The internet bonsai group: still a hooked big fish or merely a Tickled old trout ?

There is of course a colossal irony in posting an article on internet bonsai groups on the website of a group which also has an internet bonsai group, but I have been evaluating the BSB’s facebook and website presence a lot of late, and as part of that exercise, I have been looking at other groups as well. I will also admit that my current interest has been prompted by a recent blog post (there’s that irony again) from former southern softie turned gritty northerner Tony Tickle who, clearly displaying that he must have been off sick the term they did tact and diplomacy at his Swiss finishing school, suggested that you can’t learn bonsai from facebook.  While I neither wholly agree nor wholly disagree with his comments, my impression gained from this recent exercise is very much that while they have some function, many of the internet bonsai groups, particularly those resident on facebook, are certainly in danger of losing a bit of ground.

Before looking at the main reasons for saying that, let’s first identify the back story of internet bonsai groups. The process seems to have started with email “lists” through which information was disseminated. These were subsequently replaced with the arrival of forums, some of which are world-wide, some more localised, some general and some specialised. Many boast membership in the thousands while others are more compact. They all met with a degree of success because the internet allowed far more people to participate than the forum creators ever imagined. This was significantly enhanced with the arrival of digital photography – at first pricey but latterly inexpensive through digital point and shoots and more recently the phone camera.  We could shoot a pic of a tree in our own garden, post and receive comments from bonsai friends thousands of miles away within minutes.

Then came Facebook.

There can surely be no doubt that Facebook has held the crown of the social media sites for a number of years now. It has among its plus points that it is free, that it is instantly accessible in most parts of the world, and like the internet forums distance is no barrier. The idea of discussion groups where like-minded folk could meet virtually to discuss their hobbies and interests is vastly appealing and took the original forum idea to a new level.  In 2010 Facebook posted that it had some 620million groups, and this seems to be still the case. Moreover, a simple search on Facebook will reveal countless bonsai related ones – certainly numbering in the hundreds if not more.

There is a school of thought that believes that a presence on Facebook is as valuable if not more so than a website these days, and that certainly holds true for businesses which need to be where the potential customers are. For clubs and societies, many of which have only reluctantly taken up the internet mantle, it is less disastrous not to have a Facebook presence than it is for a business. Many, however, have embraced the bonsai group concept wholeheartedly, while for others, it has become a case of “if you can’t beat them, join them” with the recognition that if they don’t put up a Facebook group or page at the very least, their members – real and potential – will wander off to elsewhere in the ether.

But what do members of Facebook bonsai groups actually gain from being so? I have no doubt such groups provide a valuable personal source of pleasure for many.  I suspect that for many group members it is more a case of not having anything to lose – no membership fee has been parted with after all, and you don’t actually have to do anything if you don’t want to. For others, it may be the fact that the anonymity of an facebook group allows even the most socially shy to participate knowing that actual face-to-face encounters are unlikely. For others again, it no doubt involves a sense of belonging and in that respect it is not really any different to why people join groups and clubs out there in the real world.

Then there are the competitive joiners who seem to have set themselves the challenge of joining as many groups as they can. (Personally I think they need our pity rather than our condemnation.) When you are a member of 500 groups – as I have indeed seen on Facebook – I would rather think that your contribution to those groups must be very minimal – unless of course you really do just sit all day on Facebook. Pauses to shudder. And to re-assess own time spent facebooking.

I have equally no doubt that one of the big attractions for some (mercifully still a minority) is the ability to post ad nauseam irrespective of quality or in some cases any factual knowledge of the subject. Such “serial posters” are irritating, but even they on occasion can pop out a pearl. The biggest problem with them is that you have to kiss a lot of their frogs before the prince appears.

So, apart from mildly irritating serial posters and saddos who want to reach the 6000 facebook group cut-off point, everything seems rosy.  Why, would I even think that internet, particularly facebook, bonsai groups might have had their day?

