Ideas on Anti-Social Behaviour at Furry Events

Anti-social behaviour caused problems at three different furry events in recent times. These incidences are rare, and there is nothing to suggest that they are becoming less rare. However the fact that three issues occurred coincidentally has led to many of us wonder about furry culture.

Ultimately, each person has personal responsibility for their actions. Beyond that, furries in general hold a collective responsibility for behaviour and self-policing. And finally, organizers are able to influence the culture of a group event.

So how can organizers of large furry gatherings create a culture that reduces the chance of a problem?

To briefly recap the recent problems at furry gatherings:

  • Oklacon, which was held in a public campground, was cancelled after congoers had sex in public the night before the 2014 opening ceremony. This brought a long-simmering cultural conflict between Oklacon and park managers to a head, and the application for Oklacon 2015 was rejected.
  • A few problems at Rainfurrest 2015 (which I attended) led to the organizers publishing an open letter to attendees, stating that behavioural problem was putting the con at risk. The Seattle Airport Hilton subsequently cancelled their contract with Rainfurrest.
  • A lewd act during a 2015 Londonfurs meet was witnessed by barstaff. The Londonfurs organizers issued an open letter stating that this had harmed the relationship with the venue. Part of the venue was closed to the furs for a few months, although it has since reopened.

The ideas I’m presenting here are based on the Nudge philosophy described by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (link to book). To “nudge” is to present information in such a way that doesn’t place any rules or restrictions on behaviour, but does influence behaviour. The US and UK governments both have “nudge units” that have helped improve the effectiveness of government services, and such techniques are commonly used by private industry as a way of maximizing profits.

An example of a government “nudge”: posters of eyes in areas of high crime have been shown to significantly reduce illegal behaviour. Here’s a picture of eyes in a bike theft hotspot in Newcastle, UK:

This poster reduced bike theft by over 60% in a two-year trial.

For a furry convention or gathering, a successful nudge should be inexpensive or free to the organizers, in terms of both cost and time. It should reduce the risk of anti-social behaviour, but without actually applying any new boundaries. In Nudge parlance, this is “libertarian paternalism”.

That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be boundaries on behaviour. Boundaries, for the most part, already exist as part of the gathering’s rules, and they are enforced by punitive measures.

It’s usually easy for an organization to enforce behaviour using punishment. It’s a simple enough equation: if you do this, we will do that. It’s always necessary to some extent, but it can have negative consequences, familiar to anyone who has helped organize an event. Creating and enforcing rules creates a natural “elite” group, which can quickly escalate into an us-vs-them situation.

Any resentment towards the elite organizing group from the attendees can feed conflict and anti-social behaviour. This can reinforce the status of the organizers as an unwanted authority group, at least among some attendees. So while hard boundaries and enforcement are sometimes necessary, they should be minimized.

The ideas presented here follow that spirit. They are based on successful “nudges” applied elsewhere, and neither place a significant extra load on organizers, nor introduce new punishments.

1. Identify and target high-risk groups

Where possible, organizers should identify and target high-risk groups. This should be done in a way that doesn’t obviously single out high-risk groups, for example by sharing a message that is only of interest to some people. The 6-2-1 message, reinforcing good personal hygiene and health during the con, is a good example of a successful nudge that targets at-risk groups.

The organizers should test their assumptions with data where possible. For example, in a large convention where organizers may be worried about room damage: what rooms are at higher risk of damage? The cheaper rooms or the larger party rooms? Furries who are resident for the whole con or just one night? What about rooms that leave a “do not disturb” sign out for the entire con? Organizers can work with the hotel to identify high-risk groups and target messages accordingly.

2. Take advantage of human social behaviour

The behaviour of people is influenced by those around them. This can be used to reduce high-risk behaviour. For example, if furs who don’t allow housekeeping into their room are at greater risk of room damage, organizers should reinforce the normality of having your room cleaned by spreading a message like “86% of attendees allow housekeeping to clean rooms each night”.

3. Observation is a moderating influence

Overt observation of activity significantly reduces anti-social behaviour. Organizers can make people feel observed by taking photos as part of the registration process (perhaps only targeting high-risk groups). Security should take photos of poor behaviour in preference to creating conflict, wherever possible.

If specific high-risk individuals have been identified, organizers can point this out with minimum conflict by slipping a note under the door of their room. By writing their real (non-furry) name on the note, it will reduce the feeling of anonymity that can come along in a large gathering.

Organizers can expect some controversy in reaction to these measures. Furries are a group that resents observation, on personal liberty grounds. In response, organizers should be clear that covert observation already exists, as part of the registration process and in the hotel in general. All they are doing is making observation more overt.

4. Reward good behaviour at risky times

Security personnel can be armed with small bags of jellybeans, and hand these out to well-behaved but at-risk congoers. This might be drunk people in the bar, pot smokers (where legal), or room parties. This creates a reciprocal social environment: the giving of small gifts have been shown to increase positive community behaviour.

