Every Furby gets a home
Inside the thriving — but threatened — Tumblr community dedicated to collecting and customizing vintage robot toys.
Dec 21, 2018, 7:30am EST
Every Furby gets a home
A Furby with a monocle is having a picnic with a Furby who has a cocktail umbrella punched through her straw hat — she has no hands to hold up her own parasol. Elsewhere in this corner of the internet, a Furby with homemade arms decorates a Christmas tree. A different Furby reclines on its crudely affixed Barbie legs. A Furby with a pearl nameplate necklace eats beef-fried noodles, while a fluffy pink Furby makes gingerbread men in a yellow tutu.
“Wishbone seizes the means of production,” reads the caption under a photo of a gray-spotted Furby driving a full-size John Deere tractor.
This is how Furbys — the half-bird, half-blob baby robots that were everywhere in the late ’90s — live on Tumblr, where collectors have congregated for years to give new life to their outdated toys. The Furbys have highly specific backstories and personalities and customized appearances obtained through what can only be described as violent plastic surgery. They are all different, and they are all loved. They make up one of the fiercest, sweetest fandoms on Tumblr, and changes to the platform could be putting their community in danger.
“The Furby community is completely unlike any other collecting community,” says Jessica Bansbach, a Furby fan in upstate New York. “People are willing to rip them out of boxes; they don’t like keeping them in boxes. They actively play with them and manhandle them; they dye their fur and change their eyes. They take them on adventures.”
Furbys were invented by a toy and medical device tinkerer named Dave Hampton in 1997, after he saw a Tamagotchi and reasoned it would be far more fun if you could pet it. With the help of a former Mattel colleague, Caleb Chung, he built and licensed the concept to Tiger Electronics just in time for them to become the hottest toy of the 1998 holiday season.
The fervor around them would be hard to overstate, considering their inventor went into hiding in the Tahoe National Forest at the peak of their popularity. The draw stemmed from their status as arguably the first widely adopted, mass-produced robot, as well as their ability to blink and coo and emote and love you, all while learning English words and phrases to supplement their preprogrammed “Furbish.”
The low-level panic around them — due to the assumption that the “learning” aspect meant they were listening to conversations and somehow storing them in their bodies — was its own fun. Intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency, banned them from their offices, leading Tiger Electronics owners Roger Shiffman to issue a statement clarifying, “Furby has absolutely no ability to do any recording whatsoever.”
The first Furbys had no off switch but came in a variety of colors
The Furby has gone through, roughly, three major eras of evolution. The first Furbys had no off switch but came in a variety of colors and 24 special editions including Elvis, Millennium, Patriotic, and Superhero — sold under the simple declaration “Let’s have fun!” When they were reinvented in 2005 to have a bigger, more expressive face and voice recognition capabilities, they went by “Your emoto-tronic friend.”
By the 2012 iteration — which arrived long after the memeification of the toy’s notorious malfunctions and bugs, such as their ability to interfere with radio frequencies or spontaneously change tone of voice — it made sense to Hasbro subsidiary Tiger Electronics to change the tagline again to “A mind of its own.”
Though popular memory largely places Furbys in the late ’90s and early aughts, a nostalgia object with a bunch of odd quirks, Furbys are actually a continuing source of revenue for a company in the ever-fluctuating toy industry. The latest version of the Furby, launched in 2016, is called the Furby Connect; it’s Bluetooth-enabled and connects to a mobile video game with plenty of in-app purchases, labeled “nefarious” by Wired. They are declared “hot again” every few years by industry observers. There was even supposed to be a part-animated, part live-action Furby movie, but it fell through the cracks when the Weinstein Company dissolved at the end of 2017.
For Furby collectors, however, profitability is not part of the equation. It’s common for serious Furby fans to have only a few of the little guys — treasured and modified with custom dye jobs or hand-sewn appendages — or up to 100.
The 1998 version of the toy is the most popular in this community, not because it is, as some shady internet sources would have you believe, valuable on the resale market, but quite the opposite: The toys were so mass-produced on their first run, and most consumers’ interest in them limited to such a narrow time frame, that there is a surplus of them. You can buy them for a dollar at a junk store. You can get them on eBay and Etsy and from fellow fans on various other online marketplaces, for hardly anything at all.
Most toy collecting communities put a premium on relics that come in pristine condition or their original packaging, but many Furby enthusiasts prefer the messed-up and weird, and spend time writing DIY tutorials on how to make them even stranger. Furbys that are rescued from antique stores or basements can also be sent out to hobbyists like Remy V, a Furby fan from Maryland who offers refurbishment services on his Tumblr.
Remy does minor cosmetic and functionality repairs, including sewing up tears in Furby fur, fixing broken speakers, cleaning and painting eyes and eyelids, and tuning up internal gears. He finds unloved Furbys and brushes them up, then sells them into new homes, but just for a little bit of extra cash. “I’d say I’ve sold about 55 Furbys since I joined the community last October, of all generations and to people all over the world,” he tells me, saying that he’s even sold to a collector in Japan.
