Internet is truly a wonderful thing. Discussion boards such
as Reef Central have been some of my most valuable resources
in my quest to become a successful reef aquarist. It was through
Reef Central that I first learned of the existence of such
conferences as the Marine Aquarium Conference of North America
(MACNA) and the International Marine Aquarium Conference (IMAC).
Thanks to their discussion boards, I've had the pleasure of
taking online classes with Dr. Ron Shimek and Eric Borneman.
I own a bookcase full of invertebrate, reef and reef aquarium
literature, much of which was recommended on the discussion
boards. I know that without Reef Central I would not have
achieved the level of success with my tank that I have.
In order to fully realize the benefit of
this outstanding resource, it is important to learn the art
of asking questions to maximize responses. A few years ago
life in the relatively small electronic community of Reef
Central moved at a much slower pace. Members could easily
scan all the forums each day. As our community continues to
grow, this is no longer possible. Each question now has to
compete with hundreds of new topics daily for the attention
of folks who might be able to help. With this in mind, I have
put together a few guidelines for asking questions on the
Asking Questions on the Board
State the question clearly. You might be surprised
by the number of long and detailed posts written by people
who spend a great deal of time and effort to describe
their tank or a strange animal they have encountered.
The only problem is they never actually ask a question;
the reader is left to infer what the writer needs. People
who are trying to help don't want to waste their time
answering the wrong question. People with a problem don't
want to waste their time reading answers to the wrong
question. Stating the question clearly eliminates wasted
effort for both parties.
Keep it simple. Remember that the people you are
asking for help probably have full-time jobs (after all,
we all need plenty of money to support our obsession),
families and other obligations. If you make the post too
long and complicated, many folks won't take the time to
read it and will pass it by in favor of shorter, more
direct questions. If you have several questions that are
not closely related, try asking them in separate posts.
You'll get a better response.
Avoid the phrase "all my tank parameters are
good." "Good" is a relative term. Specific
gravity of 1.022 in a fish only system is considered "good,"
while in a reef tank it is considered too low. If you're
having any kind of problem with your tank or its inhabitants,
ask the question clearly, then give as many numerical
data as possible. Specify the temperature and salinity
of your water and give the values of any tests you've
performed such as ammonia, nitrite and nitrate. This information
may be critical to solving the problem at hand.
Ask your question in the right forum. Reef Central
has a wide variety of forums and the number of posts each
day is amazing. Many members have to limit the number
of forums they visit. Therefore, if you ask a question
about a sick fish in the "General Reef Discussion"
forum, you may, or may not, get a helpful response. If
the same question is asked in the "Fish Disease"
forum, however, you are much more likely to get help from
folks who have a special interest or special knowledge
of fish disease.
Use punctuation and capitalization. Here's a classic
example of the importance of punctuation and capitalization.
An English teacher writes the following phrase on the
board: "woman without her man is nothing," and
asks the class to punctuate the sentence. The man writes:
"Woman, without her man, is nothing." The woman
writes: "Woman! Without her, man is nothing."
If you want a clear and helpful response, make sure to
be as clear as possible in posing your question. Also,
the use of punctuation and capitalization is like manners;
it is how we show respect for one another. If someone
is going to take the time and effort in assisting you,
you owe it to him to take the time and effort to use proper
punctuation and capitalization.
Include pictures. This is especially critical
if your question is a "what's this?" A picture
is easily worth a thousand words and in many cases it
is the only way anyone can help you. Questions such as,
"I found this purple fuzzy thing in my tank. What
is it?" are simply impossible to answer without a
photograph. (Heck, they're often impossible to answer
even with a photograph! You may have an animal in your
tank that has not yet been described by science.)
Once I reached a certain point in my own
development, I felt it was time to give something back to
the Reef Central community. I started answering questions
on the board. As time went on, I found it harder and harder
to read the posts about keeping a school of yellow tangs in
a small tank, the deaths of three anemones in three months,
or the new hobbyist lamenting the decline of a feather star,
without getting emotional. These emotions ranged from anger
over unscrupulous dealers selling inappropriate animals to
uneducated aquarists, to a deep sadness that someone would
spend hundreds (to thousands!) of dollars setting up a reef
tank, but wouldn't invest the time or money to buy and read
a few books first. The tedium of reading the same question
a hundred times or the frustration with people looking for
the "quick and easy way," can certainly make you
want to throw in the towel.
Some experienced aquarists, when confronted
with these frustrations, have given up on the discussion board
and disappeared. Other aquarists have become self-righteous,
feeling justified in criticizing and belittling others or
touting their method as the "right way." In my opinion,
neither of these paths is productive. If knowledgeable aquarists
don't share their expertise and inspire others in positive
ways, who will? However, in order for me to continue helping
others without getting discouraged or worked into a lather
every time I went browsing in the forums, I came up with the
following list of strategies for answering questions on the
Answering Questions on the Board
Start with the assumption that most folks are trying
to do the right thing. I don't believe that many aquarists
desire, or can afford, to kill animals just to replace
them. Just like the phrase that says you are "innocent
until proven guilty," I think it's in the best interest
of people, and animals alike, to assume the best intentions
of our fellow aquarists until proven otherwise.
"Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."
We've all had animals die due to our ignorance or error
in judgment. My husband reminds me of my early anemone
purchase any time I start to wax indignant about how they
are not appropriate for beginners. A little empathy for
the feelings of sadness or guilt at having made a mistake
that cost an animal's life goes a long way in dealing
with the people who ask questions on the board.
In all honesty, it is not necessary to be an invertebrate
biologist to have a healthy reef aquarium. While I
encourage everyone to read and learn as much as they can,
I can't reasonably expect everyone to be obsessive about
this hobby. I found I could share my knowledge with other
aquarists without jumping on my soap box and alienating
my audience, or writing volumes of technical information
to intimidate or bore them.
Every question deserves an answer. The volume
of posts and the variety of forums on our board can be
overwhelming. Even so, I try to answer unanswered threads
at least twice a week. I pay special attention to those
threads in the "New to the Hobby" forum. If
I do nothing but recommend a book, point the person to
another forum or suggest a keyword for a search, I think
it's important that all questions are acknowledged. However
If you don't have something valuable to say, say
Remember there is a person asking the question.
The anonymity of the board can cause folks to abandon
their manners and consideration for others' feelings.
People routinely write comments to one another that I
don't believe they would ever say in a face-to-face conversation.
(This is one of the great benefits of attending conferences
such as MACNA and IMAC. Connecting faces with the names
and avatars from the board helps you remember the people
behind the posts.)
Don't assume they know you're joking. One of
the hardest things about communicating on the message
boards is the fact that I can't see the people I'm talking
to. Therefore, they can't see the wry smile on my face
or the mischievous twinkle in my eyes while I type my
response. All they have to go on is what's written on
the page and what they happen to read between the lines.
If it's an obviously inflammatory post, ignore it.
Those few who thrive on conflict, if no one reacted, would
get bored and go somewhere else.
By following these simple strategies,
I think Reef Central can continue to be as valuable a resource
to future aquarists as it always has been for me.