5. Make attendees feel like part of a team

Organizers should minimize use of us-vs-them language, especially in text. Some conventions ask attendees to sign official-looking “no ghosting” contracts at registration. These may do more harm than good, in that they provide positive reinforcement to people who will already play by the rules, and increase the sense of outsiderhood among potential offenders. So called “chastity contracts”, designed to reduce sexual behaviour among teenagers, are similarly flawed.

Social media plays an important role. The con “live” Twitter feed should be manned around the clock, with each tweeter introducing themselves by name. They should directly acknowledge any rumours or incidents, as honestly as possible.

This will help create a feeling of fellowship between attendees and organizers. If people feel like they are part of a team that is working towards a common goal, they are less likely to be disruptive.

6. Make the venue feel like part of a team

This is not a nudge, but a worthwhile step. Dogpatch Press recently ran a piece looking at how large conventions manage anti-social behaviour, highlighting the value of showing the hotel that the organizers take behavioural problems seriously. For the hotel managers, perception is reality – showing them that you are “on their side” will help maintain a good relationship.

Many conventions will, of course, already be applying these nudges in one form or another. Others may have learned from experience that some don’t work, or come at too high a cost. Anyone with experience is encouraged to comment below.

This article has come about, in part, following an in-depth discussion with the chair of a very large convention. He wanted to note that, while the recent problems are outliers, outliers occur at every convention.

The reaction of organizers to problems are a part of the puzzle. As a start, cons should avoid giving problematic people any limelight (positive or negative), and the organizers should learn from inevitable negative experiences.

There are a lot of large furry conventions and gatherings. The recent small spate of problems don’t indicate that furry behaviour is getting worse. But organizers can learn from them, and help create better furry environments.

About JM

JM is a horse-of-all-trades who was introduced to furry in his native Australia by the excellent group known collectively as the Perthfurs. JM now helps run [adjective][species] from London, where he is most commonly spotted holding a pint and talking nonsense.

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8 thoughts on “Ideas on Anti-Social Behaviour at Furry Events

  1. I wonder were being mindful of what image the convention project fits in this conversation. It seem Rainfurrest tended to be permissive of adult activity to were some see such permissiveness as a a license to act irresponsibly.

  2. “Creating and enforcing rules creates a natural “elite” group, which can quickly escalate into an us-vs-them situation.”

    One of the biggest thing a convention can do to create this “us-vs-them” scenario is selective enforcement of rules.

    To give a simple worked example, let’s say our hypothetical con has an issue one year where an attendee spills a drink on a Dealer’s table, ruining their stock and causing a major altercation. The con introduces a blanket “no open food and drink in the Den, except for Den Staff and Dealers” (as both need to eat and my need to stay in the Den for extended periods).
    Sadly the enforcement becomes spotty, attendees are hounded for having a small sealed bottles of water (largely harmless) in their pockets or bags while the same attendees can see non-Den staff wandering around unmolested with open food and drink (let’s say members of our con’s Backstage team are wandering the den with large cups of coffee and 500ml bottles of Coke).
    The reason for the rule is well understood, and attendees largely sympathise and follow, but some staff choose to ignore it and those tasked with enforcing it (namely our con’s event stewards / security) ignore the violations because “they’re staff and must know better”. Nobody wants to say anything for fear of being raked over hot coals or firebranded.

    Other behaviours from the convention staff like soliciting attendee feedback and then actively ignoring it or dismissing it (or acting as if constructive feedback is a personal insult to the convention staff) — or even seriously unprofessional behaviour like individual staff hounding or trolling attendees on social media — can also further this impression and further ruin the convention’s reputation. Largely resolving these comes down to selection of staff and a rule of “thou shalt not speak for the con, thou shalt not imply thou art speaking for the con” and leave corporate communications to a small number of people.

    Encouraging hot-headed but valuable staff to “step away from the keyboard” may also play a role, if they are truly so valuable the event could not run without them. But as the saying goes: you can lead a horse to water, you can’t force him to drink! This has to be done very carefully.

    It’s an unwinnable PR game at its heart, but there are some moves which can cause event staff to “lose worse” than other moves.

    1. Hi Anon, thanks for the comment and I think you give a good example of how easy it is for a con to unwittingly create a situation where the attendees resent the elite status of the con staff.

      Cons are staffed voluntarily and it’s impossible to avoid the odd hothead or people with poor diplomatic skills. You’re quite right to say that it’s unwinnable, in that the organisers can only ever take steps to reduce the chance of problems. They can never prevent problems altogether, and in fact a hardline black-or-white attitude tends to create problems of its own.

      1. “Cons are staffed voluntarily and it’s impossible to avoid the odd hothead or people with poor diplomatic skills.”

        Indeed – although one could argue that steps could be taken to mitigate the impact of… shall we say — outbursts — when they occur.