The popular Furby Value Guide blog provides an equally important service, answering questions about what various generations and special editions of Furbys are actually worth, so that new community members don’t get scammed by any of the 1,000-plus Furby listings on eBay. (A quick search shows there is extreme variability in the listings there, with negligibly different 1998 Furbys going for as little as $10 and as much as $300.) There are extremely rare Furbys — like the Kid Cuisine and Hi-C 1998 giveaways that were limited to 500-piece runs — and those can get fair price tags in the hundreds of dollars, but an ongoing bugaboo for the community is making sure everyone’s well-informed.
These enthusiasts gather on Tumblr to buy new Furbys, to get parts from each other, and to commission fan art of their toys, but mostly just to post about their daily activities. Like making gingerbread or trying on a new pair of shoes.
Many of the Tumblr users I spoke to stumbled upon their fuzzy friends by accident and were charmed into a whole new world of community and creativity. Andy Särki, a collector from the UK, tells me he found his first two Furbys, named Sugar Cookie and Coffee Bean, in a retro toy shop in Seoul. “As soon as I saw them, I knew I wouldn’t walk out without them,” he says. His next two, Luna and Nova, were on a local classifieds website’s miscellaneous old clutter section. “They had both been up on the site for three years already,” Särki says. “It made me sad that no one had given them a home yet.”
Jessica Bansbach has gone to self-admittedly ridiculous lengths to do the same. She has one Furby named Bumbleweed, who came to her because she hunted down the original poster of a Reddit image of a busted-up Furby abandoned in a desert in California. It took her a month, but she convinced the owner to mail it to her. “I cleaned him up and fixed him and now he’s sitting in this room,” she tells me on the phone, calling from her college dorm, where most of the 30 or so Furbys in her collection live.
In February, when Mayre Dickson, an artist in New Mexico, received an orange 2012 Furby in the mail from an online seller, his battery compartment was flooded with battery acid and he was completely nonfunctioning. Rather than throw him out, she tells me in an email, she named him Uranium Flea and gave him a glow-in-the-dark paint job to reflect the fact that he’s “radioactive.”
“I was extremely nervous about skinning them, but a seam ripper is your best friend”
Dickson makes all kinds of art, but injuries from a car accident in 2014 made it hard for her to work in her primary mediums of large-scale painting and sculptures, so she turned to Furby modification in a time of boredom and need. She thins out acrylic paint and uses it to change the color of a Furby’s fur. She uses craft crystals and glitter, and has glued fake pearls deep into the fur of an aquamarine Furby Boom named Kappa, to give him an elegant look. Two of her other Furbys have bodies stuffed with craft store polyfill to make them rounder. “Just looking at the makes me chuckle because they are so rotund and cute!” she tells me.
Andreana Ely, a collector in Boston, says she doesn’t do drastic customizations but has to get under her Furbys’ skin pretty often anyway. “All the [2005 Furbys] I have I have skinned,” she writes in an email. “I was extremely nervous about skinning them, but a seam ripper is your best friend.” She had to skin one Furby after her beak was dislocated, another because his fur needed to be washed. Next she’ll fix their deteriorated mouths with Suguru, a moldable glue.
“I like that even defective Furbies are accepted and loved.” Särki says. “If a Furby has a wonky eye or a missing ear, it is loved twice as much.”
The most famous Furby mod is Long Furby, which went viral outside of the Furby community earlier this year. Long Furby is — as you can probably guess — a Furby with a long, noodle-y body. He is just one of what the community refers to as “oddbodies,” or Furbys that have been given handmade additional parts and strange shapes. There’s a 50-person wait list on the page for the collector who made the original Long Furby, but other people are figuring out how to make them themselves. A common method is to hand-crochet a body and attach the face of a plastic Furby McDonald’s toy or a Furby Buddy — Beanie Baby-like Furbys without the animatronics, released in 1999.
Jenna, a fan in the Midwest, tells me she used a white-and-black 1998 Furby Buddy — a Beanie Baby-like Furby without the animatronics, released in 1999 — to make her Long Furby named Weston Mortimer Mayhem Moondoggie. “He is wild, weird, and slithery,” she says in an email. “With all of the materials I purchased to make him, he ended up costing me about $40. He acts as a great neck pillow.” The meme rubbed some community members the wrong way, but Jenna loves it. “I hope everyone gets a chance to see the long Furby,” she writes. “It makes me laugh so hard and I think everyone should get to experience that.”
Other community members were a little annoyed or distressed by Long Furby’s short-lived fame mostly because it wasn’t the first time the broader internet used their pastime as a punchline. “People outside Tumblr say things like, ‘Oh, my Furby is possessed, it turned on by itself,’” Bansbach says, voice dropping from buoyant to sarcastic.
That bit of pop culture misinformation is mostly just funny to her, but she says she understands why it can upset others in the community. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that the Furby community is real,” she says. “But a lot of people use Furbys as coping mechanisms. If you tie something that closely to your mental health, it can feel like an attack on you.”
Bansbach herself came to Furblr (a portmanteau of “Furby” and “Tumblr”) about a year and a half ago, during a time when she says she was feeling sick every day, waiting for her body to adjust to a new antidepressant. While ill, she typed “Furby” into Tumblr just “to see what would come up.” When she found the community, she dug up her childhood toy, which was just hanging out in her parents’ basement, and started taking pictures of it.
