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 Post subject: The Problem With Bonsai Forums
PostPosted: Sun Apr 26, 2009 12:07 am 
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The Problem With Bonsai Forums
by Will Heath *

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I was inspired to write this article after reading Vance Wood's article, "The Problem With American Bonsai" which caused quite a stir in the Internet bonsai community and later, directly led to the creation of the "North America vs. Europe" bonsai contest at AoB. Vance's article was later published in the American Bonsai Society Journal and the contest turned out to be a success unimagined by supporters and critics alike. This was truly a contest watched by the entire world; even BCI published a write up on the article as well as some of the winning entries.

Vance hit upon some cold hard truths about the state of bonsai in America and, as most successful articles will do, caused many people to reevaluate their own beliefs.

The internet offers the bonsai artist an incredible wealth of information on almost any bonsai subject, by artists from many countries, and it acts as a searchable archive of wisdom from not only the currently active artists, but from those of the past as well. Unfortunately, this valuable information is often diluted by information that is bastardized, misquoted, or just plain wrong.

Sadly, most of the valuable knowledge on the forums is commonly ignored and many of the useful tools the Internet forums do offer are often left unused.

It is my hope, with the following article, to bring to light many of the faults I see with Internet bonsai forums and, by exposing them, perhaps inspire a few people to take action. The smallest changes in the community can grow, snowball, and eventually affect the whole. Our choice as bonsai artists is simply if we want to help change the Internet bonsai community for the better, or for the worse. By doing nothing, we only hurt ourselves in the end and support the problems with our continued silence.

It should be noted that I have concentrated on mainly English speaking bonsai forums and the problems associated with them. I have done this because many of the problems covered just do not exist on other non-English bonsai forums and because most of the readers of this English language article are familiar with the English speaking forums I write about here.



The Pain of Learning

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Angelo Bronzine
Image in public domain


What would you say if the Internet offered a place where some of the most respected masters in the world were available to you? Masters of Penjing, Bonsai, Bonsai Pottery, Tropicals, and so on, who volunteered their valuable time to answer your questions directly and to also give styling advice, and critiques, while guiding your efforts. Would you say that it had value and would indeed be an incredible resource on the Internet?

What if this place was open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, with no waiting for a scheduled visit, event, or class?

What if it was offered free of charge, was not invite only, welcomed all levels of experience, and was moderated by these very same masters?

I cannot imagine a person who would not say that this would be a valuable tool for anyone interested in furthering their knowledge of the art of bonsai. Beginners would be assured that some of the most experienced artists in the world were answering their questions, while advanced practitioners would have the rare opportunity to have their creations critiqued by a master, or even to exchange ideas with those on his own level.

Yet, this exact type of Internet Classroom has been in existence for a couple months over at the Knowledge of Bonsai Forum ( http://www.knowledgeofbonsai.org ), and with the exception of a few users, it has been grossly underused.

The reason could be a lack of knowledge, intimidation, and/or leveling. Let us look at these three possible reasons.

  • A lack of knowledge about this great resource could be part of the reason for its slow start. We have noticed a steady increase in activity there, slow, but steady. If this is the reason, or part of the reason, then time will tell.

  • It could be that the masters there intimidate many people; this would not surprise me, as the Art of Bonsai Project receives many emails every month thanking us for what we are doing, but also stating that they do not personally feel qualified to post there, yet. Sadly, many feel embarrassed to post there, thinking that they are not qualified to do so.

    However, I fail to see this as a valid excuse, the purpose of education is to seek out those who are actually experienced, with the results to show it, and learn from them. For many people, seeking out the very experienced is difficult in person; some may never have the opportunity to work with such a person in their entire lifetime. Some people may have access to masters, but seldom masters from other countries, unless it is for just a few hours at a workshop. Regional influences control, for most people, which masters they have to choose from.

    The Internet, especially the KoB Classroom, offers everyone the chance to converse with, and ask for advice from world-class masters from all over the world. Intimidation, if anything, should be far less of an excuse on-line, as the student asks for answers or advice and receives such professionally in an environment geared toward learning. If they find their current forum does not offer a professional learning environment, they need to change forums. The only real problem is sorting the pretenders from those who are actually experienced, but this problem can be simply solved by looking at the actual creations of the artist, anyone who claims great experience should have more than one bonsai they created themselves from scratch, that shows the level of experience claimed. If you then find yourself slightly intimidated, good, you found the right forum that will challenge you and cause you to step out of your comfort zone.

  • I personally think that "leveling" plays a very big role in the decision by many people not to seek out the best advice from the most experienced. Leveling, to me, means seeking a level in the community where there is the least amount of conflict or pain for the person. For example, if a mildly advanced person posts one of their creations on a largely beginner based forum, such as BT, they receive praise, some "ohs" and "ahs" and maybe some shallow suggestions. Sure, occasionally a more experienced person, or someone who thinks they are, will dive a little deeper, but the praise is a good buffer for any suggestion that they could do better. In fact, if a person responds to a post truthfully on these forums, without sugarcoating the advice, they are often chastised for being rude or for discouraging the poster.

    If the same person posts the same creation at a forum with a more advanced base, they must consider that there will not be as many "ohs" and "ahs" and that they may well have to face serious discussion of their creation, meaning to many, their own talent. Their creation may be critiqued by a world-class master, or by someone with very much experience, and even by those at their own level. In the KoB Classroom for example, Robert Steven would comment on the tree if it were posted in the styling advice section and he may well pull it into the critique section where he alone could comment on it. Yet, they can be assured that the advice will be straightforward, honest, and with little, if any, sugarcoating.

    Of the two choices above, the first example would have the least possibility of causing conflict or pain, but it would also have the least possibility of producing anything educational or inspiring. This brings the old saying, "no pain, no gain" to mind, doesn't it?

    Yet, the fault lies in the fact that most Internet bonsists do not actually post their creations for critique, suggestions, or advice, regardless if they appear to do so. Instead, they post with a "see what I did" attitude and often get offended and very defensive if anyone offers less than congratulatory comments. They appear not to want to learn at all, but instead only to be told they are geniuses of design and innovation. We see this quite often in the debates on rules; newcomers often dismiss the rules and refer to quotes or bonsai that seemingly ignore such rules. By claiming to be outside the rules, they justify their own work and avoid the pain of realizing that they know very little and that creating good bonsai is a time consuming activity which not only requires hard work, a lot of study, but also talent.

    Learning is painful, mainly because doing so shows us how little we actually do know, a fact that many do not want to be reminded of, especially in front of others. Some people dislike school, or change, new things maybe, some will actually quit a job because new ways are introduced. No one enjoys being told the bonsai they thought was a masterpiece needs work, or should be restyled differently, or heavens forbid, should be put into the ground for a few years. Some people, especially if they have claimed to be experienced in the past, will avoid a learning situation where they may be exposed as "not quite so experienced" at all costs.

    Beginners do not want to be reminded they are beginners and some "Internet Masters" who bask in their role of giving advice to newbies on forums, do not want to have their own bonsai put under a truly experienced artist eyes. For these people, learning equals pain, best avoided at all costs.

    So leveling comes into play, it is far easier and less painful for a semi-experienced person to continue posting on a beginner forum, giving advice and getting some newbie respect, than it is for them to face the critique of someone who is very experienced. It is also far easier for the beginner to post on a beginner forum where other beginners and the only semi-experienced will comment on their efforts.

    Leveling stunts growth and holds back anyone who practices it. It amazes me that the same people who constantly preach that a person must study under a master or buy near-finished bonsai in order to learn bonsai, will turn around and do the exact opposite on the Internet. They study with beginners, on beginner forums, and wallow in the pale limelight of being the experienced person on the forum.

    Leveling can be best compared to the crabs in the bucket story I have repeated quite often on the forums. If, when collecting crabs, you put a single crab into a bucket, it will quickly climb out. However, if there are other crabs in the bucket, when the crab tries to climb out, the others will pull it back in. Many people on the forums, especially those that thrive on others thinking they are experienced, will quickly pull back down anyone who attempts to rise above the norm (climb out of the bucket).

    If you want to learn more about bonsai, if you want to improve your own bonsai, if you want to become more experienced, then you must take a step up, fight off the crabs that try to pull you down. You must become uncomfortable again, you must become the beginner again, the person with the least experience. You absolutely must stop leveling and step out of the runt. Work with the masters, converse with them, ask them questions, and have them analyze your efforts, most importantly, listen to them. Stop supporting the pretend masters, no results should clearly mean, no students.


Hang The Elitist, Shoot the Literati, Ignore the Master

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Hopfer, Daniel (vers 1470-1536)
Image in public domain


On the internet, it seems that whenever anyone challenges the "leveled" community or dares to go outside of its self-restricting borders, they are chastised, called elitist, and criticized at every opportunity by those few who have the most to lose if people stopped "leveling."

