Opinion: The New Furry, much like the Old Furry
Let's be clear about one thing from the start: furry is still a fandom. That should be a fairly uncontroversial statement, but a recent article by JM on [adjective][species] tried to put forward the case that furry can no longer be described as a fandom. I think there are a number of major errors in that essay that need to be corrected.
Fandom or not?
JM's argument against furry's status as a fandom rests on the lack of a furry canon.
Fandoms revolve around their canon. The canon provides a permanent reference point for all fandom-related activities. We furries have no such thing, and so furry is defined by whatever we, collectively, decide.
This paragraph is only partially true. He's wrong about what constitutes a fandom; there is more to it than just canon. Turning to the infallible resource of Wikipedia (that was irony, but it is pretty reliable), we learn this about fandoms:
Fandom (consisting of fan [fanatic] plus the suffix -dom, as in kingdom, freedom, etc.) is a term used to refer to a subculture composed of fans characterized by a feeling of sympathy and camaraderie with others who share a common interest. Fans typically are interested in even minor details of the object(s) of their fandom and spend a significant portion of their time and energy involved with their interest, often as a part of a social network with particular practices (a fandom); this is what differentiates "fannish" (fandom-affiliated) fans from those with only a casual interest.
Fandoms revolve around a common interest, not a canon. At times the common interest will also serve as the canon, in such things as the Doctor Who fandom or the Pokémon fandom, but at other times the common interest will be more vague, such as the anime fandom, the sci-fi fandom and the furry fandom. In those cases the fans are fans of a concept that can encompass many different fandoms due to a common element.
Furry certainly has what we can term a canon. Fred Patten has compiled a long, but incomplete, list of works that influenced and led to the formation of the furry fandom between 1966-1996. JM knows about this list, of course, but claims that we no longer use these as a reference for the fandom and are not all fans of any one thing. I expect that's the same for other fandoms too. Not all sci-fi fans like Star Wars, and not all anime fans enjoy Dragon Ball Z.
Furthermore, it was never the case that the furry fandom was about a specific work. Rowrbrazzle, the "first clear [sign] of the independent furry fandom," was founded in 1983 and was open to "anyone who can demonstrate a creative interest in funny animals." From the beginning the fandom was about a concept, not any specific work.
Whether we use the old references or not is immaterial. We are certainly still referencing mainstream works. Some of the current major influences on the furry fandom include the Pokémon franchise, Balto, My Little Pony and Disney films. These are also the channels that bring most people to the fandom. We are still consuming all works which are relevant to the furry fandom. Flayrah regularly posts reviews of films, comics and games that are of interest and, when Puss in Boots was released, I went to see it with a group of local furs.
Creators and fans
What JM could have done was to have started a far more interesting discussion about the distinction between fans and creators, such as were raised in Patch Packrat's article on "pseudo-furry." I think this comment from Sonious captions the issue well:
Once again, the hardship we're dealing with is the blowback from the ambiguity of the term furry. You're calling this "Pseudo-furry" because it wasn't made by a furry fan... but according to furry fans what makes something furry is that it contains anthropomorphization of animals, in which case the videos you showed here cannot be called pseudo, they actually are.
Judging by the way JM has used fandom and canon, he seems to be implying that furry cannot be a fan of its own creations. But even as we grow on our own work, rather than "outside" sources we might want to ask why we can't be fans of our own creations. Would Disney's Robin Hood, one of the fandom influences, have been more furry if the writers or director were furry? And if they were would that exclude us from being part of the Robin Hood fandom? Perhaps a better way of framing the question would be to ask whether Peter Jackson is part of The Lord of the Rings fandom or a creator of it? And does that situation differ to that of Bitter Lake?
Is your Furry the same as my Furry?
A further problem with JM's essay was his departure from any standard definition of furry. For him, the entire furry fandom is built around identity.
The biggest common element among furries is the use of an animal-person avatar, our fursona. [...] I think that this identity-play is at the heart of furry.
Small furry groups grow and fracture all the time, but the wider community holds together because of a core, shared idea: we all identify as furries.
The structure of furry is driven by our shared interest in exploring identity as an animal-person.
At worst this becomes tautological, with the furry fandom consisting of people that are furries because they identify as furries. Even in a more charitable reading, it misses what actually drove people to the furry fandom: liking anthropomorphic characters.
Compare JM's definition of furry with my own. A furry is someone who has a preference for characters who possess a combination of animal and human characteristics in such a way that the new character is significantly different from the character's real or canon form. JM's idea of furry excludes those that do not have a fursona and misses the interest that brought people to the fandom in the first place.
This aspect of identity is just a continuation of his earlier essay on the so-called "second wave of furry" where he tries to make a distinction between "fans" and "lifestylers." If you're going to read that essay, I'd also highly recommended at least glancing at the conversation in the comments section between JM and Perri Rhoades. I didn't find this essay convincing when I first read it, and I still don't, especially when it comes with statements such as:
For the fans, furry was something you enjoy. For the lifestylers, furry was something you are.
In my definition enjoying furry and being a furry are the same thing. The Wikipedia definition of fandoms would distinguish the two from how much time and energy is spent on the furry fandom. It's unclear how JM sees furry as something that you are in a deeper sense. Is it that people who enjoy the art are fans only, and the title of furry goes to those that wear fursuits to work? Fursonas are a meaningless way to distinguish fans from lifestylers. As I pointed out back then, avatars are an aspect of Internet culture in general.
Furthermore, any distinction between fans and lifestylers on such grounds will become blurred due to the current structure of the fandom, even without a difference in the people. Furry sites are built to accommodate fursonas, and it's become an expected part of being a fur. If someone were to join the fandom now there would be a lot of implicit pressure to create a fursona.
There is identity-play at work in the fandom but the extent to which that is meaningful is up for debate. For most furs, their fursona is almost identical to them. It's hard to see that as a relevant change then. Fursonas allow us to express what we aspire to be and provide a protective screen from the world but aren't a totally new identity.
Yes, the structure of furry will change over time, but it has not changed as much as JM has implied. We are still a fandom that is based on the appreciation of anthropomorphic characters.