It's a lot of fun to share my thoughts with you every day here in "The Tint." And it's really fun to get out there and visit clubs. You realize the value of information sharing in the hobby at these events. I’m always reminded of both the thirst for information that exists in the hobby, as well as the culture that surrounds it. The culture of sharing and teaching. Pretty damn cool. And it always hits home for me when people tell me how much they enjoyed my blog about “______” a few weeks back…It makes me realize the responsibility I have when discussing topics here.
I was speaking at a reef club not long ago- a pretty advanced group, actually. The members showed me tank after tank with very involved setups. Yet, the questions I kept getting during and after my talk were...well, incredibly "fundamental"- the amount of questions I fielded on stuff that would be considered “primary” reef-keeping technique-primary "aquarium technique", for that matter- was overwhelmingly disproportionate to the more advanced concepts touched on in the talk!
After the meeting, a bunch of us talked about this for a long time, and tried to get our heads around it all. Why would this be? I mean, we’re in the “Postmodern” era of aquarium-keeping, where hobbyists are trying all sorts of advanced techniques and technology, and sharing via the internet. We as a hobby spend a collective fortune on the latest and greatest equipment: Aquariums, lighting technology, controllers, protein skimmers, pumps, etc. We are bombarded with lots of data on husbandry, feeding, coral care, plant care, aquascaping, fish breeding techniques, setting up systems, etc.
Information is everywhere.
Well, maybe the information is "everywhere", but I get this sneaking feeling that many hobbyists are not taking advantage of it. This event really drove it home: Why would reefers who have 200-gallon plus reef systems, with thousands of dollars in corals and equipment, have detailed questions and even total misperceptions about really basic stuff like alkalinity, water quality, and...stocking? Stuff that they should have acquired as fledgling aquarists, or during their planning phases in the hobby adventure. How could this be?
If we can't grasp this....
...then we'll never grasp this!
Well, I have a couple of thoughts and theories about why (Well, of course I do, right? Why would I be quiet about something...lol)
The Internet has changed everything: “Okay, Fellman, sure- go ahead and blame the ‘net. Slap Twitter and Instagram again while you’re at it…” No, hear me out on this. I think that the internet and all of the information access it provides has been culture changing. Amazing. However, some of the change in our hobby may not be for the better. There was a time when a beginner in the hobby went down to the LFS, had a conversation with the staff about starting a tank, and was sent home with some information and perhaps even cracked a book or two…BEFORE he or she even bought a tank.
With the internet, this information is readily available, along with forums where a fledgling aquarist can discuss the hobby with experienced hobbyist. However, there are also hundreds of “build threads”, advertisements, and online vendors (just like mine) dangling all sorts of goodies in front of the neophyte. For just a few bucks, you can have all of this cool stuff delivered overnight right to your door! If you do it right, and if you can afford it, you’d be able to go from thinking about starting an aquairum to a full-fledged, high-octane system with all of the latest expensive gear, fishes, and plants by Summer! Maybe it’s a "cultural shift" brought about by the era of e-commerce. We have become accustomed to wanting something and getting it…fast.
The mindset I've encountered of late from some new hobbyists is "Why research it? Just get stuff!" I mean, there are products and equipment that can give you “professional results” with virtually plug and play setup. You can bypass all of that "nonsense", like understanding the nitrogen cycle, or the concept of water quality management. We have live bacteria in a bottle, and electronic controllers to just set things up for us. Easy.
(It's a hard truth: Having the best equipment doesn't make you the best hobbyist. You need the basics.)
Perhaps we've even made stuff too easy? Have we simply decided, in this fast-paced era, to just bypass the “learning curve?” Are we as a culture and business so eager to get new hobbyists into the game that we are enabling them to bypass the “dues paying” part of the climb to hobby success? Should there be a “dues paying” time, anyways? Who has the right to dictate THAT? On the other hand, are we exposing newbies to financial ruin, and most important- hapless animals to death because the newbie wants the rare deepwater Haplochromis NOW- and “should” be able to keep it because of his crazy filter, advanced heater, DC water pumps, and electronic controller monitoring the whole thing? This dovetails nicely with my next theory:
Why try to understand what the plants and fishes need? The equipment will take care of it, right? We’ve gotten to the point where no one wants to brew a cup of coffee anymore. We have the “K-Cup” to do that. Maybe we’re too busy? Think I’m overreacting? I don’t think so. I’ve been approached numerous times over the years to give “remedial reef keeping” lessons to people who have obscene amounts of money invested in reefs that would put mine to shame, equipment-wise. Problem was, they hadn’t a clue about keeping the animals they built their "technological shrines" for.