Enter the lurkers and the takers, stage right.

I am a member of five Facebook bonsai groups, and as far as I can see they are all sizeable in “membership”. IBC on Facebook has 5000 members – about the same as its forum membership although not all forum members are Group members and vice versa. Dario Octaviano has recently exceeded the 1000 mark after only a few months of the Bonsai Odyssey group having been established.  Lindsay Farr’s World of Bonsai is fast approaching 7,500 members, and the more specialise Kusamono has nearly 2,500. BSB is currently sitting at over 500 and we get easily half a dozen requests in a day.

Yet it is easy to see by doing a simple sample of a day’s input on many of the bonsai facebook groups that within those very impressive numbers only a very small fraction actually contributes anything.  And while some of the contribution is of undoubtedly high quality, rather a lot of it is not.  I am not referring here to people posting what some of us might consider “inferior” trees – that is the prerogative of a group member and unless the group has set out a standard to which all members must adhere, there is little we can or  even should do about. If we assume that groups, like forums, are there to build skills and knowledge, then perhaps the “underdogs” are precisely the ones we should be encouraging.

However, what I am talking about is the legion of contributions that consist of little other than Likes, “Nice tree” comments and my particular bugbear – those who trawl the internet and subsequently share images from other sources, often in a language no-one can actually read and often featuring the same trees as we have seen on countless other forums.  For me, these all diminish a group. If I have posted a tree looking for constructive comment on how I might improve it, then endless “Likes” or large thumbs up smileys do not help me.  Similarly, I am irritated by those whose posts declare them to be someone who can’t actually be bothered to do the research themselves, sometimes to the extent that the poster only just stops short of asking someone to do the actual work for them.  Such people are internet groups’ takers – they will demand your input but will never give anything back.

Plus ça change, I hear you say. And you’d be right.  Long before the internet arrived and even still to this day out there in the world of real clubs, there are the equivalent of lurkers and takers. The perceived wisdom is that in any group 20% of the members do at least 80% of the work, and some of us may even think that 20% is a very generous estimate.  Will this ever change?  I doubt it. The only exception is the exceptional club whose members are all motivated and involved. Those exceptions will, of course, prove the rule.

So will this bring a halt to internet/facebook bonsai groups?  I think probably not. Love them or hate them, the numbers of members attached to groups and the frequency with which they spring up indicate that they do provide something for large numbers of people.  But “successful” in terms of simple numbers does not mean that they are good.

I started this article as a thought chain in my own head about what function the British Shohin Bonsai’s website and more specifically its facebook group should fulfil. For us to retain any sort of integrity as an organisation we need to be doing something more than just existing as a group who post pretty pictures on facebook or a website. We are, after all, the resurrection of the British Shohin Association and our aim remains the same: to raise the bar of shohin in the UK.  While online posts can help inasmuch as it helps raise awareness of the existence of shohin, I personally would like to see more from a bonsai group. To return to Tony’s comment about not learning from a facebook or other online bonsai group:  I don’t entirely agree with that, but neither do I entirely disagree.  I have learnt what (few) practical skills I have from a handful of excellent teachers, of that there is no doubt.  And I’d hope that whatever guise the BSB adopts in the near future, it retains a hands-on approach the way its predecessor did in a way which further boosts the quality of UK shohin. I would want our facebook and website presence to be the support mechanism for that and that may very well mean restricting who can join the group and who can access the knowledge bank on the website to those who are willing to give as well as to take.

But for every good “real time” teacher I’ve had, I have also encountered a whole raft more people and places who have given me inspiration, and many of those have been through virtual sources. Without inspiration, many of us would not be doing bonsai. And while it can come at you from various directions – attending shows, visiting artists’ gardens, etc. – it is in providing inspiration that internet groups do have a role to play. Some undoubtedly achieve this far more than others.  I’d certainly want BSB’s one to be way up there in the inspirational stakes as well as the skills and knowledge provision.

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