When we first started up the Art of Bonsai Project, we had a vision of offering only high quality galleries, profiles, and articles that dealt exclusively with artistic creation and theory as it pertains to bonsai. This was something that had never been done before and of which the likes of had never been seen anywhere. It was far outside of the norm in bonsai forums and it was meant to break away from the "leveling" that was all too common on other forums. From the very day we opened the doors, we were called elitists. It was said that we were not qualified to manage such a project and an owner of BT even created a mock up of AoB titled "The Smarter Bonsai Project" that attempted to make fun of the seriousness of the project.

It was our goal to offer serious discussion and education on a much neglected, yet immensely important aspect of bonsai, Art. At the time of AoB's creation it was impossible to have a serious discussion on art in most of the internet bonsai forums without the self-proclaimed "hobbyist" (read those not creating artistic bonsai) disrupting the conversation continually with what is now look widely upon as silliness.

Our biggest critics were and still are the few people who bath in the limelight as "experienced" bonsaists at the beginner forums. We challenged their knowledge, their experience, and their comfort level; needless to say, they did not like it at all. How dare we raise the level of Internet bonsai? Who did we think we were? Didn't we know that bonsai was just a craft, after all, if it is only a craft, then everyone is excellent, all bonsai are valiant efforts, and no one could be better than another, it's not for "keepsies" right? This mentality can still be found in those who desperately try to convince anyone that will listen that everyone is talented, talent can be learned, or that we all have some level of talent. To admit the plain truth, that not all people are talented in bonsai, would be damaging to their own comfort level and confirm that they may well not be.

Like it or not, bonsai is a valid art form and it is the hobbyist attitude that causes others to "level" in order to stay within the comfort zone, after all, look what happens when someone breaks away from the norm. This is also the reason why we have many more regular readers at AoB than members. If someone knew that they dared to seek out advanced information, they may experience some pain as a result or worse, be labeled an elitist as well and much more would be expected from them.

There are many "glitterati" out there, those who buy bonsai to show as there own, those who drop their master's name as if that somehow validates there own experience, and those who want all the glitter, without the pain of actually learning. Most moderators of the forums fall into this category; they easily confuse authority with experience and upon becoming a moderator, suddenly feel they must also be the experts on all things bonsai.

This reminds me of a moderator on a otherwise excellent bonsai forum who rules with an iron fist, but with double standards. He is quick to move posts from the advanced section to the potential section if he feels the trees are not good enough, that is all but his own. He will post his own bonsai, many in need of serious development in the advanced section and ignore all complaints. In his mind, he is advanced, damn what his trees look like.

These "glitterati" cause more harm to the Internet community than anyone else. Interested more in fame than contributing to the community, they rarely if ever have a single thing they can name that they did to improve the bonsai community. There words are often identical to the standard party line and they go with the crowd at almost every debate. Seldom if ever do they challenge tradition, even when it is obviously wrong.

These are the master "levelers" safe inside their comfort zone, when things get rough they always flock back to a beginner forum where the beginners can rebuild their egos with a few "ohs" and "ahs" again. Nothing like a forum full of "yes men" to heal a bruised, over inflated ego…..

These "glitterati" have a great disdain toward literati, mostly because they are but a pale shadow of the true literati of bonsai. You will see them use the word "literati" like it was an insult, and you will see them ridicule people for being one.

The true literati are, as the name suggests, scholars of bonsai. They seek out the best knowledge and promote it, preserve it, while exposing false knowledge as well. Never "levelers" they tend to advance new thoughts, new ideas, and new techniques in order to convince people to expand their visions, to step outside of the traditional trap so many are caged in.

Look to those few that are actually adding to the community, getting people to reevaluate their beliefs, and challenging the norm and you will find the literati of today. Today's literati are not unlike the literati of the past, who grew tired of the rigid traditionalism of their time and struck out on there own to create art that came from within instead of what was expected, even demanded. And like them, whose paintings was referred to by some as "drunken scrawlings" the literati of today often are ridiculed and insulted for breaking out of the box.

The bonsai community needs more elitist and literati. To flourish, no to survive, as a valid art form, we need people who demand the highest standards, who do not think just good enough is okay. We need people to dissect the accepted norms and step outside of the traditional cages of Eastern thought. We need to applaud those artists who dare to be different and experiment while encouraging our beginners to excel, not to level. We need those with the balls to call crap crap and the intelligence to know the difference. We need those who challenge common beliefs, expose falsehoods, and those who, right or wrong, make us all reevaluate our beliefs. Confirmed or changed, our beliefs need to be exercised. Mostly, we need to recognize that being an elitist or literati is not a crime; indeed, we all should be such.


Where Are All The Masters?

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Shiraishii Hanjiro
Image in public domain


World-Class masters are rare on the internet forums as many have already given up on any chance of serious discussion on the subject of bonsai being held. Those serious discussions that are started are usually either quickly taken off topic or filled with so much silliness that they quickly degenerate into an un-storable collection of baseless opinions and unsupported conjectures.

The few that have attempted to post on the forums were often debated, argued with, or ignored to the point they no longer bothered. If by some chance they do find a forum where such foolishness is not allowed, they find out that the vast majority of forums users, who are beginners, do not want a serious discussion, preferring happy birthdays and pet posts over bonsai.

BT once had Walter pall giving advice on bonsai with a few simple rules. All that was asked was that show ready trees only be posted and that Walter had the first right to respond. These rules were ignored and the "Internet masters" delighted in arguing and debating the advice that was given. Not surprisingly, Walter gave up and the Internet lost a valuable resource.

Now, as mentioned earlier, Robert Steven has volunteered his time to analyze and give styling advice to all who ask. The rules here are even simpler, post clear photographs, be professional, and stay on topic. However, we moderate with an iron fist, nothing less will be accepted. Yet, as also mentioned above, response to this unique and valuable resource has been slow; sadly more response would be seen for a beginner giving advice.

There are many experienced artists in the world that would be more than happy to pass on their knowledge and help to educate and inspire the next generation of bonsai artists. However, the very forums that claim they are about education are the ones who create environments detrimental to attracting the very people who could raise the level of the content. This environment is the direct result of being profit motivated and allowing the forum to be beginner orientated and run by "Internet masters."

When you allow those "Internet masters" or beginners, or checkbook bonsai masters to run over those who are truly experienced and have the results to show it, you chase them away, silence them, and in so doing, rob the community of what could be a valuable resource.

This is not to say that questionable information should not be challenged, it should be challenged, but in a professional, polite manner that is focused on the subject matter. Polite, professional debate will coax out more educational information than name calling mud slinging, and personal attacks ever will.

Support any debate with solid references, sources, or examples. Debate the subject, not the author, and refrain from taking it personal. As bonsai artists, we owe the community intelligent discussion and debate because only by practicing such can we hope to see the art evolve.

Most of all show the masters the respect they deserve, appreciate their contributions and listen to them.


Playing to the Beginner

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Jean Leon (1824 - 1904)
Image in public domain


Besides the aforementioned advantage to those who thrive on playing "internet master" on the beginner forums, there is a reason most forums cater to beginners and that is simply because beginners are far more likely to donate to a forum, click on links, and purchase products that the forum either offers or receives some sort of compensation for.

See the next section.


Profit Orientation

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Hopfer, Daniel (vers 1470-1536)
Image in public domain



Garden Web, BT, IBC, and many other forums have ads plastered all over them like graffiti on a train. Threads are interrupted with banners, links to commercial sites are spread around, and in some cases, pop-ups remind you that a composting toilet can be scentless as well or that amazingly you are the 999,999 visitor once again for the fourth time that day. To top it all off, you can count on the occasional pledge or donation drive, usually following news of certain doom and misfortune if money is not raised right now, this instant.

There is a much promoted myth that it costs a great deal of money to host a web forum, it actually costs very little, in comparison to other bonsai related goods and services. We could compare and say that, at the very most, for a busy forum, hosting would run less than an average sized Tokonome pot per month.

One has to question that if all the ads, banners, links, and in some cases, stores and auction areas do not raise, at the very least, half the needed revenue required to pay for hosting, why the hell are they there?

Profit, of course.

Stories still abound about the dot com era, where people started little web business and made millions. Let's face it, even in the height of the dot com madness, there just are not enough people interested in bonsai to make a site profitable, let alone create millions in advertising revenues. Nevertheless, a little revenue, coupled with many donations, could not only pay the bills, but put a few bucks every month in the owners' pocket as well. Ah, profit, that explains the ads.

