Notes from the Trenches with Sandy Shoup

Discussion Board Tips

The 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 board.

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 discussion board.

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 nothing!

  • 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.

If you have any questions about this article, please visit my author forum on Reef Central.

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Discussion Board Tips by Sandra Shoup -