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Thoughts on communities

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Sep. 1st, 2018 | 01:02 pm

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. 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 church turns to the church for membership information.

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.) </p>

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.

Notes:

  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.

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Comments {14}

ungulata

(no subject)

from: ungulata
date: Sep. 1st, 2018 06:42 pm (UTC)
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Hunh. That's cool -- when I mouse-hover over FOSS, the acronym is spelled out in a pop-up text box.

Your readership here on LJ probably straddles tier III, IV and/or V. This, and many other of your musings are public, but I suspect that you also have "friends only" posts, as do many other blogs. 8^]

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Schnee

(no subject)

from: schnee
date: Sep. 1st, 2018 07:03 pm (UTC)
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Oh hey, long time no see. How're you doing? How's the ponies? I've not watched the show, or followed the fandom, in far too long. (You know how it is — not enough time, and the novelty wears off after a while as well.)

Yeah, it's a venerable (if little-used) HTML tag, <abbr>. Quite a useful thing.

Hmm, my readership specifically is probably closer to tier II. People I know may interact with each other (significantly[1]) more often by virtue of having a shared interest – moi –, but I doubt they would go so far as to consciously think of themselves as being part of a group that goes beyond "the group of people who just so happen to be schnee's friends". And they certainly wouldn't form club, much less formal organizations. :P

And yes, I do have friends-only posts... not a lot of them these days, but there are some. I know you're making a point of not reading them, though (are you still, actually?), so. :)

1. By which I mean that the effect is statistically significant, not that it is large.

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ungulata

(no subject)

from: ungulata
date: Sep. 1st, 2018 09:52 pm (UTC)
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Just rolling along, ponies and pony community as usual, just on Dreamwidth. 8^) MLP:FIM should grind to a halt as a series next year and pony is becoming rara equis in stores already.

I'll try to remember that tag! Neat!

Oh yes, I actively avoid 'friends only' posts. The web is very leaky when it comes to spreading private information and I do not want to be part of that leakiness. ^_^ I try not to share personal info divulged to me by people at work either, even if everyone is going to find out whatever it is eventually.

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Schnee

(no subject)

from: schnee
date: Sep. 2nd, 2018 08:37 am (UTC)
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What, really — the series is gonna stop? That's a serious pity.

That said I do prefer a graceful end to a neverending, struggle that leaves you with a series that is a mere shadow of its former self. (Like happened with the Simpsons, say; see e.g. this article.) I still love ponies too much to see them end that way.

I'm not entirely surprised either. Ending a series is a bold step, from a creative point of view, but MLP:FiM was always courageous and did not shy away from character development, permanent changes etc. That's unlike the Simpsons (though with the Simpsons, the stories and characters were intentionally archetypical, and introducing too much development would have taken away from that).

In the end, we all have our headcanons anyway, and we can explore those. And fanfic – not that I've been reading any recently – can provide both interesting new takes and old and familiar ones.

Oh, and last not least, this might actually give me a chance to catch up some time...! (But no, as much as I'd like to experience that feeling that ponies gave me again, it's a thing of the past. You can visit an old love of yours, and you can reminisce about the old times, but you can't bring them back.)

Any word on whether there's gonna be a 5th (or 4.5th) generation, BTW?

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ungulata

(no subject)

from: ungulata
date: Sep. 2nd, 2018 01:00 pm (UTC)
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This generation of Pony has had a long run and has been blessed with a strong story line, but Hasbro has a pattern, and that is one of restless change, metamorphosis and rebirth. They've run the gamut of variations on pony figures and their houses, and now they're going to wipe the slate clean and start over. I've seen the term "generation 4.5" pop up somewhere. That might encompass the "Cutie Mark Crew" or the porpoise-head figures of late... I should look that up. Another likely sign of imminent change is how Hasbro has taken over plush production from Ty, Aurora and Funrise and not renewed an agreement with Funko. All the better to wind down Gen 4 and clear the way for a fresh start with Gen 5? Could be true.

I haven't watched The Simpsons in eons... perhaps not since analog broadcast bands got sold off to cell phones.

There will be a Gen 5 MLP, that you can count on. What it's going to look like I can only guess.