However, to make money off those ads, people need to click on them and, as I explained above, beginners are most likely to do so. Hence, the number one unwritten rule of profit motivated forums; do not mess with the beginners. Tell them they are on the right track, that they have accomplished much, and encourage them at all costs. Do not, by any means, tell them that they are on the wrong track, that they need to reevaluate their design goals, or that they should put the plant in the ground for a few years. If you break this rule, you will be called rude, harsh, an elitist, and other names, as having your own trees attacked. The "internet masters" will jump on you as if you had the last marshmallow at a weight watchers campfire.

If you educate the beginners, they will quickly outgrow the "Internet Masters" and see them for what they are. Educated beginners will no longer click on links, having researched and found reputable retailers and suppliers. They will have read reviews of books and discovered where to purchase books and subscriptions at fair prices, and they will no longer click on links for "Super Growth Asian Master Bonsai Fertilizer" made with water from a lake that the ancient Japanese Masters actually used to piss in.

If you educate them too quickly, they will find other forums where real, solid, trustworthy information on the cultivation and design of bonsai can be found without all the usual distractions, donation begging, or ads. If they find these other forums too quickly, they may not stay long enough to fall victim to the latest guilt donation drive or "Help we will be shutting down unless you donate now" swindle.

Now, I cannot blame a person for wanting to turn a profit and make a few bucks, but there is no reason they cannot be honest about it. AoB and KoB get by on donations and some sales through our store. Our web design was donated, our hosting is donated, and our treasury still has very little to keep tack of every month. Our main goal in our financial discussions is creating money to offer larger cash prizes in future contest. We have never discussed creating profits for ourselves.

AoB and KoB has always had the same goals, provide quality content without advertisements, donation begging, or other such profit-motivated distractions. We also, unlike other forums, do not make it mandatory for a person to join to view our content, see the photographs, or enter our contests. Other forums use this ploy only to increase membership count in order to get more money from the advertisers.

As we can see, the motivation for profit affects the quality of a bonsai forum. Beginners equals profits so, in order to make profits, beginners must be lured to the forum and kept there at all costs, even at the cost of quality. Since the owner profits from a large base of beginners, they are also financially motivated to keep the "Internet Masters" happy, because they give the appearance of experienced people on the forum, of which the beginners feel are offering experienced advice. Any person who challenges the status quo there is quickly dealt with and removed at the first opportunity. Constant attacks and senseless hounding to the point where they will leave can accomplish this, or by banishing the person, while throwing enough mud, in the hopes that maybe their words will be forever forgotten, lest a few beginners be educated.

Take away the profit dictated policies and the "Internet Masters" serve no real purpose anymore and can be dispensed with. The beginners could receive advice that is not sugarcoated and designed to only keep them happy and posting. The ads, donation begging, and pledge drives would no longer be needed, freeing up bandwidth and space that could be better used for quality content, and real education and advancement of the membership would begin. However, the owner would no longer receive a few bucks every months, no more profit.

Of course, where there is profit to be made, greed takes over for good old common courtesy. The need for profit is so great in some instances that forum owners will use questionable and sometimes illegal tactics to get it. One such example is where the owner of a popular beginner forum, registered the names of many other bonsai forums, changing .com to .org or visa versa. This was done so that anyone who attempted to go to another forum, but mistakenly typed in .com instead of .org, would be directed to his instead.

Many forums require that a person be a member in order to see images, participate in contests, or other activities. This forces membership numbers that may not reflect the actual purpose of the person, as many will join just to read one article and never post, or return./

I hope that now, the profit motivation of some forums has been explained and we can better understand the reasoning behind them. They have every right to exist and to try and turn a profit, but let's see them for what they are and hope that those who are there will move ahead, step out of the trap, and their personal comfort zone, so that they can begin to seriously study bonsai and create the next masterpieces of the world.

There are ways to make a profit without sacrificing quality. Catering to the beginner may seem like the only option, but it is self-defeating and depends on a steady flow of new enthusiasts to replace those who became educated or were disenchanted with the environments such profit-motivated forums promote. I believe that by offering only solid educational and inspirational material, while snipping out any garbage, flame wars, or personal attacks would create an environment where all levels of bonsaists could interact and who then would gladly support a forum though donations, shopping, or even corporate sponsors. Yet, the socialites would find this offensive and rebel against it.


Socialites

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Image in public domain

The socialites of the Internet bonsai forums present a different problem altogether. These people may do bonsai at any level, but the majority of them seem to be at the beginner level, even if they claim 30 years of experience. They seem to spend most of the time on forums socializing, wishing each other happy birthday, and generally filling up sections of forums that are usually created just for non-bonsai banter.

Profit motivated forums love these people because they give the false impression of high activity on the forum, and they respond often to threads, abet not generally with anything pertinent. Adept at answering the same old "help my bonsai is dying" posts, the socialites rarely offer anything in-depth and are famous for starting threads about pets, ponds, tomatoes, life on mars, or any other subjects not pertaining directly to bonsai.

Most project the symptoms of Internet addiction and seem to come to the forums not for education or inspiration, but instead to socialize. Many take on the mother/father/ grandparent role and some even go as far as to sign their name as such. Socialites are also usually active in chat rooms, if offered, more on this below.

While socializing is not a bad thing, when a forum lets the percentage of socialization rise above the percentage of actual bonsai discussion, it fails as a bonsai forum. While every person has the right to post what they wish, forums should have strict guidelines and policies to keep the subject matter focused on bonsai. The problem is that when socializing is checked, the socialites are quick to call the resulting bonsai focused outcome boring, dull, not fun, and argue against it.

Since socialites create the false impression of bonsai activity on a bonsai forum, other people are fooled into thinking such a forum is very busy. While it is busy, it is not busy with quality information on the subject of bonsai. Often actual bonsai becomes second in importance to creating traffic at all costs, which, of course, leads back to profit motivation.

There are thousands of places on the Internet, that are designed for socializing and there are forums about any subject under the sun, including those designed strictly for socializing. Socializing in a bonsai forum can be advantages to a forum, if kept to a level where the focus of providing quality content, education, and inspiration is not affected.

Such socializing can also be damaging if allowed to go on unchecked. Groups, gangs, clicks, and other such gatherings of people can form on a forum and sometimes act as an angry swam of bees if one of their members are questioned or corrected. This group will jump on those who dare to debate one of the other socialites quicker than a bologna sandwich at a homeless shelter.

These social groups can affect outcomes of votes, disrupt threads they do not agree with, and embark in mass email campaigns to the moderators against someone who they do not see eye to eye with. When this mentality is magnified in an environment where their conversations can be had in private, such as a forum-sponsored chat room, they can turn ugly fast. They also quickly call for the closing of any thread that they do not like, report any posts that they disagree with, and when all else fails, will hijack or disrupt a thread to the point where serious discussion can not be had at all. Using these methods and others, they have been known to run off many members who otherwise would have been valuable participants in a forum, their only crime being not towing the standard party line.

A forum that advertises itself as a bonsai forum, owes it to their members to keep the forum focused on bonsai. I know as I personally was very discouraged when I first joined a bonsai forum to find that of the eight new posts that day, three were happy birthday posts, one was about radio controlled cars, one was about koi, one was about a dying bonsai, one was about bonsai pests, and the last was about how someone was offended over the words of someone else. Therefore, there were two threads about bonsai, not eight, that is 25% and the ratio is often the same even today on many forums.

Maybe we need a forum named bonsai growers talking about anything but, or one named koi, ponds, people, gossip, radio controlled cars, happy birthdays, and all other non-bonsai related topics?

The point is, KIBS. Keep It Bonsai Stupid.


Attacking The Person

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Yoshitoshi ‘The Heavy Basket’
Image in public domain



A popular and particularly distracting tactic of the "Internet masters" “Glitterati” and “Socialites” on beginner forums is to attack the person in a debate personally instead of intelligently debating the subject matter. When something they have said or claimed is challenged, instead of giving references, sources, or other information that would support their argument, they resort to attacking the person. Of course, this makes no sense, but to them it is a tool that serves to disrupt the thread, often causing flame wars and fights that leave the original subject matter forgotten, buried under an avalanche of crap.

Suppose a known drunk, who has received numerous drunk-driving citations, went on-line and posted his thoughts that no one should ever drive drunk. His words are the truth, in fact, one would be hard pressed to debate them, yet our "Internet masters" would quickly post that his words are invalid since he is a drunk and he drives under the influence, turning the debate into a personal attack. Now the focus is on the poster and his past drinking while driving, and the validity, value and absolute truth of his words are lost.

