pokémon holding a carrot, with one foot slightly lifted up, which is why they’re like, “I noticed the hyper-realistic paw.”

There’s this guy Dragoneer, who I guess runs FurAffinity, and he apparently ran a suspiciously timed $25,000 fundraiser for the site…

Oh my god, yeah, everyone hates Dragoneer. Basically, he did a GoFundMe, because there had been a DDoS [attack]. And then people looked into it and they found out he had set up the GoFundMe for the DDoS before it had even started [both laugh], which led to a lot of them questioning whether he paid someone to DDoS the website to have an excuse for a fundraiser.

It’s like the 9/11 false-flag conspiracy theory.

Yeah, but in this case that’s actually exactly something that Dragoneer would do [laughs]. The site is also apparently not very well put together, so some group found a really easy exploit—I think they gained access to a moderator’s account, and then from there they found out that the moderators can see every message on FurAffinity. So they saved all the messages and then posted them [under the name YiffyLeaks, “yiffing” being furry slang for fucking]. And then over time as people were going through it they were like, “wow, there’s a lot of really horrible stuff in there,” one of them being that Dragoneer supposedly tipped off a bunch of people on the website … There’s a lot of infighting in the furry community, and one of the big ones is that people try to police the community for actual bestiality. And allegedly Dragoneer tipped off a bunch of users, like, “Oh hey, these people are going to go to the cops with these posts that make it obvious you’re actually having sex with animals”—he was allegedly helping them hide the evidence of that. Or when people would go to him and say, you know, this guy is an actual dogfucker, he’d just brush it off: “Well, whatever.” I think that was the big moment when people decided that Dragoneer sucks, both as a moderator and as a person.

There’s this really weird concept of applying respectability politics to something that doesn’t need it. To me it’s weird to be like, “I’m not obsessed with Looney Tunes for a perverse reason. I’m just really into drawings of cartoon animals!” That’s actually more concerning to me.

Are there a lot of sub-communities on there? Like, people who are into Macro Falco, and then people who are just like, “I’m going to draw myself as a cat!”

There are so many community divides. There are all the general sub-fetishes—if you’re looking for any specific fetish content, you can probably find it on FurAffinity. There used to be a lot of art of bearhugging—if you search “bearhug” on there, you’re going to find pictures of characters hugging, but really luridly drawn. One of the things about the furry community, and FurAffinity being a big face of that, is both an obsession with and disavowal of “drama.” And on one hand that means they don’t really know how to handle basic interpersonal conflict, but it also means that people get really upset over minor things. So you’ll see a lot of arguments about fetish stuff, fandom stuff.

People will get upset if a certain art style gets too popular, or if a certain kink gets too popular, or if there’s not enough fan art of their character. There was for a brief while—I don’t know if it’s still as much of a thing, but back when I first started lurking the site—there was always this huge pushback from straight furs against the proliferation of bisexuality and homosexuality. And often people would look at their lists of favourites, which were publicly accessible, and amongst all this safe-for-work art there’d be one or two pictures of their character having gay sex. But they would be like, “It’s just art. It’s just the art. I just like it because of the art.” I think because of the fact that furry fandoms are so mainstream-stigmatized as this weird fetishy thing, people who are into the fandom but disavowing the fetishy parts tend to be really, really intense about it.

Yeah, it’s like feeding somebody else to the lions. “Oh, take him! I’m normal!” I suppose “feeding somebody to the lions” is not a great metaphor in this context.

It’s this really weird concept of applying respectability politics to something that doesn’t need it. To me it’s weird to be like, “I’m not obsessed with Looney Tunes for a perverse reason. I’m just really into drawings of cartoon animals!” That’s actually more concerning to me [laughs]. That’s one of the sources of drama—people will say, “I’m just into drawings of myself as a dog, fully clothed, and not erotic at all.” But just really obsessed with it. That’s been an issue in the fandom forever; one of the oldest groups is called the Burned Furs. If you look them up, they have a manifesto that is this long thing about how the community has been overtaken by pornographers, and how there needs to be a return to what the fandom is really about, which is cartoon animals who are not having sex, I guess. It’s really good. I have a friend who’s been in the community—I hate saying “the community” about furries—but he’s been a part of furry culture since the ’90s, and once I sent him a gift: I transcribed the entire Burned Furs manifesto onto a fabric patch so he could put it on a leather jacket.

