The world is headed in some pretty interesting directions when it comes to things like Augmented Reality. From little things, like QR codes next to items to allow further investigation of them, Google Goggles, which overlays locations of restaurants or other map markers on a real-time video of your surroundings as taken by your phone’s camera to all of the concept videos coming out from various places around the ‘net. One of the more important, if not the most important, uses of AR is the addition of a data layer over what we perceive around us. Need to know more about someone from their business card? Snap the QR code on it and find out all you need. It’s that simple, and let me tell you, furries are totally prepared for this additional layer of information: we’re already pros.
We’re used to multi-layered channels of communication, in this fandom. With the majority of our interaction taking place online, we talk, role play, and chat plenty, but we’re usually not doing only that. There is still the base layer of our communication online, the words and ideas going from one person to another, or among several people, but there are several things that change the way we interact, and especially change first impressions. When we meet someone for the first time online, we have plenty of subtle ways of extracting information from or about them, and several of them without the other person’s knowledge that we’re doing so.
When you’re interacting with others on a MUCK, such as FurryMUCK or Tapestries, you have several tools at your disposal to tell you more about the person than you could ever find out in real life without knowing them for years. MUCKs are text-only, so one of the first commands you learn is ‘look’, which will provide you with a short description of how someone looks; an obvious addition for the primarily visually-oriented furry. Beyond that, however, there are commands such as ‘wi’ or ‘wixxx’, WhatIsz, which will show you what a person is interested in (or not interested in) in areas both clean and dirty. Some of these are specific enough that they would likely not even crop up between a couple with no online interaction for years. Another tool that’s available is, depending on the muck ‘cinfo’ or ‘pinfo’ – character information or player information. Even more free form than WhatIsz, these commands will let you know not only about the character, but about the person behind eFox or iWolf you’re chatting up, as much as they’ll let on.
It’s not just on MUCKs that we have these additional layers of subliminal conversation going on. Even on IRC where such commands are much more limited, we still have the rest of the internet available to us, and by far, FurAffinity has changed and helped this the most. As soon as you see someone’s name online, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to just look them up on FA and find out a good deal about them, from where they live to the types of things they’re into judging by the art they favorite there. FA isn’t the only site out there, of course, and you can also find out much more explicit detail on sites like F-List and The Rabbit Hole, not to mention other art sites like VCL, SoFurry, and e621.
These are so entrenched in the furry fandom that, writing this, I keep feeling like it’s not even worth mentioning. Every time I think that, though I remember that it’s one of the things that helps to set us apart from other subcultures out there. The fact that we can and will find out more about the people we’re interested in based on a few short commands or a quick search online sounds pretty sinister – it’s just not something people in general do, at least not to the same extent. If you apply for a new job, you can expect to be Googled, Facebooked, and LinkedIn by your potential new employer, but that’s about as close as you’ll get to someone looking up personal information about you. It’s so totally normal for us that we haven’t realized that it’s changed the way we make our first impressions of each other. In an AR sense, this is roughly equivalent to walking down the street and seeing someone rather attractive, only to find out via a little thought-bubble above their head that they secretly really enjoy being spanked, bitten, and tied up when they have sex.
If you meet someone within the fandom now, it’s easy to find out more information on them than you would ever find out otherwise. Friendships are formed more quickly than outside the subculture and are based on much more in-depth knowledge of each other. Add in the benefit of sex without physical consequences through playing around online and you’ve got a strange basis for a culture that relies almost entirely on a multi-layered channel of communication. The more I think about how different these first and lasting impressions are within the fandom, the more I think it stems from the previously mentioned difference between character and self that is inherent within furry: we are so eager to use any tools available to us to more completely represent our characters online that we’re willing to change the basics of personal interaction in order to accomplish it. Add in the anonymity provided by the internet and you have a whole subculture that is far more willing to share personal details with those that they haven’t even met yet than most any group out there, online or offline.
Interacting in person with other furries, particularly at conventions, is a strange mix of “normal interactions” as well as some amount of this multi-layered communication. I’m sure that much of this has to do with how generally tech-literate furries, or at least the con-going crowd are. If you meet someone at a convention, you’ll likely to do it by scanning their con-badges for images of their character or a recognizable name, rather than, say, looking at a face (the “con-greeting”). With the information contained on a standard con-badge, one still has as much to go on as on IRC – namely, the ability to look someone up on FA and figure out more about them. Maybe I’ll try an experiment with FC 2012 and make a QR code badge and see just who all interacts with it.
Beyond that, however, I wonder just how much of our in-depth first impressions translate outside of the fandom, but into other, tightly knit groups. If, say, an academic winds up at SIGGRAPH or a designer winds up at TED, meets someone in the halls, and notices a convention badge with a name on it, chances are good that they’ll be able to go check on their work somewhere on the internet. However, these examples are academic and professional, not social, and I haven’t had the opportunity to go to, say, an anime or comic convention to see if lasting personal or even sexual relationships are formed in quite the same way as they are within our own subculture. Would I be able to go to Nan Desu Kan, a local anime convention, and expect to meet two or three people there whom I would be able to instantly look up on my intelligent telephone, know intimate details about, form lasting friendships with?
With this confused blur from total immersion in our characters to the unobstructed view of self that we provide glimpses of, our mixed-up concept of first impressions within the furry fandom is understandable. These first impressions are based not only on the actions of a persona as we perceive them, but also the more static metadata left behind on the other layers of communication within the fandom, whether it’s information left on FA, attributes on f-list or within a command such as ‘wi’, or art, visual or otherwise, of a character doing whatever that character does, providing a glimpse of how that avatar moves within the larger arena of the whole subculture, or even reacts to the world at large. Perhaps it really is no big surprise that the furry community is both incredibly tight knit and also renowned for the drama that it puts itself through.