An actual example would be a thread I started at Bnut where I asked why people rushed trees into bonsai pots. Soon after the discussion was underway, an "Internet master" popped in and posted pictures of my own bonsai, hence suggesting that I rushed trees into pots. While that may well be true, it had nothing at all to do with the original subject, added nothing to the discussion, and was simply baiting, trying to incite an argument. Once again, a subject that may have lead to valuable and interesting discussion was quickly cut short, disrupted, and effectively aborted.

Almost, without exception, every single flame war on the Internet bonsai forums can be traced to a post where the poster swayed from the actual subject matter and attacked a person or their bonsai directly. This practice of attacking the person is counterproductive and adds absolutely nothing intelligent to a discussion. It is a tactic used by those who can not intelligent discuss a subject and is a tool meant only to divert from something they do not understand.

If this practice alone was addressed and such instances ended, it would practically improve the content on a forum overnight and end 99% of all flame wars.


Checkbook Bonsai Mentality

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Image in public domain


While this practice by itself is not a bad thing and can offer additional educational opportunities, economic stimulus to the bonsai community, and enjoyment, it is promoted by some and accepted by others as a shortcut, no talent, education, or inspiration needed, just bring your checkbook. When one skips the process of developing roots, branches, movement, etc and go directly to owning a bonsai; they miss the most important aspect of bonsai, the creation.

Everyone appears to want to be an artist and/or to be thought of as talented. However, the artist creates and the talent is in the creation. Bonsai is not an art form for the impatient. Trees take many years to develop and this time does not get much shorter with experience. I was surprised once when reading about one of Walter Pall's amazing trees. The article stated that the stock he was using was in his growing bed for ten years. I was amazed that even an artist like Walter had to wait years for a tree to develop, at that time in my experience, I imagined that great stock meant less time. It may, but when you are talking about a decade or more, what difference are one or two more years?

Buying nearly finished or finished bonsai can be fun, educational, and give a person something to do and enjoy while they wait for their own creations to develop. Having a bonsai created by a talented artist can be inspirational as well as be an object of pride and value. There is a value in having a piece of art created by a well known name, which is why art collectors in other venues seek out not only pieces created by upcoming talent, but those rarer pieces created by recognizable masters of the art. Even those with advanced bonsai of their own can enjoy viewing the work of another talented artist and perhaps be inspired by it.

In order for bonsai to flourish in America and other countries, more people must become collectors. Once a service industry is created here, we will see a vast number of collectors come into existence, until then it will continue to be mainly bonsaists who purchaser and collect the work of others. Collectors raise the value of art, the more in demand the work of an artist becomes and the more value it has. Soon a verified creation by a renowned artist can bring in much more than that of an unknown. When this happens, as it already has in Japan, bonsai will sell for much more, great pieces may be worth six figures and more, and the creations of celebrity artists will be highly sought after.

Sometimes a nearly finished or finished bonsai will be bought because the buyer sees a better tree within and will restyle the tree completely over time. Kimura, Pall, and others have taken trees we all would have loved to own, and used them as raw stock. They take the tree and turn it upside down, change the angle, remove or re-grow the branching, change the foliage pads, and use many other means to create their vision from the "stock." Often the new creation is not only better than the original, but in many cases, completely unrecognizable from it. In these instances, the bonsai was the stock and the artist used it as such, they changed the shape, form, style and appearance of the tree and from this "stock" created a brand new artwork from it, they release what was not seen before. You can liken this to buying a painting, scraping the paint off it and using the canvas to paint your own vision on it. To this, you would, of course, be expected to sign your name and no one would expect any less.

In Japan, it is not uncommon for an artist to be commissioned to restyle an old masterpiece that has become over grown, lanky, or which has suffered from poor maintenance. I have read and seen many examples of this in books and magazines and I have noticed that, whenever it is known, the original artist is named out of respect. More often than not, the need for restyling is attributed to improper care rather than to poor original design. Suddenly these trees now have a new addition to the history, the bonsai once styled by master X, was in Master Y's collection, and then bought by Master Z who did the current restyle, bringing out once again the timeless beauty of the tree. This history adds value to the bonsai; it never subtracts value from it.

Let me restate my last point, just to clarify my words. The history of a bonsai adds value to it, it never distracts from it. Not surprisingly, this same thing can be said about any other art form. It can even be said about most collectable items. Take for example the Ruby Slippers worn by Dorothy in the Movie "The Wizard of Oz." There are thousands of Ruby slippers just like the ones worn in the movie, but the single pair she actually wore are worth far more than all the others combined. Why? History.

A few people will purchase bonsai to display, keep, and preserve. There are museums, arbortoriums, or collections that employ curators to maintain and care for the trees while preserving them for future generations. Naka's Goshin and The Larz Anderson collection at Harvard are two examples of many in the States alone. Many trees are donated, some are even purchased, but the standards can be high, as would be expected.

All of the bonsai in these collections have a history; in most cases, a well documented one at that. The bonsai of John Naka, Larz Anderson, and others are valuable because of the history behind them. To not name the artists or tell the history would be to rob the bonsai of its history and cheat the viewer out of the full experience and impact of the pieces. Certainly, a bonsai can be enjoyed without knowing the history, as can all art. We can appreciate the Sistine Chapel without knowing anything about the artist or the reasons behind the painting, yet the fullness of the experience is better appreciated when flavored with the spice of history. This is especially true for inspiring artists.

Strangely, we never see a curator or a caretaker of these trees claiming that since they care for them and keep them in the shape the artist intended, that they own them or that they are now their works. If they ever attempted to sign their names to the bonsai in these collections, show the trees without the creating artist's names attached, or to use the trees to validate their own talent or experience, they would be quickly ridiculed.

However, others purchase finished or nearly finished bonsai for less than honorable reasons. They often use purchasing as a shortcut to creation, using the purchased bonsai to validate their own claims of talents or experience. When entered at shows under the guise of being the buyer's own work, they are known as ringers or checkbook bonsai (checkbooksai) and are looked down upon by those who have entered their own work. The act of cheating your way to a ribbon at shows is an issue that needs to be addressed, but not in this article.

The "Internet masters" of the bonsai forums will often purchase such bonsai and then post them under the assumption that they are their own creations. Using such to validate there own claims of experience and talent, they are quick to call out others to show their bonsai and quicker to challenge anyone who disagrees with them on a subject to a bonsai dual of sorts. They use these bonsai as the foundation of their experience to support the advice and suggestions that they hand out.

Sadly, more often than not, the checkbooksai are the best in these "Internet master's" collection. The damage such practices caused would be of no concern to anyone if they only harmed the buyers. But, to many checkbooksai masters, it is not enough to simply buy bonsai to pass off as their own creations, they justify the practice and even go as far as to instruct beginners that only by doing the same can they experience real bonsai."

Claiming that only by purchasing a bonsai in an advanced state of development can one learn certain techniques and methods and that to create a quality bonsai, one must start with such material, they misinform many beginners and intermediate practitioners alike.

Justifications fall like the leaves of a ficus nerfolia after a move whenever someone states the simple facts that buying a bonsai is not the same as creating a bonsai. The arguments that you learn other techniques when working with a bonsai in an advanced stage, that maintaining it means you have talent, or that the other kids are all doing it, become just excuses when they post these trees as there own work.

Someday I hope to have some great bonsai in my collection, not only those that I created myself, but a few from some of the bonsai artists that I have come to respect and who have inspired me. The difference is that I will never forget which is my own work, showing my own talent, and which are the works and talent of others. Nor will I ever pass off another's work or talent as my own. Color it anyway you want, but in the end it is unethical.

Why do some in bonsai consider this practice acceptable when it would be cause for scorn in any other art form? Try telling the art community that the Rembrandt your great aunt left you is your work, that it shows your talent, because you maintain it, dust it off, and even had it restored at one time.

For that matter, try copying and selling the pages from a coloring book you colored, you will be in direct copyright violation because, even though you colored the pages, the outline was another's work. Take a pair of Nike tennis shoes, rip the "swoosh" off them, dye them green, and sew a bonsai tree patch on them. Think they are your creation now? Try selling them. ;)

Enjoy the Rembrandt, you should maintain it, it well deserves it. Enjoy the coloring you did on another’s drawing, they gave you the template to help you use colors to finish the picture. You bought the Nike shoes, wear them, enjoy them, your creativity shows, but the shoes are still Nike, just Nike with some green dye and a bonsai patch.

You want full credit, buy a blank canvas and start painting, draw your own picture to color, design and manufacture your own tennis shoes, and, here it comes, design your own bonsai from raw material or pre-bonsai stock. Furthermore, give credit where credit is due, the only person the checkbooksai master fools is themselves and in the long run, the only person cheated is also themselves.


