WARNING: I'll come right out and say it- today's piece may anger a lot of people. It may come across as arrogant, egotistical- whatever. It's my opinion, and I realize that a lot of you won't share this. However, I feel it's something that needs to be said. So please, leave now and come back another day if you're not up to seeing this rant about some hardcore truths, without any holding back.
I warned ya'.
This past decade has seen some massive changes in the aquarium hobby. It’s seen technique, concepts, and products come to fruition that have changed the aquarium hobby forever. Some incredible innovations.
The internet, with social media and hobby forums, has led to the rapid dissemination of ideas, techniques, and information. Hobbyists can inspire and share faster and more efficiently than ever before. Brands and aquarium movements can gain awareness with tremendous speed.
It’s lead to the development of an entirely new class of “hobbyist”, a career known as “content creator” or “influencer.” With a smart phone and fast WiFi, anyone with a gift for gab, some hobby awareness, and the ability to create can, with some effort, position themselves as an authority on just about any hobby topic, with broad reach and, well- influence over a lot of aquarium hobbyists.
It’s an amazing time and quite exciting. The barriers to publishing- editors, reviewers, etc.-which existed in the past- are essentially gone. There are no longer “gatekeepers” controlling the messages.
Opportunity to share is everywhere.
Yet, there is a "dark side."
Because there are no “editors” or “peer reviewers”, the accuracy and quality of the information being produced today is all over the map. Because someone who fancies themselves a social media “influencer” might produce snazzy, entertaining, sexy videos with cool music and crisp editing, they can easily amass significant followings on their chosen platform rapidly.
The scary part is that, because the “influencer” may have such a large following for whatever reason, a certain form of trust and implied “authority” is formed with the audience.
"Scary? Really? Why is that, Fellman?"
Think about it. Think about the idea "authority" in our hobby.
Authority. It's alluring and powerful...
It also requires a lot of responsibility.
A responsibility that some may not understand, or recognize.
The role of "influencer" seems so cool; and it is. I mean, you can get paid by others to talk about stuff!
However, the fact is, some “influencers” may have little more than the most basic understanding or familiarity with the topic being discussed, and because there is this...familiarity and implied trust created with his/her audience, the uninformed get the impression that this person is an “expert” on whatever topic they disseminate!
Often, it’s the “new” idea or hot, trendy topic that lends itself well to the production of the influencer’s splashy videos, too. In the very worst situations, much of the disseminated "information" is shallow, and of little substance, other thank, "Look at my cool___________ aquarium!" ( insert trendy aquarium type in the blank space)
We see this a lot when it comes to botanical-style aquariums and reef tanks, in particular. Because they both lend themselves to great visuals, both of these hobby specialities are often featured prominently by hobby "influencers."
Recently, I've seen a few of these videos, particularly discussing "blackwater aquariums"or "botanical aquariums", and I wasn't just flat-out disappointed by the lack of useful substance- I was shocked by the obvious, complete lack of understanding of these topics by the alleged "influencers" who produced them.
One recent video which was brought to my attention by a friend featured the creator adding a bunch of leaves to (an already weak, and completely off-base) representation of a major South American blackwater river, and then commenting in disappointment and surprise several days later that his leaves (which were added in large numbers to his sterile, brand-new aquarium) started to cloud the water and produce biofilms.
Now, anyone who's followed us here, or on any of the social media channels, podcasts, or magazine articles we've produced on this topic, or even has basic knowledge of aquarium ecology, or those who keep botanical-style tanks, would immediately recognize the fact that this guy was absolutely clueless about what he was getting into.
He was expecting an incredible, tinted and earthy-looking tank from the start, without any acknowledgement or understanding of the process behind what he was doing. It was a classic case of someone being enchanted by the sexy look, and failing to grasp- or convey to his audience- what it actually takes to get there. He just jumped on the trendy "botanical-style aquarium" bandwagon and ran with it.
And in the process, IMHO, he did a HUGE disservice to anyone who was contemplating such an aquarium. His complete ignorance perpetuated all of the misinformation and fears, and lack of patience that many of us who work in this hobby speciality have spent years trying to address.
How does THAT help the hobby?
Why did this guy just jump blindly into something he was clueless about, and push the most superficial aspects of an approach which requires so much more understanding? What other hobby topics has this clown covered in the same ignorant, vapid manner? Just how much damage has this "influencer" actually done over time?
In this case, some of the viewers who had an understanding of botanical-style aquariums actually called bullshit on him in the comments, which was amusing and refreshing. Yet, he quickly deleted them without addressing them at all.