Why do you think so many furries are furious at IMVU, or the FurAffinity administrators who sold it to them, or maybe both? Because they seemed … mad. Really, really mad.

Partly, to return to the whole “drama” thing, it’s change and therefore considered bad. And I think a bit of it is a legitimate distrust towards online culture being conducted as if it’s business. You see it in other places—4chan has a ton of shit about any changes of hands or moderators being added. Any time Tumblr updates their terms of service, there are posts with thousands and thousands of notes going around about how the new terms of service make it illegal to be gay on Tumblr or whatever. There’s just always a somewhat justified fear that that change is heading towards altering the culture in some unwanted way, or banning things, or taking people’s work and profiting off of it. So a lot of it comes down to IMVU being a website that’s Second Life for people who can’t figure out how to use Second Life—that there’s going to be an attempt to monetize FurAffinity.

I read about the whole virtual economy of IMVU, and it sounds dystopian. Like, this is how we’re going to live in the grim anarcho-capitalist future: “Credits can be purchased online using actual currency either directly from IMVU or from third party re-sellers. Credits may also be purchased on IMVU gift cards available from retail outlets such as department stores. Credits may not be transferred back from IMVU to actual currency but can be sold to registered re-sellers who will purchase them for real-world currency.” There’s already a 50-page-long forum thread about the acquisition…

Yeah, it’s controversial because the assumption is that a change will be some sort of bad change. Which is not a surprise—it probably will be bad. But it’s already been a bad website, so I honestly don’t see how it could get less functional.

It seems like the whole infinite customization thing would find furries to be a big market, because everybody wants new drawings of their characters.

It’s funny they were bought by IMVU and not Second Life, because Second Life has always been the main furry 3D avatar space. My experience of IMVU is that it tends to be more of a chat space with 3D doll dress-up. The characters on it and the items you can buy for them are very obviously geared more towards Myspace users rather than FurAffinity users. It’s also still in beta, according to their website [laughs].

Do you feel like the public perception of furries has changed at all in recent years?

Yes and no. I would say that most people still find it a weird thing, and a lot of people are still kind of skeeved out about it. This is my experience of unfortunately being a little too easily Googled, and having people bring it up on dates, and them being like, “Well, that’s weird, but you don’t seem weird.” Or that’s not a red flag for them, at least. I also live in the Bay Area, though, which has a ton of furries.

There are so many guys I’ve messaged who will bring up this furry event they’re going to, like it’s not an issue, which is completely foreign to me.

It definitely seems like that whole phenomenon 10 years ago, when people thought it was the funniest thing to bully furries on the Internet—it seems like the only people still doing that are the same dudes making fun of queer teenagers on Tumblr, you know?

There’s a bit of that, but I’m always hesitant to collapse the two, partly because the histories are very different. The history of making fun of furries on the Internet honestly stems a lot from the fact that furries used to badly overreact to it, because they would take it so seriously. It’s sort of the same thing as what you see now in terms of people exaggerating “heterophobia” to get a reaction. And I say this because so many of the people who used to do that were huge furries themselves. It would always be like, “Ha ha, here’s a bunch of gay furry art that I just happen to have on hand, you know, for shock value [laughs]. Here’s some stuff that I could only find if I had a FurAffinity account.”

Yeah. I feel like the funny-animal aesthetic is on trend again. Like, we’re in 2015, it’s uncool not to have a Sonic the Hedgehog original character now.

It’s definitely come into its own as—not being socially acceptable, but so many creative people are low-key furries. They’re very, very obviously…I don’t know if you saw, but Kreayshawn retweeted a picture someone drew of her as a furry, just being like, “Hey fam, I’m part of the furry community now.” Andrew W.K. had an open call for people to draw him a fursona.

