How TONMO Came To Be...


Staff member
Site Owner
May 30, 2000
Originally Posted Nov 28, 2010.

When a Web community has lived as long as we have (TONMO was founded May 30, 2000), it has a story to tell. Actually, we have a few stories to tell, but I will start here with the story of how TONMO came to be. I get a lot of questions about this, and the Site FAQ just doesn't tell the full story.

Somewhere in the mid-90's, just a couple years after I graduated from college and early in my career in online services, I decided I wanted to read a book. I wanted to study something that I was interested in, but didn't know where to focus -- although I did have a lead. My wife and I honeymooned in Maui, and during our stay I picked out a book on humpback whales to bring home. I finally read it, and re-read it, and for a couple of years I had a lot of conversations with my wife and friends about the wonders of the ocean, and amazing humpback behaviors.

So, sticking with the theme, I decided to get a copy of Monsters of the Sea by Richard Ellis. I still heartily recommend it. The chapters on octopuses and squid capture the mystique and splendor of these amazing creatures and their habitat. After reading that book, my imagination was all the more sparked about the wonders of the ocean and the creatures within it -- and to think of their intelligence!

Meanwhile, I was continuing my career in online services. I was a Bulletin Board Leader for Prodigy Services in the early-to-mid 90's, and learned a lot about fostering online discussions for people with common interests. As Board Leader, I would manage a staff of Moderators and Special Contributors to add value to the community. The boards I ran included Genealogy, Trading Cards, and Science & Environment. In this role I was the public face of the community, and would moderate discussions and ensure our boards were lively and remained on-topic.

Being in the online services industry with experience managing communities, it was well within my interests to study the technology, products and platforms that delivered those capabilities. I had a few Web pages (my first was a page on an Ohio State server about quitting smoking -- this was probably 1993 or 1994, right around the time Web browsers were just coming of age), and so I developed a hobby of playing with HTML and publishing content on the Web.

After hosting many Web pages on various topics on various servers, in 1998 I finally secured my own domain: -- where "tonmo" is a portmanteau (huh?) of my name, Tony Morelli, and had been my "cyber name" (username across many sites) for quite some time. I sub-titled it "The Leading Provider of Wasted Time Online" and would update it every few days with a blurb, or a Web cam pic. It was pretty Facebooky and blog-like, but at the time we mostly referred to them as online journals. I'd write a short entry for what I had for dinner the night before, or a movie I just watched, and some pithy, witty comment to go along with it. A couple of entries even dealt with my interest in sea creatures and squid.

Within my career, by this time I was studying search engine optimization and the power they held in attracting visitors to your content -- and the fact that you could sell ads against those visits. It turned out that people were starting to build quite a following, and could also make money, building Websites.

While my mom thought my Website was great, I was beginning to realize it wasn't very marketable (I suppose that would have been a good time to think about starting a Facebook-like service that would connect people together privately, but here we are). I wanted to keep the domain, but what to do with it? I needed a subject, something to market, something that could do well in search engines, and serve the interests of many, not just the people who know me and might be curious about my journaling.

So, I figured I needed to turn TONMO into a meaningful acronym that would cover a "marketable" topic -- that is, marketable in the sense of uniting people in a common interest that could be discussed and explored online. I probably brainstormed for about a week - one idea that almost stuck was "The Ontology News Magazine Online." I thought I'd study the topic and build a site around it. I went as far as creating an HTML page to set the framework, but thankfully it ended there.

It was probably that same day where I talked with my wife Tania, and explained that I wasn't sure that ontology was the right topic for me to build a site around. I had resolved that it should be "The Something News Magazine Online", and I needed a word that starts with "O". "How about octopus? You like octopus." Indeed, I was constantly bending her ear about the things I learned in Monsters of the Sea. I even had a conversation with her about my frustration of not being able to find any news story online about a recent stranded giant squid in New Zealand.

