The aquarium hobby is certainly one of those endeavors which pulls in all sorts of people, with widely diverse experience, interests, and abilities. And, because of this "wide net" that the hobby casts, we have a huge assortment of possibilities for success.
If you've been in the hobby for some time, as I have (like, all my life), you start noticing trends, or more specifically, changes in practices, attitudes, and interest levels. I've noticed a troubling one lately.
In a world where people are supposedly not able to retain more than 280 characters of information, and where there is a apparently a "hack" for pretty much everything, I wonder if have we simply have lost the ability to absorb information on things that are not considered “relevant” to our immediate goal. I say this not in a sarcastic manner, but in a thoughtful, measured one. I'm baffled by hobbyists who want to try something new and simply do next to no research or self-education prior to trying it.
When you read some of the posts on Facebook or other sites, where a hobbyist asks a question which makes it obvious that they failed to grasp even the most fundamental aspects of their "area of interest", yet jumped in head-first into this "new thing", it just makes you wonder! I mean, if the immediate goal is to have "a great looking tank", it seems to me that some hobbyists apparently don’t want to take the time to learn the groundwork that it takes to get there and to sustain the system on a long-term basis. I suppose that it’s far more interesting- and apparently, immediately gratifying- for some hobbyists to learn about what gadgets or products can get us where we want, and what fishes are available to complete the project quickly.
This is a bit of a problem.
We perpetuate this by well- dumbing everything down. We feature the superficial aspects of the hobby- how cool the tanks look, the overly-stylized images of aquascaping contest winners, etc., while failing to get people to grasp the basics. We often see these threads that emphasize the equipment or various brands of stuff used, complete with all of the appropriate hashtags for discoverability.
I mean, I get that part. Society has shifted, and discovering content is important. It's just sort of interesting to me to see this elevated in importance over stuff like, oh- I don't know- a discussion of how the damn system works, what the inspiration for it was, etc., etc.
Just an emphasis on too much of the "finished product" and a complete absence of information about how to get there. We need to address this.
Then there are those “build threads” you see on various forums (it's especially "rampant" in the reef side of the hobby). In many of these threads, you’ll see a detailed run down of the equipment, shots of the assembly, the “solutions” to the problems encountered along the way (usually more expensive equipment purchases). You’ll see pics of the finished tanks…But not much of the more "interesting" phases of their existence.
All very interesting and helpful, but the “weirdness” starts when, in the middle of the threads, you’ll see the “builder” asking about why he’s experiencing a massive algae outbreak, or why all of the Apistogramma, plants or coral frags he just added are dying in this brand new, state-of-the-art tank. Questions and ensuing discussions that are so "Aquarium 101" that they make you wonder why this ill-informed, yet apparently well-healed individual went off on a 5-figure “joyride”, building a dream tank with an apparent complete ignorance of many of the hobby fundamentals. And sadly, the hobbyist sometimes just...quits.
I’m often dumbfounded at the incredible lack of hobby basics many of these people show. Just because you’re a great DIY guy, and have disposable income to buy everything you see advertised on line for your 400-gallon tank, it doesn’t make you a knowledgeable or experienced aquarist. It just doesn’t.
Okay, I’m sounding very cynical. And perhaps I am. But the evidence is out there in abundance…and it’s kind of discouraging at times.
Look, I’m not trying to be the self-appointed "guardian of the hobby." I’m not calling us out. I’m simply asking for us to look at this stuff realistically, however. To question our habits. No one has a right to tell anyone that what they are doing is not the right way, but we do have to instill upon the newbie the importance of understanding the basics.
Like many other vendors, I offer products to people and don’t educate them on every single aspect of aquatic husbandry. I spend scant little time discussing the most basic aspects of the aquarium hobby. I have to make the assumption that an aquarists jumping in to the botanical-style aquarium game at least has some prior hobby experience and a grasp of the fundamentals. Perhaps it's too much of an assumption?
Personally, I'm not interested in re-hashing "Aquarium Keeping 101"- there are plenty of amazing hobby resources out there for that stuff. I prefer to share and disseminate information as it pertains to our unique hobby speciality. Quite frankly, I think we've done a pretty good job of it over the past 5 years or so, too.
Educating and informing is every bit as important as "selling" and inspiring fellow hobbyists on this stuff. When we started Tannin, I knew that we were heading onto an area of the hobby that was replete with speculation, myths, and downright misinformation- if you could find anything about it out there at all. So, we started out from day one, sharing all sorts of information about our little hobby speciality.
