Schnee (schnee) wrote,

Thoughts on communities

I recently noticed that even after more than 20 years, _whitefire_'s Furry Peace website is still online – a refreshing change in today's world where links regularly go stale after years, if not months, and URIs are decidedly not cool –, and reading it again I thought about the points he raises, and what makes a community in the first place.

For those who don't remember, the Furry Peace campaign was a counter-movement to the "Burnt Furs", a group working to expunge all sexual or "adult" material in order to produce a "squeaky clean" furry fandom. Furry Peace emphasized acceptance of other viewpoints, openness, and tolerance, very much in the spirit of the Valley and the Bay Area at the time, where a significant part of the fandom was based (or traced its roots to). And it was also created to get the "silent majority" to speak up, when the Burnt Furs claimed that they were not just a small group, but rather (silently) supported by most of the fandom.

Now, that said—

The argument is about who is, should be, is considered, or should be considered a member of furry fandom. This is a question that's difficult to answer when you don't understand just what the nature of the furry fandom is, so I started thinking about the nature of communities, and distinguished five tiers:

  1. Tier I: "set-theoretic" communities; "sets".

    At this tier, the whole is defined as simply the set of all people sharing a certain trait. No explicit or implicit community exists (by necessity). Example: all blonde people.

  2. Tier II: relationship-based communities; "groups".

    At this tier there is an implicit conception of community; people don't think of themselves as a community, but are more likely to interact with like-minded others. Many hobbies live on this tier. Example: anglers (i.e. fishermen) who e.g. talk to other fishermen at the tackle shop.

  3. Tier III: explicit conception of community; "fandoms".

    At this tier, people start conceiving of an explicit whole that they are (or aren't) part of (i.e. identify as being part of). Fandoms, movements, and "communities" (in the narrow sense) often live on this level. Example: furry fandom, the FOSS community, the fluxus art movement.

    This is also the tier where things get thorny, as there are two competing notions of community membership:

    1. Self-identification as a community member; and
    2. acceptance as a community member by others[1].

    I'll note that acceptance by others strays upward, conceptually speaking, to tier IV; perhaps there is an intermediate tier to be distinguished here that I haven't worked out, but my gut feeling is that the truth is that tier III is simply "complicated".

  4. Tier IV: official communities without legal weight: "clubs".

    At this tier, there is an explicit concept of membership, though this is ignored (i.e. neither recognized nor officially rejected) by society as a whole. Many "clubs" live on this tier. Example: the neighborhood kids' treehouse club; a pub quiz group.

  5. Tier V: official communities with legal weight: "associations".

    At this tier, there is also an explicit concept of membership, and this is socially / legally recognized. The community itself is also legally recognized (as existing, if nothing else!). Many non-profits, for-profit companies, churches etc. live on this tier. Examples: the NRA, TUG.

    Note that explicit, socially recognized membership is independent of if, how or when members can be removed, BTW; all that matters is that if you aren't a member, there's no disagreement that you aren't, and society recognizes whether you are a member.

    Note also that the above doesn't preclude conflicts regarding membership status.[2]

Note, BTW, that self-identification only makes sense on tier III. On tier II and below, there is no community to identify as being a member of; on tier IV and above, membership is explicit. (It doesn't make sense to say that you self-identify as a member of a pub quiz group you in fact aren't a member of, say.)

So, getting back to Furry Peace and the Burnt Furs, the question of who is a member of the furry fandom needs to be separated into two separate sub-questions:

  1. a positive question of self-identification: "does this person consider herself a member?"; and
  2. a normative question of acceptance: "should we consider this person a member?".

Now, Furry Peace's argument is basically that the second question is irrelevant, i.e. that its answer should follow the answer to the first; anyone who self-identifies as a member should also be accepted. This removes normativity and leaves only a positive question, but the argument is of course itself normative, and much of the what's written on the Furry Peace website is a philosophical justification for this normative argument.

The Burnt Furs, meanwhile, insist that the first question is irrelevant, and that the answer to the second should be based on their own (sexual) mores. There's an obvious problem with this position: who decides whose mores are used as the yardstick used to measure prospective members? More to the point, the mores are exogenous in this approach, supplied "from outside", whereas in the Furry Peace position, they are endogenous and arise within the fandom.

Of course this is also problematic, as the fandom's mores may change depending on who self-identifies as a member. This can lead to inadvertant "hostile takeovers", where a large influx of newcomers who are unaware of the existing norms of the fandom transform the fandom into something new. (This can be seen as a good thing as well as a bad thing, mind, or alternatively simply as something that happens, without any attached value judgement.) It arguably has happened as well: the fandom is not the same as 20 (or 25, or 30) years ago anymore. If you've ever thought "this is not the fandom I used to know"... there you go.

Reality, of course, is largely unbothered by these philosophical discussions; there is a smooth iterative (positive) solution, where the fandom simply evolves a certain way andthat'sthewayitis. Both the Furry Peace and the Burnt Furs positions, in contrast, are normative in that they seek to create community norms.

I realize that none of this is of any importance anymore, of course; both Furry Peace and the Burnt Furs are history, and in a sense both sides lost. The Burnt Furs certainly did, in that sexuality is more prevalent in the fandom than ever; but the Furry Peace movement also did, as its advocacy for tolerance, open-mindedness, compassion and acceptance seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The furry fandom is as judgemental as any, and the only recent change there is that in contrast to, oh, 10 years ago, the fandom does not generally seem to describe itself as being particularly open-minded anymore. Whether that's a good thing (reality matching theory) or a bad thing (not even the ideal of tolerance left to aspire to anymore) is open to debate.

What I really just wanted to write down was the five-tier conception of communities. I think that's useful (for myself, not necessarily for anyone else) for understanding how groups work.


  1. A natural question to ask here is "by who exactly?". I've not thought about this, and don't think it's particularly relevant in this context, but I'll note that "others" can include both community members and non-members, and that in practice in particular, it won't be every community member either. Compare "squeaky wheels", opinion leaders, the "silent majority" (which of course was one of the very things Furry Peace was trying to address!) etc.

  2. For instance, the "official" churches in Germany (catholic and lutheran) have in the past been known to lie about the membership status of the de-converted, which can become relevant if the records that the state keeps itself (for tax reasons) are destroyed, and the state turns to the churches for membership information: the churches, especially the catholic church, will happily claim that you are a member, against better knowledge. Or at least they did; perhaps this has changed by now, I don't know.


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