        It’s hard to wander Twitter without coming across a few people with ” ” in their profile. While there’s nothing wrong with being proud of contributing to one’s fandom, I do wonder if this is perhaps a little dangerous for those who don’t speak for the convention as their primary role on that Twitter (or Tumblr, or whatever) account: if that person does say something which is taken as being offensive, there’s a serious risk it may be incorrectly attributed to the convention too. Thus tarring a staff of a hundred people with the opinions of one lone individual.

        Some organisations I’ve worked for either actively discourage or have explicit prohibitions on naming the organisation in employee social media profiles. I assume it’s for exactly this reason.

        Personally, I’d never dream of naming my employer (or for that matter any convention I worked with) for exactly this reason: I enjoy having some level of independence on my personal accounts, and if someone has a problem with something I’ve said, I’d much rather they think I’d said it on my own basis than mistakenly attribute my opinions to my employer or the event. Therein lies the path of darkness, and only bad things lie at its end…

        Some conventions seem to have gone the other way; I had an informal discussion with the elected representative of one, who had taken the position of “we are a volunteer organisation and it is impossible to expect any standard of professionalism from us”. I think that’s possibly the worst attitude to take: that there is simply no way to be professional, so it’s not worth trying. Events like C3 (the yearly Chaos Computing Congress) are largely volunteer run and have proven that it is possible to maintain a professional appearance. Perhaps some furry conventions could learn something from events like these.

        In my opinion, conventions should be aiming to be professional, and to set a good example, but I freely admit that sometimes they may not get things right (the same applies to any organisation, or to any person: to err is human). When something goes wrong, you do what humans have done for thousands of years: step back, think about what happened, and think about how to avoid that situation occurring in future.

        To an extent it also involves senior staff setting an example: “the worst that you do (as a manager) is the best you can expect from your staff.”
        Without naming names, I have seen a few instances of event senior staff (chairmen and deputy chairmen) reacting to what is on its face valid criticism or commentary by jumping on Telegram or Twitter and insulting and deriding the commenter. With behaviour like that coming from above, lower-level staff, crew, volunteers, etc. may start to think “this is normal for this organisation and I can get away with it” or perhaps even “I should do this too because everyone else is”; thus completely undermining the convention’s goal, and potentially ruining the reputation of the whole event.

        Implied authority counts for a lot too: if (say) the chairman or deputy chairman is insulting attendees on a public medium, it looks far worse than, say, the head of the setup-and-teardown department or a nightclub DJ.

        Going back to your post: I can see your point — “a hardline black-or-white attitude tends to create problems of its own.” – if you set the standard too high, the volunteering post becomes too much like work, and most volunteers will simply leave. So the trick is to set the standard at a point where we get respectful, reasonable, professional events, but without unduly burdening the event staff with onerous rules and restrictions.

  3. This title is a tad misleading; I was expecting ideas for anti-social behaviour, not what to do about it…

    I’m honestly a little disconcerted to see “ghosting” referenced as anti-social, if the problem is that these people are only there to see their friends. (I suspect it’s in part about trying to keep away people the con has banned, who can’t obtain a badge.)

    If anything, the cited contracts seem anti-social. How many members attend because a “ghost” helps to cover the room? How much would function space cost without those room-nights? And if furs are able but unwilling to pay ~$40 for three days of furry dealing, art appreciation and entertainment, could there be something else to fix?

    Yes, it’s a pain to have to get a new hotel because you ran out of rooms, but encouraging and enabling sharing seems like a more effective use of time; every year, some people get a room to themselves just because they don’t have anyone to share with. Reasonably full rooms benefit us all. Besides, the less people pay for accommodation, the more they can spend at – and on – the rest of the con.

    P.S. The photo thing was hilarious. I posed for mine!

    1. I didn’t mean to imply that ghosting was anti-social. I was just using the no-ghosting contract as an example of something that reinforces an unhelpful us-vs-them mindset – i.e. anti-social, just as you suggest.

  4. There is a difference between anti social behaviour and down right sabotaging the con you supposedly love. I know a furry who is in the hotel industry and what they told me about what happened at the hotel, makes the stories you hear of celebrates destroying their hotel rooms seem tame. Although I will not go into detail here, it was enough to cancel their contract, and cause Rainfurrest to have problems in finding another hotel that was willing to take a risk.

    At least half of all these issues I blame the staff at Rainfurrest. Whom via my blog I have heard countless stories of the staff not being there. Badges not checked, underage drinking at some panels, I saw that report on the NBC news myself. Rowdy behavior not stopped when reported. Then there is the most damning evidence of all, a video I saw on You Tube of their closing ceremony. Where a member of their board admits, “We are uncertain of our final numbers, due to badges not being checked”. But still they gave themselves awards.

    The one thing I have heard time and time again about the fiasco that was Rainfurrest 2015 is that the staff at every con since has been on top of things. You name an issue they were there. Bad behaviour actually caused some to be booted from their rooms.

    It’s a two way street as I look at it. First of all if your going to a con and spend a lot of money. You must not ruin it for anyone else. Secondly The Staff at the con MUST BE on top of things, stopped bad behaviour before it gets out of control.

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