5 Challenges to Effective Information Sharing in the Marine Aquarium Hobby

It's important to reach novice marine aquarists with good information early in their hobby experience

It’s important to reach novice marine aquarists with good information early in their hobby experience

A few weeks back, I had the privilege of speaking at the first annual Buckeye Reef Marine Expo down in Bowling Green, Ohio (which, by the way, was a tremendous success, thanks to the tireless efforts of Jesse Lambdin, Joe Perkins, and all the other folks at Buckeye Reef, who clearly went all out to make this a stellar debut event!). In the presentation, I discussed the role of information in promoting success in our hobby, particularly with respect to beginners. Among the various topics touched upon was “Challenges to Effective Information Sharing.”

Today, I’d like to share these challenges with you and invite your input on others that might belong on the list as well as what you think we could do to overcome them—not just here at Saltwater Smarts, but throughout the hobby.

Anyhow, here are some of the reasons we think we’re collectively “missing the boat” when it comes to reaching novice hobbyists with good information in a timely manner. But we’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject, so if you have anything to add, please don’t hesitate to share it in the comment section afterward.

1. The Echo-Chamber Effect

In this all-too-familiar scenario, hobby information—or misinformation—gets picked up and repeated ad nauseam across the internet (e.g., garlic cures Cryptocaryon irritans). It can be very difficult for the novice hobbyist to distinguish between fact and fiction, and the repetitive nature of the information lends it an air of authority that may or may not be justified.

2. TMI or TLI?

It can sometimes be challenging knowing where to draw the line between too much and too little information on a given hobby-related topic. Is it, perhaps, better to give novices a barebones level of information initially rather than bury them in unfamiliar terminology so they aren’t overwhelmed?

The analogy I used in my talk was that of a motor vehicle. In order to operate and maintain a car, you don’t necessarily need to understand the workings of the internal combustion engine. You do, however, need to know things like how to check and top off the oil and other fluids, what the dashboard indicators mean, when to take the vehicle in for routine maintenance, etc.

A similar argument could be made about many aquarium-related concepts. Take the protein skimmer for example. Novices really don’t need to understand what dissolved organic compounds or hydrophobic/hydrophilic molecules are. They do, however, need to know that it’s a good idea to use a skimmer and that it’s important to regularly empty all the gunk from the collection cup, clean out the skimmer neck, etc.

3. Our instant-gratification culture

In today’s culture, when we want something, we want it now. There’s a very brief window of opportunity to reach someone with helpful information between the time they get the idea to set up a marine tank and the time they head for the local fish store or online retailer to buy equipment and livestock.

4. Confirmation bias

Sometimes when hobbyists seek information, they do so with a good dose of confirmation bias, meaning, right or wrong, they’ve already made the decision to follow a particular course of action and they’re just looking for information or opinions that validate that decision. They’re really not interested in having their position challenged.

5. Caustic tone

This last one is a biggie in my book. Ask the wrong question on some online forums, and you’re apt to be met with serious condescension or outright hostility. I think this has the tendency to shut down discussion and chill honest inquiry because nobody wants to be made to feel foolish when what they need is reassurance. We sometimes forget what it was like to be a total newbie in a rather complicated, jargon-heavy, equipment-intensive hobby.


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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. Hey Jeff,

    I guess another question is : When do published information become defined as outdated? Who does that officially? Much of our hobby has been by anecdotal evidence to say they least with very few data driven studies and documents to support the practices. As you mentioned about the relationship of the use of garlic vs. ich? Is it purely the act of increasing the feeding of the fish to build up their immunity or does it really have some impact to increasing their appetite? etc… I’m sure there are many others but who decides what the current proper practices are today in this day in age?

    • Excellent point, Ellery! I think there is a tendency to keep going back to the same information “well” time and time again. (I know I’m guilty of it!) Though many of the go-to resources can still be considered reliable and authoritative, there are hobbyists making important strides every day that few people hear about. We definitely have to find a better way to balance what’s new with the tried-and-true.

  2. Hello Jeff,
    For myself I felt truly overwhelmed when I got into the hobby the Second Time. The First Time there really wasn’t much of an internet happening and books and magazines either spoke to the advanced hobbyist or those aimed at the Newbies were still filled with a lot of chemistry and technical jargon. This time around I discovered the Red Sea Reef Care Program. Like you stated in your article I don’t need to know how the engine works to drive the car. As I mastered the program I gained an insight into the chemistry and workings of my reef tank. I wish there were more systems and sources of information that took this “just follow this” approach to mastering reefkeeping. Now all I need is a consensus on how much light my corals need.., Monti’s love high light, no Monti’s love low light. My sister, my daughter, my sister, my daughter—Old movie reference that only some will get.

    • Hi Dave! I learned the hobby in much the same way–first mastering the basic “how to” and then filling in with the underlying theory as I progressed. I also recall that when I first entertained the idea of switching from freshwater to saltwater aquariums several decades ago, I was somewhat put off by the tone of the prevailing literature, which seemed to convey the sense that the saltwater side of the hobby was rather exclusive and beyond my capabilities. So glad I pushed forward anyway!

      Oh, and by the way, it’s Chinatown, right? He he!

  3. George Trauten says

    One of the most frustrating things I confront is beginning a thread only to see it go into a long back and forth confrontation between two who challenge each other’s opinions. As I have repurposed my small 58gal to focus more on sps I now spend more time reading the forums in order to learn more good practices. As you suggest I don’t care to become a “chemist” but just want to understand the basic requirements to be successful in the hobby. Fortunately being in Chicago I have a couple of masters I can ask for advice. Thanks for the information you provide.

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      It’s our pleasure, George! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I know exactly what you mean. Hobbyists sometimes forget that there are numerous paths one can take to get from Point A to Point B and there’s really no reason to squabble about it. Glad to hear you’ve got some reliable information sources there in Chicago.

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