There's an inherent link between the labels you use and the cultures of the communities you hang out in.
A lot of people in alterhuman spaces don't seem to pick up on this - but people can, do, and should choose their labels according to who else is using them. I'm writing this post in response to two things. The first is Nokken's draft publication on nonhuman communities. The second is a recent chat on the Alt+H discord about the difference between tulpas and soulbonds. Let's look at those examples first:
Tulpamancy vs Soulbonding
What is the difference? They both involve a personal connection to another entity, typically fictional, through your own mind. Both tulpas and soulbonds can 'front'. So how did these two words come about for what a lot of people feel are the same concept?
Tulpamancy grew out of 4chan's paranormal board, /x/. From the get-go it has been about the idea of creating a person out of nothing. It started with, and still popularly involves, fictional characters, but many tulpamancers draw up entirely new friends to bring into existence. Soulbonding, on the other hand, was coined on a mailing list for writers who experienced their characters talking back to them. It's almost exclusively considered to be involuntary. Even most guides on purposeful soulbonding say 'cast your net out and see if something bites'. So while ‘forcing’ and active intent are the meat and potatoes of acquiring a tulpa, someone who considers their companion a soulbond will probably find it strange to ask, "how did you decide what they'd be like?"
Their convergence upon otherkin circles has served to highlight the similarities between the two, and of course there can be ambiguity. Given an agnostic attitude towards their companion's origin, what would someone decide to call them? It might just come down to whether you’re a writer; or whether you prefer reddit to livejournal; or whether you’re a spiritually-minded person. When you could call your experience either, the thing you fall back on to determine which word is yours is the connotations that come with it.
Otherkin vs Therians
Nokken describes them as part of the 'greater otherkin community', but their coexistence is very recent in the grand scheme of things. The groups that lead up to the formation of the modern otherkin community are much older. They arguably predate the internet in its entirety! Yet it was the birth of the internet, usenet forums specifically, that allowed the therian community to come into being. It wasn’t really until 2011 when they met each other on tumblr that they started to intermingle. This still shows.
The main cultural difference as I see it is in the approach to identifying one's phenotype. The therian community is typically very literal in their interpretation of their experiences. They rely on comparing what they can intuit about their species to actual facts, expecting there'll be a real, observable animal to compare it to. A lot of thought goes into this initial discovery phase. Many therians even believe they’ll never truly know they’ve got it exactly correct.
But otherkin, in my experience, are more likely to get existential with it. That isn’t to say that otherkin are more hasty in their awakening. It’s just the focus seems to be more on what happens after that. How do you deal, living with the implications of your nonhumanity? There are plenty of essays out there on what it means to be, say, an elf. A therian would probably insist their animality doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a fact about who they are.
This might explain the initial pushback against 'conceptkin'. Community veterans with therian sensibilities would find themselves asking, "how can you literally experience being a collection of soundwaves / a storm / the planet Mars?" Maybe you can’t. It doesn’t matter, because that’s not what these people are experiencing, nor do they claim to be.
It would also explain why The Daemon Forum is historically associated with the therian community only. The process of form-finding is similarly scrupulous in its attention to observed animal behaviour, not symbolic associations. (Though, there has been an offshoot system recently which encourages the latter!)
Those are some cultural differences with big consequences. This is fine – good, even. It allows for a nice little expression of this kind of nuance:
What would you think if someone called themselves a dragon therian? This does have its own word: 'theriomythic', but the therio- prefix still conveys a tie to that community. It’d be reasonable to assume this person considers their phenotype more animalistic. They probably frame their experiences in the context of real animal behaviour. They are a mythic creature who is more therian in nature.
On the flip side of this we have an example from yours truly. I don't call my deer identity a theriotype. While I do relate to such majestic behaviors as pissing on your own legs and rolling around in mud, I relate much more to the mythical archetype of deer qua Celtic mythology. Calling myself therian suggests I've spent a lot of time exploring the exact habits and habitat of my phenotype. But that doesn’t matter to me, and I don’t have the same kind of experience as a deer as a self-identified therian would. To imply we did by calling us the same term would be, at its best, factually wrong, and at its worst, damaging to our identities.
