Tagging and filtering as an alternative to content bans
It was one of those strange coincidences that makes one think that, if there were a god, he must have a strange sense of humour. Salman Rushdie, who was the target of a 1989 fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini that called for his death due to his novel The Satanic Verses and who lost sight in one of his eyes after being stabbed on stage in the US last year, warned that never in his lifetime had freedom of expression been under such a threat in the West. Less than a week later, Fur Affinity announced a new rule banning adult artwork of characters with childlike proportions, later calling out specific pokémon and digimon. I have already written about the importance of free speech for the furry fandom, so here I would like to discuss how increasing authoritarianism is restricting free expression and a simple way to help safeguard it.
Restrictions on content have increased over time.
Unfortunately, Fur Affinity's current body-proportion ban is not an isolated incident and many furry sites have increasingly restricted what users may post. By searching through the site updates for SoFurry, Inkbunny and Fur Affinity, one can find plenty of major policy changes have happened in the past 10 years.
SoFurry's updates to restrict content includes:
- Banning of content containing certain hate group symbols in October 2016 (even in a historical context)
- No child characters in adult artwork in May 2018
- No child characters in adult stories in May 2021
- No AI-generated content in March 2023
The only change on Inkbunny was when it restricted AI-generated content in November 2022.
Fur Affinity's Upload Policy has changes far more often than the previous two sites but many of the changes are minor or also influenced by the code of conduct (e.g. Fur Affinity draws a distinction between fictional use of hate group symbols and the identification with hate groups but, depending on the artwork, the use of a symbol may imply identification). This makes it more difficult to isolate actual changes to the Upload Policy. Among the bigger items that have been prohibited from post are the following:
- Body fluids, injuries or death in photography as well as screenshots with no user-generated content in July 2014
- Minors in the presence of sexual activity or nudity in April 2019
- AI-generated content in September 2022
- Characters with specific body proportions in May 2023.
Aside from rule changes on the aforementioned sites, there have been other incidents which are worth keeping in mind. Upon its launch, FurryLife Online (which no longer appears to be online) implemented a ban on both cub and feral characters in adult artwork. This is not the only time that there has been animosity towards ferals in the furry fandom.
Sometimes the issues around free expression in the fandom go beyond adult content. Furry publishers are generally quite conservative and will often not publish views that depart from mainstream furry thought. They will even retroactively remove a story rather than defend its author's expression. This happened, for instance, when Dwale claimed Red Engines by Kschnee to be "Islamophobic propaganda." The publisher, FurPlanet Productions, subsequently removed the story from the anthology Dogs of War II: Aftermath while making a statement that they discussed the issue with Dwale. Strangely however, in their statement they do not mention discussing their actions with either the author of the story or the editor of the book. Despite Fred Patten, who edited the anthology, defending the story as being "anti-demonizing the enemy", it was removed anyway. (The story was later posted on DeviantArt allowing anyone to judge for themselves.)
Restrictions have long-lasting and wide-ranging effects
It's possible to dismiss many of these incidents as insignificant but, together, they speak to a growing intolerance, not merely within the furry fandom but within broader society as well. Regardless of what positions one agrees with, it's important to acknowledge that only by allowing others to speak, can we expect others to allow us to speak. There are two concepts which are important to bear in mind
- Mission creep - When the implemented rule or action extends beyond its original bounds. In our context, this refers to rules regulating art of a perceived extreme subject, then moving on to the next most extreme and gradually reducing what is acceptable to show over time.
- The ratchet effect - which refers to difficulty of rolling back changes implemented. As previously stated, there have been many updated rules on furry sites to restrict what art could be shared but few to no changes which allowed content which was previously forbidden.
About the only change I could see which allowed previously forbidden content was an August 2015 update on Fur Affinity which removed the restriction against "photography of random body parts that does not specifically showcase tattoos, custom jewellery, or body art." However, that was banned again in March 2022 as "content lacking artistic merit."
For one who is in the mainstream of what is considered acceptable, this may not bother them at first. Indeed, they may even approve of some content bans. There are furry artists on Fur Affinity who approved of the cub bans but who now find themselves in the crosshair of the ban on characters with "childlike" proportions. We must not only think of how a situation suits us in its current form but what would happen if we were to become its target. In other words, we need to imagine the world from behind the veil of ignorance. What would we want to happen if the next subject that was banned was our own interest? What if our interests change over time? Would we find that we have closed off paths that we would like to travel?
You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the right of every man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.
There is a better solution than banning certain artistic subjects! There is a solution which hides whatever content one does not wish to see but which allows one to change one's mind. A solution which gives each person the ability to make their own decisions about what they wish to expose themselves to. That solution is tagging and filtering.
