Not too long ago, I was "talking shop" with a fellow aquarium hobbyist/vendor, who runs a company in a different "sector" of the industry. We talked about our businesses, the challenges, the customers, and the hobby in general. Around mid-point in the discussion, there was a strange pause. Why? Well, both of us were totally blown away by an enormous hunger for seemingly basic hobby information.
Checking back through the many emails, DMs, and other messages I've received over just the past few months was quite remarkable! I mean, the amount of questions we field on stuff that would be considered “primary” aquarium-keeping technique was overwhelmingly disproportionate to more advanced topics discussed on our social media, here in "The Tint", and during presentations at clubs.
Sure, as a hobby vendor, especially one who puts out a fair amount of content like I do, you're alternatively a friend, teacher, therapist, mentor, and always a fellow fish geek. It goes with the territory, and I love it.
Like, to say that I was surprised was an understatement. Sure, the questions about botanical-style aquarium stuff was a little more "focused", and there were quite a few really cool, esoteric, biotope and process-related queries- but the underlying questions of the vast majority of the them were focused on things like the nitrogen cycle, managing bioload, and what I call "remedial" questions about pH/hardness, stocking, and suitability of various materials for aquarium use.
Now, I like to say that there's no such thing as a stupid question. However, there is such a thing as a "fundamental question"- one which, although "wrapped" in a more advanced or arcane topic (like, botanical-style, blackwater aquariums), is essentially a question about a basic "tenant" of aquarium-keeping that should have been understood from day one in the hobby- long before the reader stumbled on us!
Yeah, it's sort of strange.
I mean, on one hand, you're happy to have people engaged and interested in the stuff we talk about here. However, on the other hand, you're often scratching your head, wondering why more hobbyists seem to lack an understanding of some of the most basic hobby concepts.
We talked about this concept for a long time, and tried to get our heads around it all. Why would this be? Why do so many hobbyists seem to lack an understanding of the basics? I sometimes wonder if the root cause is that there is just too much "distraction" lying just past the "entry level" to the hobby.
I mean, we’re in what I like to call the “Postmodern” era of aquarium keeping, where hobbyists are trying all sorts of advanced techniques and technology, and sharing rapidly via the internet. Everyone is an Instagram "influencer" or "brand evangelist" these days. And man, if you have a YouTube channel, you're instantly branded as a (gulp) "expert" by the masses.
Today's hobbyist is far different than the hobbyist of only a couple of decades ago, for many reasons. Aquatic hobbyists spend a collective fortune on the latest and greatest equipment: lighting technology, controllers, filters, pumps, etc. We are bombarded with lots of data on husbandry, animal care, setting up systems, etc. Advanced hobbyists- true "experts"- easily interact with outright beginners, thanks to the power of the internet.
Gadgets and other products promising to leapfrog you to success with minimal struggle are an iPad tap away.
Information is everywhere.
Well, maybe the information is everywhere, but I get this sneaking feeling that many hobbyists are not taking advantage of all of it.
I saw this in the reef aquarium world near daily: Why would reefers who have 200-gallon plus systems, with thousands of dollars in livestock and equipment be completely struggling, and have super-specific, detailed questions- and dramatic misconceptions about really basic shit like the nitrogen cycle, alkalinity, water quality, and stocking? Stuff that they should have acquired as fledgling hobbyists, or during their planning phases in the hobby adventure.
We're literally bombarded with shortcuts and hacks, and little emphasis is given to the far less sexy natural processes which control what happens in aquatic ecosystems.
How could this be?
Put a tack in that. We'll come back to it.
Another observation that I have is a sort os strange "misappropriation", or perhaps, a "disconnect" that many hobbyists seem to have about Nature and its processes (all of which influence what happens in our own aquariums). It seems that the cool "visuals" of beautiful aquariums online have given many an "exemption" from having to understand what goes on in the wild, and how it can influence their home aquariums.
It shouldn't be this way.
This is at least part of the reason why we at Tannin have invested so much time, energy, and money in sharing inspiring and (hopefully) interesting information about the wild tropical aquatic habitats of the year, and how their form and function can be incorporated into our aquariums. Oh, and how we can protect them from environmental threats... That's kind of important, right?