I literally get questions every week from hobbyists shocked that they have to prepare botanicals for use in their tanks, and not "getting" why they can't achieve stable blackwater conditions by just dumping stuff into the tank directly- even though I've literally written volumes here and on our dedicated "Aquatic Botanical Preparation" page about this stuff... I know many fellow vendors and LFS people have had the same experiences with different topics. Have we as a hobby and industry made the process of actually understanding the life forms that we keep secondary to simply acquiring them? Makes me shudder a bit.
And I'm not trying to take the, "You guys have it so easy- I had to walk through 6 feet of snow..." mentality. It's not about "Newbies have to pay their dues! They don't have the RIGHT to success.." No- the point is- we owe it to our animals- and ourselves, to understand this stuff.
This is where the LFS will shine above all. Talking-to people who live, breathe, and sleep aquariums will help. Vendors online- same thing. Forums have a responsibility for perpetuating a responsible, educational culture. Too much is at stake. When you hear that the average aquarist is in the hobby for only 18 months before throwing his/her arms up in frustration, something is wrong. Especially when we are selling millions of dollars of expensive equipment and livestock to the very people who are bailing out in droves. This isn’t just a fight to create more "understanding and awareness"...It’s literally a fight for survival of the hobby and art of aquarium keeping. Yup.
Now, in all fairness, there are a lot of hobbyists and industry pros, some pretty well known, selflessly sharing their knowledge day in and day out online and elsewhere. We can all think of a few immediately.They do amazing work...we need to send more new people their way.
This is a “cultural shift”: Pure and simple…In a world where people are supposedly not able to retain more than 140 characters of information, and where there is a apparently an “algorithm” for pretty much everything, maybe we have simply have lost the ability to absorb information on things that are not considered “relevant” to our immediate goal. If the immediate goal is to have a great-looking aquarium apparently some of us don’t want to take the time to learn the groundwork that it takes to get there and to sustain a system on a long-term basis. It’s far more interesting- and apparently, immediately gratifying- to learn about what gear can get us where we want, and what plants, fishes, and corals are available and how quickly we can get them.. We perpetuate this by well- dumbing everything down. We feature the superficial aspects of the hobby- how cool the tanks look, etc., while failing to get people to grasp the basics. You even see this in many of the “build threads” I alluded to previously. 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 beautiful finished tanks…
(Johnny Ciotti has mastered the basics..and that's part of the reason why he can deliver the goods...)
All of this is very interesting and helpful, but the “weirdness” starts when, in the middle of these threads, you’ll see the “builder” asking about why he’s experiencing a massive algae outbreak, or why all of the expensive Discus or corals he just added are dying in this brand new, "state-of-the-art" tank. Questions and ensuing discussions that 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. I’m often dumbfounded at the incredible lack of hobby basics many of these people show. I see this in the reef world and "high-tech planted" aquarium world a lot. Just because you’re a great "DIY guy", and/or have disposable income to buy everything you see advertised on line for your 400-gallon reef or planted tank, it doesn’t make you a knowledgeable or experienced hobbyist. 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 not bitching about how things are now and that "these kids are sooo soft!" or whatever...Not longing for a "gentler, kinder time" or any of that bullshit. I'm simply asking for us to look at this stuff realistically, however. 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. We need to push understanding as much as we do "stuff."
Like many other vendors, I offer products to people and don’t educate them on every single aspect of aquarium husbandry. I can't. It’s hard to do that. I do write lots of blogs and articles, and lecture all over the world on a lot of topics, so I know I’m doing something to reach some people…but not enough, I think. I need to do continue to do even better.
Perhaps I need to write or talk about more about basic sort of stuff ight along with the "whatever the hell is on my mind this morning" topics? I don't know. I do know that we all need to tell fellow hobbyists like it is, without "sugar-coating" everything. There are dozens of posts and “build threads” on forums that DO provide great information to hobbyists, along with plenty of articles by experienced fish geeks discussing any number of arcane and fascinating aquairum-related topics. We need to really elevate their work...There is a lot of it available. Yet, for all of this, we see what appears to be a very superficial understanding of the hobby by so many. I feel sorry for these people, as well as the animals that are exposed to potentially fatal situations out of pure ignorance. These hobbyists also miss the joy that comes with understanding and applying something that they have learned.