The Chat Fallacy

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A number of years back I was one of first three people invited into the newly added chat area at BT to try it out. In fact, using a feature where one could create other chat areas, out of the public eye and make them invite only, a few like-minded individuals and I laid the foundation for what was to become the Art of Bonsai Project. Imagine that, using the resources of one forum to create another. While the creation of AoB was a necessity after the owner of BT rejected a idea of a separate area on the forum for advanced discussion based on his concern that it would alienate the beginners on his forum (read hurt profits). This plainly showed one of the many disadvantages of chat rooms, namely creating the ability for forum members to engage in activities that are counter-productive to the forum's goals. The further use and activities of chat room users there quickly showed many other disadvantages.

Chat rooms allow conversation and discussion to take place outside of the forum proper. Instead of discussions taking place where the content can be viewed by the entire membership, only those people who happen to be in chat at the time of the discussion view them. By hosting a chat area, the forum owner has created a place where discussion can be had out of the sight of lurkers, members, and others, decreasing the apparent activity of the forum and hiding what otherwise might be valuable content.

The socialites also favor chat rooms, where they can discuss many things, not all productive. This would be a great idea if the off topic socializing were confined to the chat areas, but sadly it never is and often simply serves as a staging area for forum activities as discussed above.

Forums have private messaging systems and emails that can be used by members, all other discussion should be in the forum proper so it can be read, vetted, and enjoyed by all members, present and future. Why any form would sacrifice content and activity just to appease a few chatters, is beyond me.


Contests

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Johnn Gruelle ‘Rapunzel’
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The Internet offers us the unique opportunity to enter our creations in professionally judged contests. Opportunities like this in real life are rare and often limited to local club shows, unless we are willing to travel, sometimes great distances.

Although prizes are usually offered to the winners of these on-line contests, the real reward is education. It takes a special type of person to put up his work against that of their peers, for review by professionals, and non-professionals, alike. I commend those who enter these contests as they must step out of their comfort zone and face the possibility of pain to do so. Scores received, even low scores can give a person a personal benchmark to beat, motivate them to improve their bonsai, and cure the "Blind in One Eye" syndrome Walter Pall wrote about in his excellent article over at AoB (viewtopic.php?t=946 ).

Contests also bring in entries from around the world and showcases bonsai that not only have not been seen on-line before, but also styles, pots, and displays as well. Just studying the entries can educate the serious student, while exposing them to many concepts and ideas that are never heard of on most forums.

However, there are only a very few contests worth the effort of entering, less still that have any real educational value at all. A search of the forums will produce many contests that have been held, the worst coming from the beginner forums as the contest, like the forum, is leveled beyond the capability to do anything other than entertain those who do not wish to challenge themselves.

I have see contests where the objective was to make a bonsai out of pipe cleaners, while possibly an exercise in creating balance and flow; it certainly has nothing to do with creating actual bonsai. Some levelers would argue that the design principles are the same, but anyone with experience knows better. I have seen contests for creating a virtual bonsai, creating wire bonsai, and numerous other contests held on bonsai forums that have little if anything at all to do with actually creating a real bonsai. At most, they imparted the same knowledge a kindergarten art class would to the entrants.

To make matters worse most the bonsai contests that are held on forums are designed to appeal to beginners, they are usually judged by a popular (read popularity) vote consisting of mostly beginners, and the rules usually dictate a price that even a confirmed bargain hunter like myself would be hard pressed to find decent material for. It is little wonder that the very experienced people never enter these contests and that those that pass themselves off as experienced love them.

The popular vote creates an environment where politics rule, even if the contest is set up to be blind. The results of such a contest means the winner was popular, not good in many cases. This environment promotes "leveling" and offers little, if any, educational value outside of what was gained by the participants when the designed the tree.

A couple of years ago the Knowledge of Bonsai forum launched a very new concept for styling contests on the web. Besides simple before and after pictures required by other forums, we required progression pictures as well as written documentaries on the process and decisions made during the styling. We were determined that the process of creation be documented so that our readers and future viewers throughout time could see the process and learn from it. The KoB Progressive Styling Contest of 2007 was a huge success, it brought in many artists of all levels of experience working on everything from nursery stock to collected material, to pre-bonsai. Many called it the best contest on the web and considering the educational value, it was.

Yet, the same contest in 2008 saw far less entrants and many excuses were put forth, mainly that people felt they could not compete against the very experienced artists and masters who entered. This is "leveling" at play once again; the fear of pain caused many not to enter, even though we have professional and a non-professional categories. The problem is that if a person ever taught a bonsai class before, owns a bonsai nursery, of has given workshops or demos, they were deemed a professional, and rightly so, but our art is filled with people who want to teach, yet also want to compete against those they teach. Think about it, how would low scores help their teaching, what if those they fooled into thinking they were experienced scored higher? Too much possible pain presents itself.

Not surprisingly, not one of the "internet masters" entered the contest this year, not one of the "glitterati" entered, not one of the “socialites” entered.

The Art of Bonsai Awards was a huge success last year; it had such a world-wide base of entrants that it would be very hard for it not to. This contest brought in 135 entries from 25 countries, all excellent examples of the state of bonsai around the world. A person could spend hours viewing all the bonsai and come away with valuable insights. Judged by four of the top bonsai artists in the world, a score here means quite a bit. Unlike the popularity contests on other forums, if you win here, you accomplished something only a very few people ever will. Yet again, not one of the "internet masters" entered the contest this year, not one of the "glitterati" or “socialites” entered. The loudest mouths on the forums, the ones who preach the most, never entered.

Contests on the Internet should be designed to inspire and educate. They should be judged by experienced professionals and not by a popularity vote. A person should sweat when a contest comes up, they should have to think hard, work hard, and produce the best they can, otherwise they are not advancing, not expanding, and certainly not learning a thing.

The pretend contests with no judges and no real goals should end; to advance in bonsai you need to be challenged, not entertained.


Dilution

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One of the major problems with the vast majority of internet bonsai forums is the dilution of quality content with junk content. Besides the aforementioned Happy Birthday threads, forums are filled daily with junk content such as threads completely unrelated to bonsai. I have seen threads on politics, radio controlled cars, shotguns, pets, automobile doors, Hollywood gossip, and just about every other subject under the sun. While some forums have special dedicated areas for such off topic banter, most do not and even those that do cannot seem to keep the subject matter on bonsai. I understand some people’s unquenchable need for social interaction, but there are other forums that they can use for such banter.

There is at least one forum out there that allows massive flame wars on a regular basis, in which any useful information is buried under hundreds of hateful and insulting posts. Although these flame war threads are often highly popular and often attract more views than other threads, they fill up the forum with threads that are basically worthless and serve little purpose other than entertainment for a few.

Bonsai forums should be about bonsai. In order for a forum to be successful and serve as a database of bonsai related knowledge as well as a source that those in need can reference. By diluting the content with thousands upon thousands of unrelated threads and posts, the good content and pertinent information is quickly buried under a useless garbage pile.

The new members are quickly confused and get lost in all the off topic filler and the search function, although useful, will often bring up junk instead of treasure, not to mention adding a huge load onto bandwidth usage for the forum.

Usually it is the same few people who continually start threads about anything but bonsai, they seem unstoppable and flood the forum with news, politics, sports, hobbies, pets, anything but bonsai. Forums need to have a dedicated place for off topic banter and not encourage the use of it. Believe it or not, most people come to a bonsai forum to discuss bonsai, certainly anyone experienced enough to know what they are talking about does. KIBS (Keep it bonsai stupid).


Moderation

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Keystone Kops
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Moderation in itself is not a bad thing; in fact, some of the issues covered above could be solved with intelligent and timely moderation. However, in many cases the moderators themselves are the problem on a forum.

Unfortunately, many moderators are beginners, mainly because beginners have the time and are willing to put in the unpaid effort to be moderators. Often beginners will volunteer or accept a moderating position because they believe it lends them some sense of importance or credence in the bonsai community. This is not incorrect, good moderators help a forum succeed and keep the discussion on topic, stop flame wars before they start, and guide the discussions to an informative and educational end. Moderators devote a lot of their own time, unpaid, and they should be appreciated, if not thanked, for creating and nurturing an environment where knowledge can be shared and the community can prosper.

However, many moderators are quick to confuse authority with experience and suddenly become bonsai masters once they become a moderator. Moderators often become “Internet Masters” and some will quickly pour out the wrath of moderation on any who dare question their experience or that of their on-line friends. This coupled with the fact that site owners typically have few choices for moderators and often are forced to use those who volunteer, makes for an environment in which a few can ruin the whole.

Moderators are often biased and there are many examples where an insulting or attacking post or thread is “overlooked” when aimed at one person, while the same would be quickly deleted if directed at themselves or one of their on-line friends, followed by a possible banning of the poster. Unbiased moderators are rare, even though many profess their fairness and unbiased nature at every opportunity.

