Fish farming, or aquaculture, is the fastest growing agriculture method, making over $80 billion just a few years ago. In this swiftly growing industry, AquacultureHub brings together people interested in their goal to "help advance the development and implementation of aquaculture programs around the world that promote sustainability, food security and food safety, research and advocacy." Network administrator Dr. Barbara Payne McLain, ATOLL Project Director at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, spoke with us about the passionate aquaculture community behind AquacultureHub. 

Tell us a bit about the AquacultureHub Comunity.

Aquaculture Hub was started in 2009 by Dr. Tetsuzan Benny Ron at the University of Hawaii-Manoa as community outreach for anyone around the world who is interested in fish farming, aquaponics and related environmental topics.  I serve as an additional administrator on the site, which now has about 4,430 members.  We’re adding about 50 per week recently.

What was your biggest challenge in starting your community?

When the community first began, our biggest challenge was naturally attracting new members.  We formed many interest groups and Dr. Ron and I wrote several unique blogs per week.  We had some other student help that was assigned to comment on everything and welcome every member who joined.  I felt we needed to have unique content and information on the site, that could not be found anywhere else in the world.  I think we’ve done that.

What are some of your favorite stories or testimonials from community members?

At a recent national conference, members of AquacultureHub from all over the world gathered in person - at a bar in Nashville, TN - to meet for the first time.  We sold t-shirts to commemorate the occasion.

How do you spread the word about AquacultureHub?

We really haven’t done much advertising, but when I write a blog about a topic or video, I try to contact the company or author to tell them I featured their product or content and invite them to join.  Dr. Benny Ron is the ultimate networker, and via email and conferences around the world, he has spread the word that this is a gathering place for everyone in the profession.  We’ve also hosted live audio and video presentations on the internet on various topics and mentioned our network.

You also run uhatoll.ning.com, a community for the non-credit course your teach through the University of Hawaii. How do the communities and your management of them differ?

AquacultureHub.org is an open community.  Anyone with interest and a decent profile can join.   Dr. Ron and other instructors also use the Hub for academic discussions for hybrid on-campus undergraduate classes.   We will be working to integrate some existing association websites into our Ning network over the next year, as almost all of the members of these associations visit our Ning network.  It makes sense for them to stop paying web hosting fees and move their association business into our network site.  We are getting great traffic!

Our UH ATOLL program is very unique.  We are offering non-credit training in aquaculture and aquaponics via a large video library embedded on pages inside our Ning network site.  The class is open to anyone ages 16 or older.  The 85 lecture videos are streamed from an Amazon server account using JW Player -- the pages are hand-coded.   We are also using an external quiz tool for practice quizzes and final examinations leading to a certificate, and embedded polls so students can rate the videos they watch.   UHATOLL  is a closed network, based on those who pay the small registration fee to our University of Hawaii Outreach College.    

How do you vet and manage the community blog?

On both networks, all blog posts, photos, and videos require administrator approval.  This can be quite time consuming - especially on AquacultureHub.  We feel it is important to the quality of both sites.  The Hub has had some members become quite annoying, rude, verbally abusive, etc.. and they were quickly suspended.  We also do not allow any commercial advertising on either site.  This maintains the academic integrity of our networks.

Community compiled map of Aquaculture farms, worldwide.

What aspect of your Ning Network has proved most valuable to your community?

I think that the answer to this question will change, depending on the member.  I think most members most like the ability to ask questions of “the crowd” who shares their interest in our topics.  This is true networking-- many people who answer a question on either of our sites do not know the person who is posing the question.  They answer the question anyway and help someone who may be on the other side of the planet.  I think that's very cool!

On the design side, do you give much thought to the user experience or have any design-minded people to help with it?

We asked a user-design firm (iKayzo.com) to take a look at both networks and made changes based on their advice.  AquacultureHub is so large, with many, many groups -- it can get a bit cluttered and occasionally we’ve had to adjust and move things, delete groups, etc.. I highly recommend an annual “housecleaning” for all large social networks.  Our UHATOLL site has not changed in the past 3 years, and we get no complaints about the user interface.  Everything is pretty self-explanatory for the students on that site.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned from your community?

Through our networks, I’ve learned how spoiled we are in the United States.    Information about aquaculture and aquaponics can be extremely important to those who live in very remote locations on the planet.   We have members from every continent, and over 100 different countries.  Getting help with growing food or troubleshooting a farmer's problem can save lives.

What’s the best piece of advice you have for someone looking to start an online community?

I would tell them to have a plan before you begin.  Specify a mission and don’t make it too broad... or too narrow.    Make sure that you create a destination that a web visitor cannot duplicate elsewhere.  Ensure that it is a place they will want to spend several minutes each week visiting to get all caught up on events, activities or news about your topic.  Use the social network buttons on your site and get a Facebook page as well.  Update the Facebook page at least once per week and update your network with new material every 2-3 days for at least the first year.   If you have an advertising budget… use it!

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