(Perhaps the end goal...but we need to walk before we can run. It's not that easy.)
We all make mistakes. Part of the hobby and the learning curve. Yet, when I see so many indications that hobbyists are just not grasping the basic information that they need to be successful, I feel a sense of disappointment. I feel like we- all of us who are experienced in this great hobby and industry- are letting down a whole generation of hobbyists. Yikes, I’m giving us a bit of a... "ass-kicking!" Yeah. I think we need to sit down with prospective hobbyists and show them that learning about the basics is actually FUN. It’s actually really cool stuff that will make their hobby experience way more fulfilling and interesting.
Okay. Enough of me bitching.
How does this get solved?
Well, it starts with mentoring. It starts with getting people excited not only at the end result- owning a “slice of the bottom”- it starts with getting people excited about the journey to get there, and learning about how we can make the animals under our care thrive. It’s not just about the latest "stuff" you can buy- it’s about the latest information on fundamental care of animals. And that journey is awful fun. The talk of "patience" and the observation of the "evolving" nature of our blackwater/botanical-style tanks you see me preach so often here is a large part of what makes it so fulfilling. Observing the subtle changes; nuancing the habitat we create.
It also starts by us -once and for all-embracing the local fish store and the people who work there. Sure, there are the stories of ignorant personnel and such- but these are truly the exceptions rather than the rule- yet they have somehow seeped into our collective consciousness and contaminated forever our view of the local fish store. "LFS-bashing" is a popular hobby "pastime" to many! And it's totally unfair. Most LFS's give invaluable, free hands-on advice. Most attempt to instill a passion that goes beyond just "shilling products", as is often unfairly leveled upon them. Enough is enough with this crap already. Just like acknowledging that not all online aquatics vendors are "Fast-talking, Photoshop-abusing, shallow, money-grabbing deceptive-business-practicing sharks", we cannot keep "stereotyping" the LFS as the "primary cause" of hobby dissatisfaction and misinformation. The local store, as I’ve written about previously- is the first link to the wonders of the hobby, a cornerstone of hobby “culture”, and the owners and employees deserve our unwavering support. Like all of us- they deserve the occasional kick in the rear when they screw up. But that’s about it. Support them. Work with them. When they win- we all win.
And, it also starts by continuing to emphasize basic husbandry, and the fact that there is a time commitment that is required to care for your aquarium- just like for a dog or cat. Simple as that. And we need to do a better job of accepting some of the "boring" stuff that goes with being a responsible hobbyist. Example: How many aquarists do you know who really embrace a quarantine protocol for any fish, plants, and corals added to their tanks? Conversely, how many hobbyists do you know that would bend over backwards to buy a product that promises the benefits of quarantine without actually doing it? A lot, I'll bet...I mean, we'd all be tempted...but how many would really just jump on that because of the seemingly "easier" course? Is it human nature to seek the path of "least resistance?" I guess.
I can't believe the interest in products that de-emphesize water changes or pledge to eliminate routine maintenance practices...To the point where the reasons for doing water changes- incredibly obvious to all who take the time to understand the basics of how a closed system like an aquarium works-aren't really grasped...people are way more excited about products that they can purchase which promise "No water changes!" And that will be their "takeaway."
I'm all for products and techniques which make our everyday aquarium tasks more simple. "Hacks" and all...Stuff that gives us more time to enjoy the "fun" stuff about keeping aquariums. However, when we market products to hobbyists under the guise of being able to avoid basic husbandry practices, we're selling ourselves short, IMHO.
As experienced hobbyists, we need to support new hobbyists with not just the generosity that we’re famous for, but the incredible passion that we curate. We need to give them the good and the bad information. We need to impress upon them that running without learning how to walk first is a really painful way to learn. Fishes, plants, and corals are not just “merchandise”, and the learning curve should not include exposing them to potentially fatal situations that could have been avoided had the neophyte hobbyist been properly instructed about their requirements from the get go. We need to let new hobbyists know that part of the joy of the hobby is learning about this stuff first hand..by doing it- and that the experiences gained during this process will not only be helpful- but enjoyable!
In an era of "instant gratification", it just seems that the aquarium hobby is a polar opposite. The vast majority of us "get" it, but there is a discouragingly large portion of neophytes within the aquarium-keeping hobby that hasn't seemed to have grasped the concept just yet.
Let's all do our best to help change that.
Stay enthusiastic. Stay creative. Stay supportive. Stay helpful.
And, as always...