More moderators need to realize that they are not site owners, they are not masters, they are simply referees whose sole purpose is to guide discussions, keep them on-topic, and to assure an environment that is both educational and inspirational without garbage. This is their only job. Sadly, in this day and age, this often means ruling with an iron fist and making a few people mad in the process. When drivers are ticketed for going over the speed limit on a street, they quickly learn not to speed on that street. The same principle works on forums and most forums have a heavy hand when it comes to moderation, which is why the all the flame wars are only seen on a couple forums.

The International Factor

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Many of the above problems may have their roots in the simple fact that most members on an English language international bonsai forum are Americans. Americans tend to think that our beliefs and cultures should be applied to everyone. Our belief that if you do not have anything nice to say, do not say anything at all is often perceived as lying by other cultures. However, when an experienced person from another culture simply states the truth, Americans perceive this as being rude, arrogant, elitist, or worse.

In many cultures, not saying what you actually think is considered rude and those that lean toward popularity are considered diplomats (an insult). However, Americans tend to lean toward being popular and often will sugar coat critiques and chastise those who simply call a spade a spade.

I cannot count the times I have witnessed a very experienced European bonsaist chastised and criticized for simply telling the truth. The words were not rude, they were not mean, there was no ill intent behind the comments, it just the truth. Since when did simply telling the truth become passé?

Walter Pall has mentioned this very thing more than once on the forums and was usually met with indifference and debate. Although I feel that this tends more toward leveling than anything else, it is uniquely an American problem, one which Vance Wood covered well in his article, “The problem With American Bonsai.” In a country where every kid gets a trophy, where students are graded on a curve, where “winning isn’t everything” and political correctness has taken the place of truth, is it any wonder this mentality has spilled over on the bonsai forums? We see statements that everyone has talent, we shouldn’t tell a newcomer the truth, we should be nice, everyone’s work is valid, rules don’t matter, etc etc etc.

Bonsai has become politically correct and that is an American illness, not a worldwide epidemic. International bonsai forums are not American forums; they are worldwide forums, meant for the world community, not for only Americans. We must understand that there are many cultures that practice bonsai and most for far longer than Americans have. There is a wealth of quality information to be had from these other cultures, but less and less experienced people from other countries will participate if we keep assuming they are rude, elitist, mean or arrogant every time they post.

If we cannot understand this, then we will be alone in our English speaking forums. If this seems far-fetched, ask yourself where all the English speaking Japanese and Chinese bonsaists are...




Conclusion

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Zlatko Vasic ‘Enter Password’
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The internet offers more information on bonsai than any other media and it has the unique capability of instantaneously presenting new ideas and techniques to all who are interested. A lot has changed since the pre-internet days of seeking out publications and other enthusiasts in your area to meet with and share experiences. A lot has also stayed the same, in the past, the few bonsai publications that could be found were often outdated and wrote from the perspective of another culture as well as climate. One had little choice but to take the information presented in such publications as gospel, there was little, if any vetting process, and what existed could only reach a few people at the most.

Today we can view bonsai from around the world, from many cultures, and from various climate zones, all with a few clicks of the mouse button. We have more information readily available today than all of the pre-internet publications combined. We can see pictures from world-class exhibits on the very same day they are held, we can converse with those who attended and see progressive series of photographs of workshops and demonstrations given by the top bonsai artists.

Bonsai should be progressing at an hundred times the rate it did before the internet.

Yet, many seem to want to dilute, pollute, and soil the vast resource we are building. Egos, agendas, politics, and dreams of personal glory are filling up these vast libraries of knowledge with garbage. It has gotten so bad that the true masters are leaving behind the forums and creating their own blogs, where they can post their work, explain their techniques, and post progressions of their creations, without the dilution, without the pollution, without the garbage.

Soon, even the couple of very experienced bonsaists that still post on the internet forums will leave and all that will be left is a few “Internet masters” and socialites. Beginners teaching beginners, we have all heard this phrase before, and on a few beginner forums today, this is actuality.

What can be done? Maybe nothing, but maybe it is up to us to change the way we use bonsai forums. The best way to accomplish this may very well be to challenge ourselves, do not play the leveling game, move up to more advanced forums and force ourselves to advance. We can cut the garbage, stay on topic, and above all else, recognize the problems, take off the blinders, become part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Add to the community, be a leader, and ask yourself if you are just leveling or are you serious about bonsai.

We have the most valuable tool ever in the history of bonsai, the question is, what are we going to do with it?



A Review of Internet Bonsai Forums

The following are reviews of the most known English speaking bonsai forums on the web at the time of writing this article. Inclusion was granted based on time in existence, membership size, activity, content, popularity, and number of highly viewed threads. The reviews are based on a collection of comments received by the author from members with varying degrees of experience as well as by comments made by Brent Walston at http://bonsainut.com/forums/showpost.ph ... ostcount=4 I have included direct quotes from Brent, whenever possible.

Art of Bonsai Project http://www.artofbonsai.org

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  • Content: Intermediate to Master Level
  • Moderation: Strong
  • Activity: Slow
  • Strong Points: Need not be a member to see images or enter contests. Great design and layout. New quality content released often. World-class galleries, interviews with well-known bonsai artists, and world-renowned bonsai contests. No advertisements.
  • Weak Points: Not much activity, some serious discussion, but mainly an on-line magazine.
  • Summary: AoB, has a member list that reads like the "Who's Who" of bonsai, yet it was never designed to be a discussion forum, instead it is more like a magazine whose readers enjoy the advanced, in-depth, and sometimes controversial articles, interviews, and galleries. Some articles there, although art based, amazingly have the highest number of reads of any others on any other bonsai forum. Their contests have the highest number of participants and often have lengthy prize lists. Many state they feel the site is elitist and do not feel qualified to post there.

    “Then there are the rebel groups that embraced art at all costs, including foregoing participation by most of the community, AOB and KOB. The stuff there is great and attracts some of the best artists in the world, but the layout and method of posting and responding is so alien to us all that there is lucky to be one or two posts a day. It doesn't have to be this DULL!. “ – Brent Walston


Bonsai Nut http://www.bonsainut.com

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  • Content: Beginner to Advanced
  • Moderation:: Practically non-existent
  • Activity: Busy
  • Strong Points: Greg does a good job posting bonsai related threads for discussion. Some posts by very experienced bonsaists, such as Walter Pall, Brent Walston, and a couple others
  • Weak Points:: Almost zero moderation, flame wars abound, many non-bonsai related threads. Some ads, but not overly distracting. Internet Masters are common.
  • Summary:: Bnut is often very busy with dozens of new posts daily, subjects range from politics, to shotguns, to women, it seems like everything and anything is allowed. The bonsai information that is posted is heavily and sometimes ruthlessly vetted, if one can read through the fights, some good info can be found. Flame wars are common and attract more views and posts than the bonsai related subjects, not for the thin-skinned.


Bonsai Site http://www.bonsaisite.com

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  • Content: Beginner to Intermediate
  • Moderation:: Strong
  • Activity: Very Busy
  • Strong Points: Lots of activity brings 20 to 40 new posts daily. No real advertisements once in the forum, which is tucked inside a commercial web page. Good solid moderation, fair and takes no crap.
  • Weak Points: Beginner forum with more “help my tree is dying posts” than other forums. I personally have to log in every time I visit. No real experienced people posting, but a few near the advanced level.
  • Summary: Very busy forum with new members coming in often, possibly due to its high Google ranking. Mostly beginner level members post, with some intermediate members mixed in. There seems to always be a contest going on, but these are of the popularity vote kind, and mostly entered by beginners. This is by far the best beginner site on the web and as such, many beginners feel right at home there. Information is questionable at times and is basically given out by beginners.

    “Bonsaisite, is, and has always been a beginners group. The problem is that it is mostly by and for beginnings, so there is a lot of bad advice and it is pretty much dominated by just a few names with mediocre experience. It is difficult to find any post that is not stick in a pot except by Harry and a few other artists. “ – Brent Walston


Bonsai Talk http://www.bonsaitalk.com / http://www.internetbonsaiclub.com / http://www.bonsaichat.com / etc

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  • Content: Beginner to Intermediate
  • Moderation: Popularity Orientated
  • Activity: Busy
  • Strong Points: Long history and loyal member base produces a lot of activity on the forum, not as much as BonsaiSite, but of a slightly higher level. A handful of very experienced bonsaists post occasionally, but mainly just showing their work. Some very good content can be found.
  • Weak Points: Must be a member to see images or participate in contests or other activities. Biased beginner level moderation team who allows and sometimes encourages attacks and insults on anyone but regular members. The good content there is often buried under a ton of garbage threads and posts. Caters to beginners. Many advertisements and donation drives. Internet Masters seem to run the forum. More down time than any other forum.
  • Summary:[/b] This site seems to go down at the end of every month due to a bandwidth problem that only this forum experiences. At the time of this article, the site has been down for a couple weeks, due to an unexplained problem, which is said to be yet another server switch for this forum. Matt seems to have the right ideas for a forum, but problems with implementing them. This could be due to a moderation team that many questioned when he put it into place, a perfect example of using popular moderators instead of capable moderators.