Tagging and filtering benefits everyone
Tagging content refers to adding descriptive keywords which identify the content in the artwork. Keywords benefit viewers because it allows them to find the content that matches their interests and tags benefit artists because it increases the pool of people that will see their work.
Filtering allows people to set up a blacklist of keywords which they do not want to see, e.g. cub art. Any submission which contains those keywords will be automatically hidden from view as though it never existed. This allows people to avoid the content they dislike and enjoy the content they like without affecting other people's experiences. Artists benefit because they can maintain a wider audience while keeping their full portfolio on every site and viewers benefit because they can control exactly what they wish to see.
Ideally, filtering should remove the friction from certain content because users can block what they do not want to see without interfering with the free expression of other users. This has long been recognised. To quote Fur Affinity site owner Dragoneer:
In the near future we will implement a series of filters to allow people to block and exclude art of all content types, giving them better control of how they use the Fur Affinity service. A great many people voiced that they felt for and against the art, but would be able to cope with given a proper filtration system was implemented on the site. We feel that this is the best method possible. Put the control and power in the hands of users for them to choose their own path.
We understand that many of you may not agree with this decision, but we felt that it was in the best interest of the site not to act as moral judges, not to choose for users what is ethically right or wrong. Why should cub art be the ultimate evil, when artistic depictions of rape, murder and drug use, all of which are quite illegal in the real world, are posted with no complaint? When do morals begin and end? Why does one moral high road state that cub art is the end all, be all of evil yet art depicting rape does not get the same brunt of the hate?
I think that was well said. I'm sure we all look forward to that being implemented in "the near future." Certainly, after 17 years, we won't have to wait much longer.
Filtering is dependent on good tagging, which is a weakness of Fur Affinity. The website has many untagged submissions which are like ghost submissions. Unless you are watching the artist or navigate to their page, there is no way for someone to ever find them again because they can not be identified using the search function. Even when keywords are implemented, they are sometimes treated as a joke. For example, it is not hard to find submissions with individual keywords that read, "I am just putting as many tags as possible how did you know" or "hahaha hey why are you reading this." This is keyword pollution.
Sites like Inkbunny and SoFurry generally have higher quality keywords for multiple reasons. First, both sites allow blacklisting keywords to avoid content that you dislike or find offensive. For Inkbunny, this feature was added in 2010, prior to its official launch, and, for SoFurry, this came in 2012 with the launch of SoFurry 2.0. Second, both sites require a minimum number of keywords for new submissions. For Inkbunny, these are covered in their Keyword Policy while SoFurry requires at least two keywords. Finally, both sites allow viewers to suggest keywords for existing submissions. This allows the community to fill in keywords which an artist may have forgotten or may not have realised existed.
When it comes to tagging, the current gold standard is e621. It has a far better, managed list of keywords and there is very active community involvement which results in comprehensive tagging that far surpasses any other site. Keywords on e621 go beyond just tagging what characters are present but also include mundane aspects of the picture as well as more meta keywords which could tell you the kind of perspective an image might have. To illustrate the sort of detail in tagging, this picture on Fur Affinity is completely untagged whereas the same picture on e621 has 33 keywords. Another picture on Fur Affinity has seven keywords but the same picture on e621 has 67 keywords. This level of detail allows one to really narrow down the sort of picture that you are searching for, even if you only have a vague idea of what was in it. The site also blocks some of the more controversial tags for non-users by default, and requires you to make an account and activate those tags to see them.
While freedom of expression is being curtailed in society in general and the furry fandom in particular, there are better ways to manage conflicts due to objectionable content than banning it. By correctly tagging content and implementing blacklists to filter that content, it is possible for each individual to curate the content which they see and avoid material which upsets or offends them. This is a compromise which benefits everyone and fits the values of a diverse and tolerant society.
That does not mean that tagging and filtering is a panacea. Despite having advanced blacklisting capabilities and stressing to users to block content they find objectionable, you will not have to search for long on e621 to find users going to content that they dislike just to complain about it. Additionally, in cases where content is banned due to legal reasons, filtering is not going to be a viable solution.
However, tagging and filtering presents the best opportunity to allow people to shield themselves from content they dislike while allowing others their free expression. This is what means to act as mature individuals in a community where other people posses different values and interests. In the case of fictional content, such as furry art, no moral beings are harmed by its production or consumption. We do not have to like or agree with the art that other people post but we do have to recognise that they have an equal right to their own artistic expression as we do.
I want to thank 'Yote and an anonymous friend for providing feedback on this article. Whether I acted on that advice or not, I appreciate having received it.