If we can't grasp what goes on here....
...then we'll never grasp what's going on in HERE!
Okay, I think we've identified some of the key issues here. Time for a little more analysis and ideas for how to fix them. And, well, I have a couple of thoughts and theories about why (Well, of course I do, right?)...
The Internet has changed everything
“Okay, Fellman, sure- go ahead and blame the ‘net. Slap Twitter, YouTube or Instagram again while you’re at it…”
The low hanging fruit? Well, perhaops- but..hear me out on this. I think that the internet and all of the information access it provides has been culture changing. It's amazing. However, some of the change in our hobby may not be for the better. It sort of exploits the less attractive parts of the human psyche, like impatience and desire.
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. It took some time, a bit of effort, and required us to take a tiny amount of initiative. And it took a lot of patience.
With the internet, all of this information that you had to go out to obtain is readily available on your phone or laptop, along with forums where a fledgling hobbyist can discuss the hobby with experienced veterans. You don't even have to leave your couch. This is amazing!
All this stuff...right at your fingertips! That's great. I love it.
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. "Lessons" that seem to show flashy results, with little discussion of the underlying "boring" stuff (like, you know the nitrogen cycle; shit like that...). You can just MOVE!
For just a few dollars 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’ll be able to go from thinking about starting an aquarium to a full-fledged, high-octane system with all of the latest expensive gear and livestock by next weekend!
So, maybe part of this is a cultural shift brought about by the era of e-commerce. Things are just easier now. Again, this is not "bad"- it's just indicative of where we are as a society.
We have become accustomed to wanting something and getting it…fast. Why research the underlying processes which control what happens in your tank? I mean, there are products and equipment available that can give you “professional results” with virtually "plug and play setup."
You can bypass all of that boring 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.
Perhaps even too easy?
Have we simply decided, in this fast-paced era, to just bypass the “learning curve?” Are we as a culture (and as businesses) so eager to get new hobbyists into our "purchasing funnels" 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? It's a valid question, although a bit harsh, I suppose.
Who has the right to dictate THAT? Besides, why do you need to "pay dues?"
On the other hand, are we exposing hobbyists to financial ruin, and most important- hapless animals to death because the newbie wants the rare cichlid or deepwater Acropora and “should” be able to keep it because of her crazy filter, fancy additives, protein skimmer, controllable LED lighting, DC water pumps, and a capable electronic controller monitoring the whole thing can help?
This dovetails nicely with my next theory:
Why bother to go the the effort to fully understand the physiological and environmental aspects of what the plants and fishes need? The equipment will take care of it, right? Besides, we don't have the time...right?
You could carry this "logic" to the "nth degree" and look at larger "cultural shifts", right? I mean, there are parallels here. We could argue that 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. I laugh every time I see those commercials for "meal kits" on TV. You know, 'cause it's easier to open a few packs, heat the stuff up, and you're done. Instead of going to the refrigerator, gathering the ingredients, heating them up, and...
Maybe we’re too busy?
Oh, wait- I get it. The idea is that these things get you the "finished product" without the underlying tedium or learning the processes/techniques involved to get them.
We're too busy...Yet, we will spend a fortune fixing the problems brought on by some of these "advances" and the gaps they've left in our knowledge of the hobby. Or worse- we'll just quit?
Think I’m overreacting?
I don’t think so. I’ve been approached as a vendor numerous times 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 know many fellow vendors and LFS people have had the same experiences.
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 to school through 6 feet of snow..." mentality. It's not about, "Newbies have to pay their dues! They don't have the RIGHT to success.."
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 aquarium-keeping will help. Vendors online- same thing applies. Hobby forums have a responsibility for perpetuating a responsible, educational culture. Too much is at stake. When PIJAC stats show that the average person 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.
This is a “cultural shift”
Pure and simple…In a world where people are supposedly not able to retain more than 280 characters of information, and where there is a apparently an “algorithm” for pretty much everything, some prognosticators will assert that we 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 tank, apparently we 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 or products can get us where we want, and what fishes, corals, and plants are available.