Another interesting case for my point is these two words:
'Heartedness vs Synpaths
The concept of 'heartedness began on The Daemon Forum. Many people there who learned of therians could relate, but didn’t feel quite right calling themselves such. 'Synpath' came about when an outsider to the otherkin communitie saw the need for a similar word, but wasn’t aware of ‘hearted’ as a term. When they were informed, the coiner of ‘synpath’ made a distinction. 'Hearted is something you are, a synpath is something you have. That’s an important difference. A lot of factors influence whether someone considers an affinity like this a part of their actual identity. The choice to do so, and the ability to find others who treat their connections the same way, is possible because separate communities exist.
So people have very good reasons for maintaining differences in terminologies. They often pop up completely independently of each other, in different corners of the internet, at the hands of different people. They're shaped and informed by every second of unique community dialogue that happens around them. Practical reasons aside, it’s a slight to our collective cultures and histories to ignore those distinctions. Here’s a personal anecdote about what that looks like and how it affects people:
In the late aughts when I was only barely a teenager, dragons roamed the internet. I considered myself otherkin at the time, sure, but the draconic communities were where I threw my lot in. They were my people. Because ‘draconic’ meant something more. It had connotations beyond just ‘person who identifies as a dragon’. There was an intangible cultural thread running through all us beasties meaning when you met another dragon, you just knew.
And when nonhumans spilled onto tumblr, there was still a reasonably distinct draconic community, in the sense that everyone knew everyone else. But slowly the distinction was lost, and the sense of camaraderie died. I sincerely feel like I’ve lost something since then. To me, being a dragon has always to some extent precluded a kinship to everyone else who called themselves that too. We called ourselves draconic, not just ‘dragonkin’, because we related in each other to something more than just that. It was the way we interacted with our draconity, and the way it made us interact with everything else. Since the dissolution of a coherent community around that, my identity as a dragon has taken a back seat.
This is markedly uncool. Unfortunately, assimilating communities is always going to result in this kind of damage. It’s given us weird ideas about what community even is. If you tell me you have a soulbond, I expect to be able to find something in common with you, because I have a soulbond too. I expect you to have gotten your information from the same rough sphere as me, because you’re using the same terminology. I expect you to have similar views, at least where it matters, on the Big Things.
Because why else do we use labels if not to find people to connect with? If we call ourselves part of X community and don’t relate to the majority of the other people who do, then it has failed at being a community. Or, the opposite happens. People misrepresent themselves and their experiences for the sake of fitting in. If you’re older it’s easy to believe this is a personal issue, but kids need communities too. Probably even morseo! Making young, developing people feel like they have to suppress their individuality is also a community failstate.
And obviously, because I’m me, I want to talk about how all this relates to alterhuman as a label. I’ve spoken before on what the word means beyond its definition. It’s already clear that a specific culture is forming around the word, based on the kind of people it appeals to. Conversely, lots of people have admitted they technically fit the definition but still don’t feel it applies to them. I fully support and encourage that kind of self-determinacy. As someone who arguably has a voice when it comes to influencing the trajectory of the alterhuman label, I hold myself responsible in making sure it doesn’t fail to give people the community they’re looking for.
Because other words exist. Like the difference between ‘joyous’ and ‘ecstatic’; between American football and rugby; between Swedish and Norwegian, it’s good to have different words to describe variations on the same concept. It’s especially good when the variations in question are historical and cultural. Then, which word you choose conveys so much more. When you call your experience X rather than Y, you’re not just stating what you experience, but how you feel and what you believe about that experience. This is a nuance that is essential for building fulfilling communities. It’s a nuance that’s lost when we try to group everything under the same word. Expanding the boundaries of a term to say ‘this is included too’ when ‘this’ already has its own established label isn’t inclusive, it’s erasure.