So, by Spring of 2000 I had settled on a title and theme for my site, and I started searching a bit harder for cephalopod resources online in order to better understand the landscape. My objective was to create a destination where people could give and get information about cephalopods, and perhaps just "wonder aloud" about what they do, what they think, and generally what they're about. I also wanted to share news stories for the community to comment on. I knew it would take time before I could get an active community brewing, but before I even took the first step of framing up the site, I needed to look more deeply into other cephalopod interest sites on the Web. Back then, there was a LOT less content to contend with. There were no WordPress sites or blogspots to help people crank out articles... no RSS feeds or widgets to simplify the content dissemination process. :old: When I was your age, we coded our pages by hand -- and uploaded them with a dial-up modem!

Anyway. In my research, I came across a site managed by Dr. James Wood (@ceph) called "The Cephalopod Page" (sometimes referred to as TCP). The site was clearly run by an expert in marine biology and authority on cephalopods (two things I was not - and although I've learned quite a lot in these past 10 years, I'm still not). TCP included the immensely valuable CephBase repository of cephalopod species. CephBase offered classification details for hundreds of cephalopod species, and in many cases included photographs, behavior observations and movie clips. It was really the only site I could find that offered robust (seriously robust) information pertaining to cephalopods, but it lacked a community element, and news postings were sparse if there at all.

I found Dr. James' email address on his site and dropped him a note regarding my intentions to create an active Website that focused on news stories of things happening in the world of cephalopods. He offered some encouragement but also cautioned on the amount of work it takes to set up and maintain a Website that provides sustained interest to its readers.

Ultimately I went about the task, and in May of 2000 officially converted my site from " the leading provider of wasted time online" to " The Octopus News Magazine Online". I posted a news story every two days or so, with my own brief editorial paraphrasing what the article was about, and offering a comment or observation about it.

Staying in touch with Dr. James, I offered to create a process with him, whereby I would send him an HTML-formatted version of my updated news log, and he would syndicate it on his own site, with a link back to my own. He agreed, and this arrangement stayed in operation for the first few years of TONMO's life on the Web. This was a great strategic relationship to get TONMO started, and a great way to get Dr. James some frequently updated content.... and after finally meeting Dr. James at TONMOCON III in Monterey Bay in 2009, I asked him to join our volunteer staff, and he accepted.

Back to those early years: occasionally I would get an email from someone who found my site through a search engine, or from Dr. James' site, or through some other link exchange I had established. They'd ask me questions, such as "how many hearts does an octopus have?" or "Are there any deadly octopuses?" or "What's the biggest squid that was ever caught?" One guy sent me a picture of his octopus costume for Halloween. Clearly there was interest in the topic.

With their permission, I would take their emails and post them online (being careful to only use their initials and not publish their email addresses), along with my response. This feature was called "Letters to the Editor" and it ran from 2000 through 2002, until I finally had enough forum activity that I was able to stop the Letters to the Editor feature. All the original correspondence can still be found here, here, and here. To answer their questions, I would just conduct an online search and provide the answer.

When responding as the "Editor", I was careful to point out that I wasn't a cephalopod expert, but rather, just the Webmaster and someone who thinks they're amazing creatures. I was happy to just chat about them with other people who shared the fascination. To that end, shortly after launching the site I quickly researched which forum software I could use to help support the community, and allow people to converse with one another.

For a time I also promoted a simple "guestbook" feature (you remember those), to which classic TONMO members such as Jean McKinnon and Jill Sophia (@TaningiaDanae) submitted entries for. I experimented with various forum software, and started with the incredibly simplistic (and wonderfully free) "Matt's WWWBoard".

The forums gained traction quite quickly, and it wasn't long before Dr. Steve O'Shea found us and began contributing to the discussions as a registered member.

WWWBoard eventually gave way to x-forums, then to phpbb, and late in 2003, I purchased a vBulletin forums license, which has since served as the foundational software for member interaction on TONMO. [2014 Edit: in late 2013, TONMO converted to xenforo software.]

As the forums grew, certain members proved themselves to be extra helpful, extra knowledgeable, and extra sensitive to the care and well-being of cephalopods. These members were ultimately offered "Staff" positions on TONMO -- to be part of TONMO Staff, they were essentially asked to just keep doing what they're doing, while also leveraging administrative tools for moderation of the forums in order to ensure our forums remain lively, informative, and trustworthy. They also contributed dozens of articles over the years which can still be found on our site.