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Schnee

(no subject)

from: schnee
date: Sep. 2nd, 2018 04:48 pm (UTC)
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Ah, so the "signs point to yes", as it were. Interesting, and yeah — not surprising. Gotta keep those cash flows going after all, and you can't do that if consumers have already bought everything; you gotta give them something new.

Someone remarked, very early on into the 4th generation and MLP:FiM, that the series proper was basically just an ad — or maybe not an ad proper, but a means to sell plastic ponies to little girls. In other words, Hasbro didn't care about the series for its own sake, and neither did it expect to make money with it on its own; it was a tool.

Makes sense from a business perspective, I guess. And we got something very nice out of it, so it's a win-win, right? I'm not going to look a gift pony in the mouth, and I'm not at all unhappy I spent the odd buck on merch. Night Mare Moon and Derpy still live on my desk, the former in two incarnations.

I'm certainly going to take a look at whatever the next generation will be. We may see new characters, a new world, even a new style, but so long as we're not going to go back to the awkwardness of the earlier generations, I'll be fine with that. After all, as Barry White famously sang... whatever we had, we had.

The Simpsons, BTW? Don't bother. I'm not saying all new seasons and episodes are bad (haven't watched them, after all), but the show jumped the shark not years, but decades ago, and should've been allowed to go out with style. But of course, just like with ponies, it's all about the cash flows. (Interesting contrast, BTW: with the Simpsons, the series itself is the product, and the merch is an added bonus. So perhaps it's a good thing that MLP:FiM is a glorified toy commercial, as that mean it can get wrapped up gracefully.)

No matter what happens I'll always look back fondly at Generation 4.

...though I'll never cease being amazed that our little Twily turned into a princess.

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ungulata

(no subject)

from: ungulata
date: Sep. 4th, 2018 10:10 pm (UTC)
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Well, once the curtain falls on Gen 4 it will be that much easier for fanfiction to fill in the gaps. 8^)

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Schnee

(no subject)

from: schnee
date: Sep. 5th, 2018 09:36 am (UTC)
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There's that. Always look on the bright side of life! :)

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ungulata

Life of Brian

from: ungulata
date: Sep. 5th, 2018 09:16 pm (UTC)
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♪ *whistles* do-doop do-doop dew-dew dew-dew dew-doop! ♫ ♬ ♩

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lupine52

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from: lupine52
date: Sep. 6th, 2018 12:14 am (UTC)
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I think the thing that changes a fandom more now than ever is how its cohesively held together.

With conventions like Comic-con the glue that binds it is corporate sponsorships and the hollywood machine.

With furry fandom the glue that has held it together has changed over the years, At one time there were one or two websites that were the main location for people to gather or share information, todays furry fandom is more broken and has become so many subsets thanks to social media and the overall changing landscape of the web. No longer was the fandom served mainly by Deviant Art, Sheezy Art and Side7 and a few other sites but now its so so many sites from sofurry, furaffinity, and gosh knows whatever other furry-social sites and the plethora of facebook,g-plus,telegram, and twitter amongst others... its so much more fragmented nowadays, way more than ever, or so I believe.

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Schnee

(no subject)

from: schnee
date: Sep. 6th, 2018 08:05 am (UTC)
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That's certainly a good point, too.

I'm not sure furry fandom is necessarily more fractured than it was in the past, at least once you control for overall size; thinking back to the times before the (widespread adoption of the) WWW, the times of fanzines and furry room parties at sci-fi cons etc., I'm not sure just how much of a cohesive whole the fandom was back then.

But the point is well-taken either way; the furry fandom is more organic, and it's easier to debate what it is actually about (or, normatively speaking, what it should be about) than it is with, say, the brony community.

OTOH, I'm inclined to agree with _whitefire_ when he writes that "Furry Fandom is a grouping of people who have an interest in Anthropomorphics and Animals. It really is that simple, despite what some may claim". And the fact that ponies were bestowed upon the community by an outside entity (Hasbro) has not kept the brony community from debating, at length, the role of e.g. adult material and art. So viewed both from a positive (descriptive) and a normative angle, the furry fandom and the brony community are fairly similar after all — modulo the fact they're about different things in the first place of course.

