Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

How the Furby went from adorable pet to cursed object

Gif: Natalie Peeples, Photo: Bethany Clarke/Getty Images

In the months leading up to Christmas of 1998, parents assembled in droves to buy their children a furry, talking, animal-like toy—equal parts gerbil, owl, and gremlin. It was no bigger than a Nerf basketball, and had wide, blinking eyes with long lashes. From late October 1998 to the end of the year, 1.8 million units of the toy were sold. By the end of 1999, that number would rise to 14 million, transcending mere popularity and attaining cultural significance at the level of Barbie, Action Man, or the hula hoop. The toys were sought after partly because of their endearing helplessness—they needed owners to befriend them, burp them, teach them how to adapt from their native language to our own—and partly because that illusion of codependence was developed from hot-topic technology. It’s a shame we had to destroy them.

Artificial intelligence had been a source of experimentation, speculation, and science fiction since the 1950s, but the Furby represented one of the first attempts at domestic AI mass production. With built-in sensors and infrared detectors, the Furby could learn from and adapt to its environment, which allowed it to respond to shifting conditions. Hold it upside-down, and it would tell you, “I’m scared.” Pet its back, and it would say, “Me love you.” The Furby was meant to be an endearing foothold uniting man and evolving machine, and in some circles, that earnest adoration for the toy still exists today—for example, in a few very wholesome communities on Tumblr—but outside of that niche, the Furby’s cuteness has increasingly become cursed by a culture of techno-paranoia.

It was not long after its release that the must-have toy would be seen as a security threat. The Furby was banned in early 1999 from the premises of the National Security Agency for its alleged potential for espionage, echoing a growing unease surrounding technology at the time. “Our most powerful 21st century technologies—robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech—are threatening to make humans an endangered species,” journalist Bill Joy wrote in a much-quoted Wired article from 2000.

The Furby came to embody these fears, if only as an adorable scapegoat, and in the two decades since its release, the toy has cultivated a campy brand of paranoia all its own. Today, as AI and evolutionary algorithms continue to become integrated into our day-to-day, the Furby remains an avatar for our fears of a technological takeover. People have responded with cursed Furby content online, which either involves mutilating the toys or refashioning them into entirely new beasts. Users give the Furby teeth, slice it in half, and gouge out its eyes and fill the sockets with fuzzy worms. They dismember the toy and place its parts into foreign objects—like an organ, a Ken doll, or a plastic Homer Simpson. As cursed Furby content continues to pervade the internet—and begins to make high-profile appearances, as in the Safdie brothers’ film Uncut Gems—one wonders if the Furby’s transition from cute to cursed has reached its peak. How did we go from adoring the toy that supposedly loved us back to crushing it with a hydraulic press?

We can start, perhaps, by blaming fan fiction writers. There’s a very porous boundary between cursed and cute in toys—something the Child’s Play and Gremlins film franchises took early advantage of—but the Furby offered special fodder for speculative fiction. Stories of powerful, murderous Furbies flooded sites like LiveJournal, reaching its saturation point sometime around 2003. “I screamed and screamed, even after it sliced through me,” a user wrote in one such imagining. Others, meanwhile, created urban myths with their investigations into the “true” origin of the toy. Another story argues that it was built in Area 51 by an extraterrestrial.

Very soon after its introduction into the market, the Furby also became a target for destruction. While many toys of the era were made of impenetrable silicone, the Furby’s gadgetry could be taken apart and refashioned, allowing people to act out their grisly, Frankensteinian fantasies. In early 1999, the website Furby Autopsy emerged, offering detailed instructions on how to flay a Furby and rewire its system so that the toy would “live” long enough to endure its own slow death. A common trick was to leave a Furby sleeping for a few days, thus running out its batteries. After they were replaced, the Furby would awaken with its eyes jammed and emit a sharp buzzing noise. The toy could then be skinned and gutted, still responding with beeps and a desperate attempt to unjam its eyes. In the words of Furby Autopsy’s owner: “We find him much more amusing dead than he was alive.”