Many community members have ADHD or anxiety issues and find some relief through Furbys, Mayre Dickson, the artist who found Furblr during her car accident recovery tells me. Others mention that they help with “stimming” — a range of compulsive and repetitive self-stimulating behaviors commonly associated with autism.
“I don’t mean to say that everyone who collects Furbys is suffering in some way,” she clarifies, “Some collectors just like them because they are cute! But overall, my experience is that people who collect Furbys do so because Furbys help them cope with the stress of life.”
To avoid being lumped in with generic or rude Furby content on the platform, the true Furby fans on Tumblr label their posts with #furbyfandom. And because so many of the community members are teenagers, they also use tags like #allfurby or #safefurby to label only content that’s appropriate for all eyes.
“There’s no true adult content,” Bansbach says, “But some people post photos of, like, giving a Furby a blunt to smoke or posing them on a beer can.”
“There’s no true adult content. But some people post photos of, like, giving a Furby a blunt to smoke or posing them on a beer can.”
The caution is largely because of an infamous incident in the fandom’s past, when users suddenly discovered that the operators of a few of the best-known blogs were interested in what Bansbach refers to as “DD/LG” (shorthand for a BDSM relationship between a dominating “daddy” character and a young girl) or lolicon (a sort of nebulous term most often used to refer to sexual attraction to cartoons of young girls). The fandom has also suffered from a pretty standard Tumblr problem — being reblogged by porn bots. It is now rigorously self-policing, with entire blogs dedicated to rooting out nefarious actors and spammy accounts.
“I don’t think there’s a market for it,” Bansbach says of Furby porn. Though there is a lot of overlap between Furby fandom and the enormous online furry fandom — which has a much more widely-recognized association with sexuality and with porn — she doesn’t see it as a threat to the squeaky-clean ethos of the Furby collectors. “This is a strictly safe-for-work fandom. [Furry porn] is not my thing, but I don’t see anything wrong with it as long as people don’t bring into the Furby tags. I don’t care.”
There is currently no #nsfwfurby tag, but at least one user has suggested starting one: “HOWEVER it is not filled with anything gross just Furbys giving loving gentle advice on destroying capitalism.”
Now the Furby crew on Tumblr has other concerns. Like, the possible impending demise of their platform, and everything they’ve built there.
Earlier this month, when Tumblr announced a ban on most kinds of explicit content, Bansbach says Furby blogs were hit oddly hard by suspensions and content violation warnings.
Though she wasn’t able to get confirmation from Tumblr, she suspects that the community’s habit of explicitly stating its stance against various forms of pedophilia triggered the algorithm used to hunt down real predators. Now, members of the community are making backup plans, searching each other out on Instagram with the hashtag #findfurbyfamily, and strategizing in Discord servers. Others have plans to move activities to social media platforms like Pillowfort, Mastodon, or Reddit.
“The best part about the Furby community is that even if you don’t talk to anybody, you still feel like you’re friends with everybody”
For adult Furby collectors, Bansbach says, things will be slightly harder. The teenagers in the fandom are often able to get their offline friends into Furbys, which gives them a tangible way to express their fandom even if Tumblr crumbles around them. For her, options in the real world are limited. There are no Furby fans at her college that she knows of, and only one at a university about 30 miles away.
“I am a little worried about Tumblr,” one user who wanted to remain anonymous wrote to me in an email. “Hopefully, this craziness will be over soon and the blogs that have been unjustly deleted will be brought back. … The best part about the Furby community is that even if you don’t talk to anybody, you still feel like you’re friends with everybody.”
I would never have known about the wild world of Furbys on Tumblr without the company’s poorly enacted NSFW ban. Bansbach reached out to me when I was looking for stories about how it might change the platform, and I was drawn in, as so many have been, by the warmth and creativity there. Within days I was Slacking my co-workers, “I think I’m going to buy a Furby,” and going home to tell my roommates, “I spent so much time today looking at Furbys on eBay.” I couldn’t stop sending photos of them to my editor, cracking myself up in the middle of meetings, laughing and scrolling through the hashtag when I was supposed to be writing about it.
It’s sort of the central problem of this moment in the history of the social web: We don’t know about the best things happening on these platforms until they’re threatened by some whim of their corporate ownership or disengaged bureaucracy.
Maybe Tumblr will survive its acquisition by Verizon, which after all, happened more than a year ago and has yet to actually kill it. Undeniably, it will be changed, and almost assuredly, for the worse. Today, Tumblr is a dusty old thing with limited audience-growth features and terrible search functionality, which makes it far more confusing and annoying to use than a place like Twitter or Instagram or Reddit.
But it also keeps the people who really need it protected from an internet that is big and random and mean. It is too small and weird and occasionally disgusting to make any real money, and so, it stands to reason, it could soon be thrown away — just like a busted, forgotten robot with matted hair and age-crusted eyes. Lucky for us all that still, for now, over in this strange alternate universe, trash is treasure.
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