    “BonsaiTalk is the most popular English language newsgroup, that is, it has the most members and traffic. It has been prone to enormous food fights in the past, mostly over 'Art' debates. They still happen but with less frequency. Groups do grow and change. These days I am hard pressed to find a single post in which I am interested enough to respond. BT, probably because its size, runs the gamut from stick in the pot to professional, and it has a number of professional level members. “ – Brent Walston


Internet Bonsai Club http://www.internetbonsaiclub.org

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  • Content: Intermediate to Master Level
  • Moderation: Strong
  • Activity: Steady
  • Strong Points: Many members are very experienced bonsaists from around the world. Content is bonsai related. Great stone section.
  • Weak Points: Advertisements, pop-ups, and a expressed dislike of linking to other sites or articles. More into showing pictures than telling how, the unwritten rule is to post nothing without a picture.
  • Summary: After being down and losing all past threads and posts, IBC came back loaded with advertisements and an inability to host pictures, users must now put up with ads, popups, and using a hosting service or hot-linking to images, creating an environment in which pictures will disappear from posts in the future. IBC now resembles GardenWeb with its ads, pop-ups, and no link policies. IBC has a vast number of experienced bonsaist that post there, but the forum itself is set up to be a gallery, not a learning environment. Discussion there can be advanced and much can be learned, yet the moderation seems to work against a learning environment and the goals of the forum seem to be more show and tell, this is not the case in the stone section, which is by far the best on the web. Moderation can be one-sided and blind, in fact, more than one experienced person has told me personally that they quit posting there due to the moderation, or more specifically, a moderator.

    “Lastly, there is the poor old IBC, the group that started it all. The Listserv group still has the greatest number of artists and experts, but practically no one else, and is also virtually moribund these days with only a couple of posts a day. In the glory days, there were over 100 posts a day. The IBC website addition a few years ago was great because it allowed the use of images, but the setup is clunky and the gallery can ONLY be used for pictures (which is vigorously enforced). The text is another gallery which is also nearly moribund. Still, the IBC has the most potential to be THE best forum, with the most professionals with a friendly format, if only they could get their sh__ together. But they never will because it also is dominated by a few users with very strong opinions of how it should be run.” – Brent Walston


International Bonsai Forum http://www.internationalbonsaiforum.com

Image

  • Content: Intermediate to Master Level
  • Moderation: Strong
  • Activity: Growing
  • Strong Points: Experienced member base mainly from Europe. Encourages progression series and shows a lot of collected material. Not being American, the forum has far less flames and members are serious about bonsai, keeping the discussion on topic.
  • Weak Points: Being an international forum, the English there is sometimes choppy. Activity waxes and wanes at times.
  • Summary:
This is a new forum but the environment and discussion there makes it one of the top forums all around. The sometimes fantastic collected material and the following progressions are educational and inspirational. Too new to be in-depth, but this may be a forum to watch. [/list]


Knowledge of Bonsai Forum http://www.knowledgeofbonsai.org

Image

  • Content: Intermediate to Master Level
  • Moderation: Strong
  • Activity: Medium
  • Strong Points: Need not be a member to see images or enter contests. KoB classroom moderated and led by very experienced bonsai artists. Vast source of information on the subject of bonsai cultivation and design. Actual links to information in every category leading readers to other places where related information can be found, on site or off. Progressive styling contest that raised the level of internet bonsai styling contests on the web. Educational galleries are the best on the web. No advertisements.
  • Weak Points: Too many over categorized sections and takes time to learn to navigate. Layout could be better and a searchable database is needed to quickly find anything in the massive database of articles.
    Summary: KoB by far has the largest resource for quality articles on cultivation and design, the entire site is geared toward education, a fact attested to by it’s classroom and educational galleries. Best styling contest on the web. Confusing categorization and too many sections for ease of use.

    “Then there are the rebel groups that embraced art at all costs, including foregoing participation by most of the community, AOB and KOB. The stuff there is great and attracts some of the best artists in the world, but the layout and method of posting and responding is so alien to us all that there is lucky to be one or two posts a day. It doesn't have to be this DULL!. “ – Brent Walston


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 Post subject: Re: The Problem With Bonsai Forums
PostPosted: Mon Apr 27, 2009 9:50 am 
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Posts: 35
Location: Lancashire, England
tl;dr

When you write something like this do you stop to think about how many people are actually going to read it?

There may be some interesting points in there but seriously... waaaay toooooo looong.

Nearly 13000 words- average reading speed is about 230 a minute.

Cliff's Notes pls.


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 Post subject: Re: The Problem With Bonsai Forums
PostPosted: Mon Apr 27, 2009 10:38 am 
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Posts: 15
Location: Castroville,Tx
A lot of venom behind the writing.
Although I see many of the people in here that are on all the forums, I do question the negativity behind the words. I also am left to wonder just where you place yourself in this Article/Thoughts.
Irene


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 Post subject: Re: The Problem With Bonsai Forums
PostPosted: Mon Apr 27, 2009 11:37 am 
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Posts: 1
You have missed www.Ausbonsai.com


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 Post subject: Re: The Problem With Bonsai Forums
PostPosted: Mon Apr 27, 2009 11:50 am 
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Joined: Fri Sep 16, 2005 10:09 am
Posts: 47
Location: Nova Scotia 5a/b
???
Too lengthy and verbose. Do you actually believe that an article such as this belongs on this particular forum? Please tell me it isn't so.


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 Post subject: Re: The Problem With Bonsai Forums
PostPosted: Mon Apr 27, 2009 12:35 pm 
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Joined: Sat Jun 30, 2007 4:01 pm
Posts: 11
Location: Sweden
Richard Moquin wrote:
Too lengthy and verbose.


I agree. Will, an ad is supposed to be short and catchy ;)

Regards
Emil


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 Post subject: Re: The Problem With Bonsai Forums
PostPosted: Mon Apr 27, 2009 1:05 pm 
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Joined: Sat Jan 29, 2005 2:11 am
Posts: 6469
Location: Michigan USA
In answer to the questions posted above:

Richard Patefield wrote:
When you write something like this do you stop to think about how many people are actually going to read it?

AoB has never accepted or rejected an article based on length, I doubt we will start anytime soon. As to the number of readers, only time will tell.

Irene Britton wrote:
A lot of venom behind the writing.
Although I see many of the people in here that are on all the forums, I do question the negativity behind the words. I also am left to wonder just where you place yourself in this Article/Thoughts.

Any venom you read into this is of your own manufacture and not intended. I called it like I see it, it's really just that simple. As to where I see myself, as someone who continuously adds to the community on a regular and steady basis.

That being said, the policies here at AoB are that we keep the subject matter and discussion on the topic not on the author. Please feel free to debate the subject matter as presented, debating the author is not now and never has been acceptable here.

Ben Cutts wrote:
You have missed http://www.Ausbonsai.com

No forums were missed, the selection process is outlined in the review section of the article.

Richard Moquin wrote:
???
Too lengthy and verbose. Do you actually believe that an article such as this belongs on this particular forum? Please tell me it isn't so.

As with all article, galleries, interviews, and content here at AoB, the article was vetted and approved by the editorial staff before being published. So, to answer your question, yes. More so, it is perfectly suited for this Eristic section.

Emil Brannstrom wrote:
I agree. Will, an ad is supposed to be short and catchy ;)

All articles can be seen as an ad for something, if one chooses to focus only on that instead of the overall picture.


Will


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 Post subject: Re: The Problem With Bonsai Forums
PostPosted: Mon Apr 27, 2009 1:14 pm 
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Editor

Joined: Wed Feb 20, 2008 7:35 pm
Posts: 163
Location: The Art of Bonsai Project
Before this goes any further, please take a moment to review our policies as listed under the "guidelines" link on the top right of your screen. Discussing the subject matter of this article is encouraged, discussing the author is not.

Please feel free to debate the content of the article politely and intelligently as much as you would like. Off subject, insulting, or attacking posts will be deleted without warning.


ES


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 Post subject: Re: The Problem With Bonsai Forums
PostPosted: Tue Apr 28, 2009 7:47 pm 
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Joined: Mon Feb 28, 2005 9:40 pm
Posts: 383
Editorial Staff wrote:
Before this goes any further, please take a moment to review our policies as listed under the "guidelines" link on the top right of your screen. Discussing the subject matter of this article is encouraged, discussing the author is not.