Yet, not entirely surprising. They spoke to his glaring misunderstanding what he had done and attempted to present with an air of undisputed authority. They made him look bad. Worse than he did by producing the video in the first place.
Okay, I'm sounding a bit bitter., right?
"Bitter" is not the word that I'm feeling, It's more like "angry" and "disappointed", because he had an opportunity to really turn on some people to something cool. He could have said, "Hmm...why is this happening?" What if he humbly answered himself and said, "Likely because I didn't understand what I was getting into!"
Think of what he could have done with that! He could have made a video of him consulting with people who actually knew what they were doing in this area. He could have solicited interaction from his audience...He could've swallowed his ego and simply had knowledgable guests...Instead, his arrogance and ignorance simply resulted in a missed opportunity to create and share a super-authentic, human learning experience.
Why do people scream loudly and authoritatively about shit they are clueless about?
I mean, I wouldn't create a video of me planting a bunch of rare Cryptocoryne in a brand new tank, filled with clean, right-out-of-the-bag decorative aquarium sand, and then conclude that Crypts are "difficult to keep" because they're all dying in my tank! I have a simple philosophy: I don't talk about shit I don't understand, unless I'm trying to show that I don't understand, and using the opportunity to share the process of learning how to do whatever it is that I'm featuring.
If I did a video on something that I wasn't knowledgeable about, I'd show my research, and feature discussions with the experts in the field. Imagine seeing your fave influencer learning for his/her self? It'd be amazing! THAT kind of thing has huge hobby value- and it highlights the skills of research, patience, and the value of humility.
Yeah, I sure as hell don't act like I'm an authority on shit I don't understand, just for the sake of "checking off the box" that I did a piece on "what's cool this month" in the aquarium hobby. ("Non-photosynthetic gorgonian tank- check!")
No one should.
Now, look-this is NOT an indictment of everyone who produces a YouTube video, Tik Tok, Instagram Reels, etc. Many of the people who share content are among the most knowledgeable and talented people in the aquarium hobby. The stuff they produce is beautiful, educational, AND entertaining.
And it's authoritative- 'cause they know what the hell they're talking about.
Rather, this little rant is targeted at the people who produce vapid, shallow, content which glosses over virtually everything but the aesthetics, in the interest of quickly amassing views and followers, by displaying the most superficial aspects of the "trendy" approach or technique being featured. Why do they do it this way, you ask?
It's all about exposure. It's exacerbated, IMHO, by manufacturers who sponsor these people, and feel that numbers of views equals people who see their product on display. As if simple exposure is the only important metric. And sometimes, ironically, it's the loudest, most visible content creators who are the ones least competent to discuss the topics that they're covering.
And they should know better.
The hobby doesn't need just more pretty pictures. It also needs reliable, authoritative information. And a lot of these "creators" simply "punt" it off to someone else to do the non-sexy or "boring" stuff, 'cause they'll claim it's "not their jam" or whatever. And guess what? That mindset isn't helpful to anyone- especially not their audiences, who take their word as gospel, and who get the impression that, because there is no mention of the hard parts of what they're doing- that it's all "unicorns and rainbows" and is just super easy.
If you want to have "influence"- give people the real information. Don't just mail it in with a flashy, 'gram ready tidbit of worthlessness.
When we as hobbyists and brands support this crap, we're helping to perpetuate the creation of a class of ill-informed hobbyists who simply don't get the whole picture of the topic discussed. And we encourage a generation of "influencers" who feel it's not their responsibility to actually educate their viewers, all the while while implying overtly that their content is...educational... It's maddening!
Who's fault is this?
Well, first off, it's the "creators" who crank out drivel.
It's the fault of their egos. Level up, guys. Calling your asses out.
And it's also the fault of brands who support some of these people with product, money, etc., simply because they get a "tag" on Insta or Facebook or whatever, without properly vetting them. Simply because they're popular.
I've seen a LOT of videos by "influencers" who are "supported" by whatever brand, who not only clearly don't understand the subjects that they are talking about, but who also have obviously minimal understanding of the product or brand being featured. They actually HURT the brand more than they help it.
How fucking stupid is that?
And it's pervasive in the aquarium hobby.
When we started collaborating with fellow aquarists, we made it a point to seek out people who actually understand the stuff we do.
I'm proud say that the people who we feature as "influencers" at Tannin actually practice our area of hobby specialty. We vet them by more than just looking at their viewing metrics on YouTube or follower count on Instagram, or whatever. We look for the deeper connection.These people actually know what the hell they're talking about because they live this stuff.
And we're not alone, of course. There are many, MANY brands who have incredibly talented "street teams" and influencers who do their level best to help everyone who watches their content understand the important stuff. It's a huge win for the aquarium hobby.