If anything, the existence of an outside "sponsor" or "benefactor" who grants and bestows the things the fandom centers on complicates matters. Hasbro has been remarkably skilled at handling its relationship with the community, and and remarkably hands-off in its approach to fannish use and transformation of its material. There has been the occasional C&D, of course, but these have been the exception rather than the rule. Contrast this with e.g. Disney, which is rumored to have cancelled projects it would otherwise have undertaken for fear of attracting too many adult fans. (This is a rumor, of course.)

Furry fandom, lacking such an outside entity, doesn't need to worry about these matters. In fact it's the organic, create-your-own nature of furry fandom that makes it appealing to me at least. You're not a fan of something specific, you're a fan of something generic: a movie buff, not one who specifically likes, I don't know, The Graduate, and is only interested in that and that alone. (It's something also been claimed that the furry fandom, by virtue of its lack of a sponsoring outside entity, is more creative than other fandoms, but having seen the brony community, with its overflowing creativity, I'm not inclined to believe that this lack of a sponsor is necessary anymore. Bronies might still be the exception rather than the rule here as well, of course, as far as "sponsored" fandoms are concerned.)

You are right that outside sponsorship provides a focal point, though. As above, when you really, really think about it, furry fandom is about animals and anthropomorphics, neither more nor less. But what does that mean? Translating this into practice, you have considerable leeway; with ponies, you're a brony if you're a fan of Generation 4 MLP, and that's it. You still have leeway in how you express this, but it's not as broad as furry fandom, where you might encounter anyone from fans of The Lion King to therianthropes to those who fursuit for fun and charity.

One thing that I find remarkable about the brony community is the fact that it DOES manage to center around a few sites, even today. There's EqD. There's DA. There's Derpiboo.ru. There's FIMFiction. These aren't the only sites to frequent of course, but they strike me as more important to the community than any particular site is to the furry fandom. It would be interesting to find out why this is; perhaps it's simply because bronies sprung up in a time when the WWW was already well-established; DA was already there, EqD sprung up very early on and managed to keep up and grow, and so on. Furries never had the opportunity for sites like these to arise in the fandom's formative years, so – getting back to what you said – is it a surprise the fandom is still more fractured today?

(cont'd)

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Schnee

(no subject)

from: schnee
date: Sep. 6th, 2018 08:05 am (UTC)
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(cont'd)

I don't know if this is the reason. I don't even know if, when you really look at it, the furry fandom is more fractured than others. I also don't know whether, if this is true, this isn't a good thing, meaning the fandom is wider, more diverse, more varied, and has more niches for people to find.

Good points. Thanks for a thought-provoking comment. :)

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Aurifer Salavor

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from: aurifer
date: Sep. 8th, 2018 06:23 pm (UTC)
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Your comparison to the brony community gives me an idea. I suppose most fandoms are normative, because they've got those external rules for what constitutes a part of that community. (This probably works well because there are few authoritative sponsors.) Something like furry, meanwhile, bucks normativity because it's such a basic idea.

It says nothing about the creativity of the members, but I do think furry allows more freedom of expression.

I also think the numerous pockets protect the fandom from normativity. It'll mean whatever the particular group wants it to mean, and yet it'll still fit as a piece of the whole.

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Schnee

(no subject)

from: schnee
date: Sep. 8th, 2018 09:11 pm (UTC)
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Perhaps — furry fandom is definitely markedly different from many other fandoms that have some sort of external (corporate or not) sponsor.

OTOH I don't see a fundamental difference, in practice. Furry fandom isn't Burning Man; it isn't about radical self-expression, it's about animals and anthropomorphics. The brony community is about MLP:FiM. Sure, that means furry fandom's casting a wider net, but from the perspective of a prospective (or established) member, they're both about a fairly specific thing, and you're either interested in that or not.

Of course, that's true for pretty much all groups were membership is a choice. (After all, if you weren't interested in what the group is about, why become a member?)

Normativity, as in others telling you what you should do, doesn't factor into it. You can get that in any group, and will, if the group's large enough. Furry fandom is no different from others in that regard.

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