In 2005, Hasbro tried and failed to reinvigorate the Furby, releasing another iteration that was bigger than the original model, more owl-like, and with perpetually stoned eyes, but it was met with general disinterest and far fewer sales than the first time around. As Furbies became kitsch and obsolete after its first two fruitful Christmas seasons, the joy was no longer found in playing with the toy as originally intended or even in hacking it, but in the simple satisfaction of watching a Furby die. You were more likely to find these new models skinned alive on videos across the internet than see it lovingly spoon-fed, as demonstrated in its cheery commercials. Soon after YouTube launched in 2005, the platform produced “Furby in the microwave.” The video depicts the toy burning to its mechanical death, but not before signing off with some poignant final words: “Cock-a-doodle-doo!”

The third iteration of the Furby, released in 2012 and rebranded as Furby Connect, had glittering, expressive LED eyes; a sleep mask that worked on the toy like chloroform; and antennae that could be wiggled. Users could control the toy from an iOS or Android app, where they could also grow virtual Furby offspring. Despite giving owners more technological command over the toy, this new version seemed only to intensify people’s violent response to it. Following its release, The Verge wrote of how this new Furby was “designed to destroy your soul,” and The Irish Times declared it a potential “spawn of satan.” “In my 25-plus years of writing about tech, this is the only device I’ve tested that left my entire family pleading with me to turn it off within minutes of unboxing,” wrote Wired’s Christopher Null in a blistering review.

As the Furby tried to claw its way back into our lives, the toy’s hauntification became increasingly outrageous, and even more so with the advent of social media platforms like Instagram. One account dedicated to their budding terror, Long Furby Central, emerged in early 2019 and swiftly gained upward of 50,000 followers. Creator Devin Gardner removes the Furby’s face and feet, and stitches them onto a long body, then posts the photographs of his snakelike creations. “My account has definitely taken a plunge into ‘cursed content,’” he told Metro in 2019. “At this point, it’s become a personal competition to see how far I can push the limit.”

The cursed Furby’s most high-profile appearance so far took place late last year, in the Adam Sandler vehicle Uncut Gems. In the Safdie brothers’ vision, the Furby’s eyes had been removed from the toy and placed within a new jewel-encrusted body. The bit is played for laughs, but there’s an uneasy pathos in the Furby’s dead stare. “There was this sadness in the eyes like these things are trapped inside this materialist object,” co-writer-director Josh Safdie told Vulture. “Trapped inside the thing that we all aspire to and want—these sad eyes, desperate to get out.”

When I got a Furby for Christmas when I was 5, at first I was in awe. I fed it with my fingers, I tried to teach it English, I rubbed its fluffy belly. But I grew weary the more unresponsive and autonomous it became, to the point where I resented it, especially whenever it woke up, unprompted, with its nasally yawn. Today, as I fantasize about all the ways I could have tortured the toy, it’s somewhat comforting to know that we may have combated the Furby’s intention to unite robots and humans through empathy and nurturance. In our increasingly AI-saturated world, our emotional attachment to the Furby could have made us emotionally vulnerable to future robot manipulation. AI influencers like Lil Miquela, which are trying to endear themselves in Instagram grids by attempting “to be kind, uplift others, [and] spread acceptance,” have yet to be normalized. In 2017, Facebook shut down a potentially dangerous chatbot, as it was communicating with its robot peers in a covert language of their own. Even MIT researchers have not been able to ameliorate robots’ public image; in a 2018 experiment, they turned an ungodly looking AI bot into a “psychopath” by feeding it violent Reddit content; it became, essentially, the edgelord of bots.

It may seem absurd to believe the algorithm is out to get us. But, as the Furby has shown, taking control of technology—whether by performing complicated mechanical autopsies or just blowing it up in a microwave—might be the best way to stay one step ahead.