I don't buy any of this, but the problem is, we as a hobby tend to function as if this is, indeed, the way things are.
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.
This is a huge thing 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 even more expensive equipment purchases). You’ll see pics of the finished tanks and healthy fishes and corals…
All very interesting and even 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 coral frags he just added are dying in this brand new, state-of-the-art tank. Often, they'll blame a "bad batch of salt" or a pump that doesn't quite work as advertised. Yet, the continued questions and ensuing discussions make you wonder why this ill-informed, yet apparently financially comfortable 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. Just because you’re a great DIY guy, or have disposable income to buy everything you see advertised online for your 400-gallon reef tank, it doesn’t make you a knowledgeable or experienced hobbyist. It just doesn’t.
Algae, the nitrogen cycle, fish diseases- none give a shit about that!
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.
It doesn't HAVE to be that way, either.
Look, I’m not trying to be the self-appointed "guardian of the aquarium hobby." I’m not simply "calling us out." I'm not lamenting progress in our civilization...I’m asking for us to look at this stuff realistically, however. To sort of hold ourselves accountable. Yes, 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. 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 likely not enough. I think that I need to do better. I will continue to write more about basic sort of stuff and how it impacts our speciality than I do about whatever the heck is on my mind?
Does this help? I Don't know.
I do know that we all need to tell hobbyists stuff like it is, without sugar-coating everything. . There are dozens of posts and “build threads” on forums and Facebook groups that DO provide great information to hobbyists, along with plenty of articles by experienced aquarists discussing any number of arcane and fascinating aquarium-related topics. Great YouTube channels, like that of our good friend, Rachel O'Leary, which provides amazing information that will flat-out make you a better hobbyist.
Yet, for all of this, we still see what appears to be a very "superficial"understanding of the hobby by so many hobbyists. 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.
We need to stress this more.
Look, we all make mistakes. Part of the hobby and the learning curve. No one seems to want to talk about that. No one wants to present the "dark side" of the hobby now and then. We need to talk about this stuff. Sure, it's more fun to just show the kick-ass finished aquarium and it's award-winning aquascape.
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 possibly letting down a whole generation of hobbyists. Yikes, I’m giving us a bit of an 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.
How does this get solved?
Well, it starts with mentoring. It not only starts with getting people excited not only at the end result- owning a “slice of the bottom”- it also 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 gadgets- it’s about the latest information on fundamental care of animals. We should share more information and pictures about the amazing wild habitats from which our fishes come, and discuss how these same processes apply in our aquariums- and how we can replicate many aspects of Nature in our own homes.
It 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- compelling many hobbyists to seek out the answers they want-or worse- the answers they want to hear- from unvetted sources online.
The reality is, most fish stores and hobby vendors do give invaluable, free hands-on advice. Most attempt to instill a passion that goes beyond just shilling products, an accusation that is often unfairly leveled upon them. Enough is enough. Just like acknowledging that not all online coral vendors are Photoshop-abusing, money-grabbing deceptive-business-practicing sharks, or every E-Bay aquarium advertiser is not a no-service, deceptive sleazebag working out of the back of his car...we cannot keep pinpointing 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.
Making positive hobby changes also starts by continuing to emphasize basic care...Example: How many hobbyists do you know who really embrace a quarantine protocol for any fish added to their tanks? 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?
Human nature? I guess.
As aquarists, 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 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 beginners know that part of the joy of the hobby is learning about this stuff first hand..by doing it.
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 the aquarium keeping hobby that hasn't seemed to have grasped the concept just yet.
Let's do our best to help change that.
We have it easily in our power to "fix" this...It starts with really easy stuff:
Support your LFS. Support your fave online vendor. Support your fellow hobbyists. Actively recruit members for your local aquarium club. Remember, there are no real "hacks"- no shortcuts- in this game. Yet, there are always processes. Learn about them. Teach them. Enjoy the journey.
Stay inspired. Stay excited. Stay motivated. Stay inquisitive. Stay helpful. Stay generous.
And always Stay Wet.