Friendship and the Furry Fandom
Or: Why that “Popufur” won’t answer your messages (but that doesn’t mean they’re a bad person)
I have a lot of Internet friends. Quite a few of them are furries.
Some of my friends have a sizable platform. We’re talking quarter-million Twitter followers sizable; or tens of thousands of YouTube subscribers. A handful are even Twitch partners (or on the cusp of qualifying).
Most of my friends do not have a sizable platform.
With that in mind, I find a lot of the banter and discourse in the furry community about “popufurs” perplexing. If you’re not familiar, the general sentiment can be paraphrased as:
Popular furries think they’re superior to me because they have more Internet clout than I do, and that’s not fair. Therefore, they’re bad people.
(There are variations that crop up here and there, but usually there’s an implicit reaction to some imagined gatekeeping involved.)
I can’t speak for all of the well-known members of our community. (Many of them don’t respond to me, either.) But of the ones I count among my friends, precisely zero of them think they’re superior to anyone else. Yet this attitude towards them persists.
So what’s really happening here? Is it a failure of the popular furries’ communication strategies? Or is it an emergent result of several distinct and independent psychological, cultural, and neurological mechanisms?
To best understand this, let’s begin with a thought experiment. (No, not a “thot experiment”. That’s what After Dark Twitter is for.)
Imagine you exist in a cultural vacuum.
While you may occasionally run into people you get along with, and with whom you can mutually tolerate, you feel fundamentally disconnected from everyone else.
Maybe, for the sake of this thought experiment, you’re the only person in your town with an interest in anthropomorphic art and characters. Or maybe even the only person on Earth, if you want to go super extreme about it.
You’ll probably find yourself feeling very lonely, even in a crowded room. You might feel like, even if there are people who can sympathize with you, you don’t ever truly belong with them. There’s something different, and neither party is quite sure how to bridge it.
For many people reading this, you probably don’t have to try that hard to imagine this state; you’ve been living it for years. Maybe even your entire life.
In a stage of extreme loneliness, your True Friend Pool (TFP) is 0.
No amount of shallow acquaintances or business relationships can shake it. You need real, meaningful connection in your life. And if you aren’t finding that, it really sucks.
But one day, you meet someone who’s weird in a lot of the same ways you are, who might be just as lonely as you are, and you suddenly have a potential friend.
TFP = TFP + 1
Going from zero friends to one friend is probably one of the toughest hurdles many young people face in their social lives. And we’re going to hand-wave the difficulty away for the sake of the thought experiment, but I see you. Your struggles are valid and known. ❤
So now you have a friend. And you can do friend things together! In fact, you can devote any or all of your spare time to hanging out with this new person in your life.
After a while, you both have a chance encounter and meet yet another person you get along with. Now your TFP has increased again from 1 to 2.
However, their schedules don’t line up perfectly. Your second friend works the night shift at a restaurant you and your first friend frequent, so there is some overlap, but on most days you can hang out with one, you can’t hang out with the other.
This is where things start to change, and it’s easy to miss what’s happening.
Finite Time and Emotional Bandwidth
We all get the same 24 hours each day, and we have to budget them according to competing needs and wants. We need some sleep. We need to eat and drink. We want to do more with our days than wake up, go to work, come home, and go back to bed.
When you have multiple friends or groups of friends, you’ll typically find that your relationships with them demand some time and emotional investment. If this sounds strange, ask yourself the following questions:
- Can they call you their friend if you never spend any time together, even online?
- Can they call you their friend if you don’t give a damn about them?
No, of course not. That goes against what friendship even is.
As humans — and this is a hard lesson for extremely lonely people to understand without example — we have to budget our time in response to the needs and wants of ourselves and the people in our lives.
As you add more people to the equation, this becomes exponentially difficult.
When TFP Exceeds Critical Mass
If you haven’t heard of Dunbar’s Number before…
Dunbar's number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social…
…it suggest that the neocortex of the human brain has limit of stable relationships it can maintain, which empirically ranges from 100 to 250. The most commonly cited value is 150.
The exact number isn’t really important right now, and it probably differs from person to person anyway.
Let’s continue our TFP = TFP + 1 loop until you’re in the forerunner of popufur territory.
What happens to the neocortex when you personally have 67,000 Twitter followers and 241,000 YouTube subscribers?
Even if you have enough time in a given day to respond to each person who wants to talk to you, at that scale, anyone would find it difficult handling that much new information and responding to each person with an authentic emotional connection.
Especially, but not exclusively, in a geeky fandom largely consisting of shy introverts.
Brains are very good at avoiding short-circuiting behaviors (otherwise our ancestors would have been more vulnerable to predators), but they tend to achieve this by sacrificing precision.
In the popufur case, what happens is they tend to focus on their existing relationships, as well as the occasional collaboration with another furry, because our brains literally cannot handle the emotional toll of tens or hundreds of thousands of other people’s needs and wants. Instead of a firehose, it becomes white noise.
In spite of Dunbar’s number, many so-called popufurs try very hard to respond to as many people as they can, as meaningfully and heartfelt as they can.
Instead of blaming them when they fail, I believe we should applaud them for resisting an inherent human weakness for your sake.
Tragically, Nobody Teaches This Stuff in School
A lack of understanding of emotional bandwidth rears its ugly head a lot in my profession. (I work in computer security. Lots of, uh, personalities in that industry.) Ignorance of this concept isn’t isolated to Internet subcultures.
I’m convinced that, alongside money management and sexual consent, it’s one of the criminally neglected topics in American education. And it’s not that hard of a concept to grasp.
But nobody teaches it to you when you’re young. Hardly anyone frames discussions around the toll that conflicting wants and needs have on your emotional state. You’re expected to learn it “the hard way”.
By the time you encounter the formal concept of “emotional bandwidth” in life, you’re probably either in therapy or taking a University course in Psychology. And it shouldn’t be this way.
So let’s not let it be that way. Learn this concept well and teach it to your friends.
Together, let’s make our community better prepared to handle the effects of popularity on the brains of our most visible members than any other community in the world.
And then let’s help those communities too.
Although it may be hard to relate (especially if you’re lonely), there’s this thing called “emotional bandwidth” and it’s not limitless.
Popufurs have exhausted their supply. They almost certainly don’t believe they’re superior to you, they’re just coping with cognitive limits of the human brain. (Read the article for more.)
TL;DR of the TL;DR
The “popufur” discourse is stupid and ill-informed. Stahp.