It’s hard to do that. I do write lots of blogs and articles, and lecture all over the world, so I know I’m doing something to reach some people…but not enough. I need to do better. I probably need to write more about basic sort of stuff than I do about whatever the heck is on my mind? Dunno. I do know that we all need to tell hobbyists like it is, without sugar coating everything. There WILL be decomposition. There WILL be biofilms! Shit like that. We have to keep talking about all aspects of this stuff.
Sometimes, it's controversial. Other times, it's speculative. Sometimes, we simply don't have the answers- we just have the observations based upon our experience, so we share those. We hypothesize when we feel comfortable. We've grown along with our community, sharing our ideas and experiences in as unfiltered a manner as possible. Our ideas and information has become more sophisticated and useful as we've evolved, and as global feedback has come in.
Thanks to YOU- our community, we've all created a movement in the hobby.
I remember when I started Tannin Aquatics, I was determined to share my passion for using all sorts of botanicals and leaves to create what I feel are a profoundly different type of "natural aquarium" than the sanitized, polished, aquarium-as-a-canvas model that's been preferred to us over the past decade or so as the shit. I knew that there would be aquarists who didn't "get it"- aquarists who would focus on the perceived "negatives", like decomposition, issues, maintenance, having to prepare everything before use, etc. Stuff that is actually the important, positive fundamental "cannon" of what we do.
I KNEW that there would be people who might kill their fishes by adding lots of botanicals to their established systems without reading and following the instructions concerning preparation, cadence, and what to expect. I knew there would be people who would criticize the idea, "edit" the processes or recommended "best practices", talk negatively about the approach and generally scoff and downplay what they didn't know, understand, or do.
It's human nature whenever you give people something a bit different to play with...They want to go from 0-100 in like one day. And I knew that some of these people would go out on social media and attempt to trash the whole idea after they failed. This, despite all of our instructions, information, and pleas to follow the guidelines we suggested.
That's how it goes in the hobby sometimes. When you're trying new things, some people are really eager to get into them...but not all are eager to "look before they leap." That's why reef aquariums seem to be so challenging...even mysterious- to some people. It seems like the rewards are so great- so cool...they want in. Now. And there are all of these cool gadgets and chemicals and stuff that make it super easy!
Regrettably, many manufacturers and vendors over the years have fed this narrative by over-hyping their products and conveniently glossing over the potential pitfalls of using them.
We don't. We share it all.
I guess this is why I get pissed off as fuck when I see someone out there in forums or wherever jump to some speculative "conclusion" without the obvious firsthand experience about what we do and try to heap us into the "fluff marketing/PR" category of brands which make generic, seemingly spectacular claims about their products and ideas.
WE DON'T. We never have. We never will. Search all 600 or so of our blogs, the dozen or so hobby magazine articles we've written on this idea, and try to find a word of marketing hyperbole or outrageous claims about our products or this idea of botanical-style aquariums. You won't. It's not in our "DNA."
Now, of course, it goes with the territory- the skepticism, constructive criticisms, and outright accusations. We have to swallow our pride sometimes and just listen, and decide if we're going to respond in some direct way...or to just keep our heads down and do what we do. I guess this very blog is another "marker" we're laying down to counteract that sort of thing.
It's a continuous process that we as aquarium hobby proponents and brands need to do. We need to address all of this stuff. Good and bad.
Because NOT sharing the potential negatives is a bad thing. I'm super-proud that we've consistently elevated realistic discussions about unpopular topics related to our hobby sector. Yeah, we literally have blog and podcast titles like, "How to Avoid Screwing Up Your Tank and Killing all of Your Fishes with Botanicals" , or "There Will be Decomposition", or "Celebrating The Slimy Stuff."
We continuously use all of our products- often deliberately, in ways we'd never, ever recommend you try. We've literally set up systems to see how far we can push it, and to see what kind of consequences could happen from misusing them.
We're going to keep doing that. Because, when you're pushing unusual and exotic ideas, many of which have no precedent or "settled science" behind them, you need to continuously document experiences and share discoveries- the good, the bad- and the ugly. It's how we will continue to do our share to advance this hobby speciality and push beyond what's currently accepted.
This is my call to all of the members of our global community- Hobbyists, authors, vendors, manufacturers:
Go beyond the superficial, "Insta-ready" splash, and have thoughtful, realistic, and frank discussions with your fellow hobbyists about all aspects of what we do. Stress fundamentals, the process...the journey.
We owe it to the hobby, our fellow fish geeks...and most important- the plants and animals that we love so much.
Stay honest. Stay strong. Stay bold. Stay thoughtful...
And Stay Wet.