SPECIAL NOTE, WITH LOVE, TO BRANDS WHO DON"T GET THIS: The brand/influencer relationship is not rocket science. Just work with people who know what you do and understand it- because it's what THEY do. People who use your stuff because they love it and understand what it does. This makes them invaluable at communicating about your product's benefits.
Stop supporting idiots. Open your eyes and look at things objectively when evaluating these people.
Simple as that. It helps not only your brand, but the entire hobby when you do this! Think long term. We'll develop better-informed, more realistic hobbyists, who stay in for the long run this way.
Shame on brands who onboard some of these "infleuncers/creators" strictly based on their large audience or their ability to flashily sling product and produce a slick video. That’s not “influencing”- that’s “carnival barking”, if you ask me. Building up your brand based on flash instead of substance, produced by a person who actually understands how your product works, is an absurdity.
Vet these people! Don't get so excited about some"influencer" with a splashy IG or YouTube presence masturbating over your product that you don't bother to see if they actually understand your product.
It's not that hard.
Otherwise, we continue to have a critical mass of people on social media producing watered-down drivel who fail to do more than entertain with some fancy visuals.
Don't believe me?
Watch a few random videos produced by aquarium hobby influencers. And then look at the comments and questions from viewers, many of whom rely seemingly exclusively on the people who produce the content on these channels for aquarium hobby advice and information.
Some are really ill-informed, yet proudly announce that they're going to set up a tank just like the one in the video! If they weren't ill-informed, they wouldn't be asking some of the absurd questions that they ask. In fact, many of them are "Aquarium Keeping 101"-type questions, for which anyone who has even the most modest amount of fish keeping experience should already have the answers.
In addition to showing a frightfully low levels of understanding of the hobby, many of the followers are clearly waiting for their social media influencer "guru" to just say the word about what to do....And more often than not these questions are not even answered. Not even the lazy suggestion to pickup a book, hit up Google, or just talk to the LFS...
At least take time to answer some of the complex questions, for goodness sake. These people are your audience!
And we wonder why people are dropping out of the hobby faster than ever?
If you want to be an "influencer", know what the hell your talking about, rather than just issuing a flashy, low-substance-level, buzzword-heavy regurgitation of second or third hand facts. Don't gloss over the important stuff because it isn't "sexy enough." Ask yourself what your intention is? Is it to be a social media celebrity, or is it to actually share knowledge to educate fellow hobbyists? Be honest.
Look, there are plenty of influencers who do just that. They're amazing, talented people with great intentions and a high degree of enthusiasm for the hobby. However, their messages are increasingly being buried in the noise from a whole slew of crap-producing wanabes. Yeah, really.
Don't believe me? Ask someone the talented well-known "stars"-the real authorities in our hobby with proven track records and firsthand experience, what they think. They'll tell you the same thing.
People ask me all the time how to stand out in the social media universe of the aquarium hobby as an authority on a subject you know a lot about. Now, I certainly don't have all of the answers, and I don't have a million followers, either. However, our followers understand stuff.
I can tell you that one of the best ways to stand out is to simply produce good, authoritative, quality content. And to do it every single day. Consistently. Educate yourself. Practice. Gain experience, and then share your truth. Don't regurgitate what other people are saying. Don't authoritatively recommend something unless you understand it and have tried it yourself.
Talk about the hard stuff. The not-so-sexy stuff.
Share your actual good, bad, and ugly experiences. Show your failures, your tanks with out-of-control algae or sick fishes. Be authentic. Tell it like it is. Maybe it doesn't make quite as sexy a video as just showing a pile of rocks and driftwood spread out on the bamboo plank of your loft apartment, and then a quick cut to the finished product does- but it will help more hobbyists than you will initially understand.
Someone asked me what I'm most proud of about what we do here. It's the fact that we didn't just create a cool brand with good visuals- we helped to create a movement in the hobby. And we did it by authentically sharing our experience. By repetition of many of the same topics. By covering the not-so-flashy stuff.
And it paid off, because so many of you are now enjoying this unique hobby sector and creating beautiful, inspiring aquariums every day. Expanding upon the techniques we've discussed, and running with new ideas we never even thought of. Making "mental shifts."
That, to me- is "influence."
So to all of you creators and influencers- both existing, and those contemplating taking on that role- do it for the right reasons. Do it well. Do it thoroughly, methodically, and take the time. Share what you know- truthfully, authentically, and completely.
Because you're pretty damn good at what you do, especially when you DO it.
Stay creative. Stay honest. Stay diligent. Stay humble. Stay authentic...
And Stay Wet.