There were a lot of these cartoons growing up, or cultural things that had cartoon animals, and when you’re a kid you don’t really base your crushes on physical attraction. It’s like, “I want to be friends with that person, but I also want to hold their hand, and I don’t know what that means.”

I was at a party last weekend and there was definitely a point where people started talking about the eroticism of Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas. I think Professor Ratigan came up.

And there was that BuzzFeed article about “your childhood crushes” and half of them were, like, Simba from The Lion King. I think that’s a big part of it—there are just a lot of “normies,” as furries would use the term, who had furry crushes growing up, so they get it on some level. They don’t necessarily get the culture, because the idea of being obsessed with it is still weird, but they get the appeal of it. Or they tolerate the appeal of it.

And having recognized that in themselves, they don’t assume that all these people are going to go out and fuck a horse.

There’s the grey territory where so many gay dudes joke about having a crush on Bowser from Super Mario, and Bowser is definitely a furry character … There were a lot of these cartoons growing up, or cultural things that had cartoon animals, and when you’re a kid you don’t really base your crushes on physical attraction. It’s like, “I want to be friends with that person, but I also want to hold their hand, and I don’t know what that means.” Because that’s all you really know about relationships [laughs].

Plus it’s just a really potent aesthetic, you know? There’s a reason why it constantly recurs throughout the history of comics, sexual or otherwise. Scrooge McDuck! It’s such a good way to transfigure people.

I think that’s a lot of what the quote-unquote old-school community was into, in that earnest nerd way of this is cool just like Tolkienesque elves are cool. And that’s part of what maybe started the whole pushback against people being like, “Oh, but what if you drew them with a titty hanging out?” And the increasing social-media presence of artists means that it’s a lot harder for them to hide the fact that they also draw their characters making out, which has probably helped make that more acceptable. There’s now sort of a known assumption that anyone drawing funny cartoon characters is probably also drawing them making out.

Is there anything else that struck you about this whole IMVU disaster?

The thing about IMVU’s FurAffinity acquisition that was just so entertaining to me—Rory [Frances, the cartoonist] put it really well: “It’s like a shitpost come to life.” It doesn’t sound real, because they’re just two completely dissimilar websites, except for the fact that they’re both known for having terrible fanbases, they’re both known for being probably terribly run, and they’re both joke things that people go to to get silly images from. So one buying out the other is like a joke buying out another joke for the purposes of a joke. The fact that IMVU actually had money to buy out FurAffinity is probably the funniest aspect of it.

That kind of describes a frighteningly large chunk of the Internet: People squabbling on a platform that doesn’t really work, and is probably run by somebody evil and/or stupid.

Oh, undoubtedly. Every good website I can think of that I’ve used, or even just every popular website that I’ve used, at least part of its culture was about making fun of the administration … There’s 4chan’s whole love/hate relationship with [the site’s founder] Moot, which is mostly defined by hate. One of the first Tumblr memes I can think of was a picture of the site’s founder David Karp wearing a kimono, looking like the most awkward white person in the world, and that got shared everywhere. People would make a read-more post saying “I have to get this off my chest,” and then it’s just a picture of David Karp in a kimono [both laugh]. I think there’s something interesting about the fact that so many online communities define themselves in animosity towards people who run the website.

Yeah, it’s like—you know the concept of vulgar Marxism? That’s the vulgarest Marxism imaginable. I was just looking at the roundtable discussion with funny-animals cartoonists that Rory moderated again, where they were talking about their youthful fursonas, and I feel like what Geneva [Hodgson] said kind of sums it up: “My fursona was a blue fox-cat named Scribbles. She was initially created as a love interest for Tails, but as she grew titty, I also grew titty. I think that’s how a lot of fursonas were born.”

My fursona, quote-unquote, which is just a Shiba Inu dog with my haircut and nice clothes, entirely started because I would always use pictures of a dog as my avatar on Tumblr. And one day I used this drawing of a dog that people said looked like me, so they started drawing me as a Shiba.

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