Nancy King and Colin Dunlop were asked first, and they accepted. Not long after, I got the gumption to ask Dr. Steve O'Shea (@Steve O'Shea) himself to join, and he did! He, along with (eventual Dr.) Kat Bolstad (@Tintenfisch) focused on our science & physiology discussions, and Phil Eyden (@Phil) managed fossil discussions. Brian Walls (@WhiteKiboko) and Adam Clem also joined, supporting cephalopod humor and culture, respectively.

[Note: several others joined staff along the way, and while I speak about many of them in this blog post, I just can't mention them all and their contributions - they are overwhelming! Literally, I reached my text limit. We've had some turnover and new additions over the years, but everyone's individual contributions and imprints remain. I'm forever grateful to every person who joined staff, past and present. Our current Staff roster can be found here; I hope some of them will share their own stories!]

Especially in the first few years, the site evolved in some ways I didn't expect. For example, when I first started TONMO, I had no idea that it would eventually become the authority on keeping cephalopods in home aquariums. Colin, a cuttlefish and octopus care expert from Scotland, answered a growing number of questions from community members seeking help (sometimes desperately) on how to care for their pets. What are the proper pH levels? Is copper really a problem for octopus tanks? (yes it is). How long do they live? How big of a tank should I get? What does it mean when my octopus starts turning white? Colin stepped into this space very early in TONMO's existence and greatly helped TONMO establish itself as an authority on proper cephalopod care. My role as "Editor" wasn't going to cut it.

Nancy King, who was asked to join TONMO staff purely out of her enthusiasm and helpful nature, took on the task of getting her own tank, and documented it in great detail, lending to excellent content in our forums, and eventually leading to Colin and Nancy authoring their own acclaimed book on cephalopod care. Richard Ross (Thales) has shared several articles on ceph keeping and frequently talks at marine aquarium events. Greg Ewald is an expert in exotic creatures, including cephalopods, and provides a unique and important perspective on ceph care practices. Carol Sauer (@corw314) famously experimented with a giant lego block in her bimac's tank, providing excellent journal entries and photos of the sessions. Today, Denise Whatley chronicles in great detail the multiple cephs she keeps and provides tireless support to ceph keepers around the world.

In the Science & Physiology space, I never expected I'd have such prominent marine biologists contributing to TONMO, many on our volunteer staff. TONMO experienced explosive site traffic inherent with the Colossal Squid (Mesonychoteuthis) announcement in 2003 (Dr. O'Shea / Dr. Bolstad), and a few years later, their Colossal Squid autopsy which was also attended by Olaf Blaauw in Te Papa, New Zealand. There have been several other high-profile events which have generated international interest. Dr. Crissy Huffard shared with us her findings on the famous and strange "walking octopus" behavior. Dr. Roy Caldwell contributes to both our science areas as well as cephalopod care, and has provided some of the most incredible ceph photos ever snapped (e.g., blue rings, mating cephs, etc.).

Our fossils area has attracted fact-seekers from around the globe, managed by Phil Eyden and later by Kevin Bylund. Phil's articles and graphics brought fossils back to life for experts and casual observers alike, and details of Kevin's frequent, professional archaeological excursions are posted with great detail and authority, much to the benefit of the community.

Beyond cephalopod care and science, from early on TONMO has covered so many other topics: Cthulhu, tattoos, education, furniture, jewelry... and so on. All this has been fueled by a loyal, well-mannered and ever-growing community of ceph enthusiasts, experts and hobbyists. The community itself is what makes TONMO the best cephalopod site on the Web.

It's hard to fit it all in, and so that will have to do it for the story of how TONMO came to be. Thanks for reading this far! Well, who are we kidding... more than likely, you skipped to the end. :rolleyes: See you in the forums!
You and I were discovering web design at the same time! I too remember hand-coding my first site in the nineties and uploading it via dial-up. It all felt so pioneering back then.
Thanks for creating a wonderful cephalopod site. I'm a fiction author but I like to get the facts about my characters correct. I only invent what goes on in their minds and even that has to be true to type and seem believable. This site is a boon to me. You mention Denise Whatley. She has already been helpful and has even agreed to read my latest octopus short story to check it for authenticity.
The videos here are so helpful to me - they show me the poetry of my characters without me having to get wet.
And no, I did not skip to the last paragraph - I read every word.