Please feel free to debate the content of the article politely and intelligently as much as you would like. Off subject, insulting, or attacking posts will be deleted without warning.


ES


For the most part I liked the article, it addressed a lot of issues I have over the years been privy to in one way or another. The essence of it and how someone will respond to it depends on whether they have a dog in the fight. I don't think it harms anyone to look at one's self through another's eyes.


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 Post subject: Re: The Problem With Bonsai Forums
PostPosted: Wed Apr 29, 2009 12:34 am 
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Joined: Wed Mar 30, 2005 12:41 pm
Posts: 34
Location: Ottawa, KS
For the most part, I thought this article was a poorly thought out screed filled with self-justification. Not to make a personal attack, I would much prefer to take the article section by section and present a rebuttal.

I would do so in this venue if I could be assured of two things: My rebuttal of each chapter would receive its own thread (so that all might be done decently and in order). I would begin the thread by quoting the section rebutted, then providing my rebuttal. Mr. Heath could then respond. Following that, others could respond either in the positive or negative as they see fit.

The second assurance I would want is a fair hearing and moderation. That would mean no editorial decision in any of the threads could be made by Mr. Heath or anyone named "Editorial Staff." If there is a moderator of this forum who could feel objective enough to do so, I would consider the opportunity to respond to this article.

Chris Johnston


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 Post subject: Re: The Problem With Bonsai Forums
PostPosted: Wed Apr 29, 2009 7:17 am 
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Posts: 6469
Location: Michigan USA
Chris Johnston wrote:
For the most part, I thought this article was a poorly thought out screed filled with self-justification. Not to make a personal attack, I would much prefer to take the article section by section and present a rebuttal.

I would do so in this venue if I could be assured of two things: My rebuttal of each chapter would receive its own thread (so that all might be done decently and in order). I would begin the thread by quoting the section rebutted, then providing my rebuttal. Mr. Heath could then respond. Following that, others could respond either in the positive or negative as they see fit.

The second assurance I would want is a fair hearing and moderation. That would mean no editorial decision in any of the threads could be made by Mr. Heath or anyone named "Editorial Staff." If there is a moderator of this forum who could feel objective enough to do so, I would consider the opportunity to respond to this article.

Chris Johnston


Mr. Johnston,

Please feel free to debate the subject matter as you see fit in the same manner every article on this forum is debated. You do not need special condiitions and rules set up, as long as you are debating the subject matter and abiding by the policies here, there should be no reason for such demands.

This forum, especially this eristic section, is filled with heated but, respectful debate on the subject matter. We encourage such debate and welcome it. If you can debate up to our standards, please do so, if not, we understand.

You may consider writing an article yourself, perhaps, "The Good in Bonsai Forums" or the like.... I'm sure we would consider publishing it and even perhaps turning this article into a back to back feature with yours.



Will


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 Post subject: Re: The Problem With Bonsai Forums
PostPosted: Wed Apr 29, 2009 7:23 am 
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Joined: Mon Feb 28, 2005 9:40 pm
Posts: 383
Will Heath wrote:
Chris Johnston wrote:
For the most part, I thought this article was a poorly thought out screed filled with self-justification. Not to make a personal attack, I would much prefer to take the article section by section and present a rebuttal.

I would do so in this venue if I could be assured of two things: My rebuttal of each chapter would receive its own thread (so that all might be done decently and in order). I would begin the thread by quoting the section rebutted, then providing my rebuttal. Mr. Heath could then respond. Following that, others could respond either in the positive or negative as they see fit.

The second assurance I would want is a fair hearing and moderation. That would mean no editorial decision in any of the threads could be made by Mr. Heath or anyone named "Editorial Staff." If there is a moderator of this forum who could feel objective enough to do so, I would consider the opportunity to respond to this article.

Chris Johnston


Mr. Johnston,

Please feel free to debate the subject matter as you see fit in the manner every article on this forum is debated. You do not need special condiitions and rules set up, as long as you are debating the subject matter and abiding by the policies here, there should be no reaason for such demands.



Will


In the immortal words of Beldar Conehead: "Maintain Low Tones".


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 Post subject: Re: The Problem With Bonsai Forums
PostPosted: Wed Apr 29, 2009 11:10 am 
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Posts: 91
Location: Melbourne, Florida USA
I find the nature of the article to be somewhat revolutionary - a critique of bonsai forums. I have never seen such a report and so it is innovative. I suppose the internet had to come to this point eventually.

In general though, the critique of a forum over a period of years has to be based on generalities and as such will be tempered by the lens of the viewer. Therein lies the rub, each viewer will react differently based on their perception. In evaluating some sites with unvarnished truth as perceived by the author there will be visceral reactions. As an example, take Chris Johnson's immediate rebuttal. One has to sense there's more to the words there; something layered but really intended to be a personal attack.

This is a good concept however, it needs to be done more objectively as is done in other art forms. For instance, focus groups, or users surveys, such as the Neilsen ratings, would give a more objective evaluation of the forums.

I don't believe one can discuss the article without covering its length. It's too long. I would take out half of the content, especially the anecdotal evidence. The analysis would be tighter and more effective. Also the images chosen are rather lame.


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 Post subject: Re: The Problem With Bonsai Forums
PostPosted: Wed Apr 29, 2009 12:06 pm 
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Posts: 18
Location: Ohio,U.S.A.
I very much enjoyed the article Will. I feel that your comments were meant to compel all who practice bonsai to think about their reasons for doing so.
I believe if it is not done for pleasure and personal satisfaction one is missing, what I think, is the spirit of bonsai, which is I believe to honor nature in general and trees specifically, not for polishing one's own ego or for financial gain.
In reading the other responses to this post I was surprised that so many seemed to be on the defensive. Perhaps they feel as if they have been accused. That is a shame.
As for the idea that the post is too long or "wordy" for most to read, well, that may be true. I read the whole article and found it very useful and encouraging on many levels.
I have been working with bonsai since 1971 and have never entered a contest. Now I very much want to. I hope others feel the same.
Thank you very much for your effort.


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 Post subject: Re: The Problem With Bonsai Forums
PostPosted: Wed Apr 29, 2009 2:12 pm 
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Posts: 2
Location: South Coast, England
To begin with, I believe Will has shown a lot of courage raising this series of emotive issues, even in a rather protracted way, but hey, they like things big in America :-). Never mind, for the best part the majority of us would agree with Will’s remarks, it just remains to tease out each issue and debate them separately if that is the purpose of his post, and if there is anyone out there who wants to go down this route. So perhaps we could do this in chapters.
But what is the objective of this discussion? Is it merely to air some views, get something of our chest, share a piece of insight or is it to find a solution a problem? I would suggest that before starting on a long and winding discussion we need to decide where we want to be by the end of it. Finding an objective is always a good start in my view. If the purpose of the discussion is merely to pass a comment on Will’s article then it is way too long and what follows is superfluous.
Keep it in perspective. Bonsai is our leisure pursuit, most of us who visit these forums do not earn our living by it, if they do then I might suggest that another form of marketing is in order, one that is likely to have a wider audience perhaps. That aside let’s lighten up but remain enthusiastic.
Since on-line censorship by overzealous moderators has already been raised perhaps this is a good a place to start as any. I do not wish to monopolise the discussion but perhaps an objective here might be to agree some forum etiquette to which each of works in the future. It is unlikely that we will ever change the behaviour of most folks on-line but we can at least change our own approach and this itself must eventually have an impact.
Moderators
In Wills article this is covered in his section called ‘Moderation, although there are other comments throughout.
In his response to some initial replies, I think Will would be the first to agree that he might have shot himself in the foot in this respect, a bit like flying Airforce 1 around New York escorted by a fighter without telling anyone:-). Will is human too I suppose...I think.
Forum etiquette
When does a discussion Forum become a Blog? Probably when there is only one viewpoint, I suppose. When this viewpoint is given greater weight by poor moderation then the of course the forum loses credibility.
There is indeed enormous power given to a moderator whose actions can misrepresent the wider view by censoring posts that do not agree with their own view of the world. It takes great patience, broad mindedness, transparency, openness, impartiality, wisdom and understanding to become a good moderator. They are the chair person who is charged with encouraging the timid while restraining the vociferous.
When contributing to discussions, there is a duty on us all to treat each other with respect especially during the times of inevitable disagreement. This does not mean that there cannot be blunt, honest, open discussions but one must accept that on occasions there might be strong disagreement that bruises ones feelings. It is after all a discussion forum otherwise it would be a Blog, Twitter or merely a library.
Good posting begins with good manners; good moderation begins with integrity.


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