In praise of digital rabbit holes

Since the first week of January, I have been wandering, falling and jumping head first into electric guitar rabbit holes. It started with the gift of a self-assembly stratocaster guitar kit. That took me into a “how the hell do I do this without making a clumsy mess of it” rabbit hole. From that first hole others followed. The “affixing the neck to the body hole” and the “headstock shaping” hole and the “wiring of the pots and pickups hole”… One extensive hole, which I am still way down in, is the “set your guitar up yourself” hole. This is a deep and quite dark one, lined with required patience and attention to detail. Not my most comfortable hole but an important one to visit.

Basically, I am in the DIY electric guitar nerd burrow, where I merrily reside in much of my spare time. The holes are the various tunnels that make up the burrow. I like it down here now but it did take some orientation effort and time to clarify my purpose. It took a while to realise that the expertise and advice that constitutes the holes is born of preference and opinion. There seem to be few hard and fast facts. There are many points of view, habits and perspectives, however, along with a healthy gathering of prejudices.

The burrow is almost entirely built from YouTube videos and populated by the YouTubers who make them. Some are hobbyists, some have made a side hustle into a living (or a part of one) and some are professional/branded initiatives. The most helpful are the direct and transparent ones. The ones that admit their preferences and are open about their prejudices. I trust those and find their recommendations most satisfying. These are my guide rabbits in the burrow. 

As an aside, in the guitar world, as in so many others, there is a chronic infection of macho bullshit. These create whiffy dead ends in the main. Female voices are still rare, from my burrow at least, and tend to be more constructive. The helpful rabbits are those who share why they like the hole we are in rather than how skilled they are in digging it.

So, what to think about rabbit holes as part of our learning experiences?

I like the YouTube ones a great deal. They are practical in the main and have the advantage of demonstrating processes, techniques and tools. Plus I can hear stuff – very important in this burrow. I can scrub forwards and backwards, slow things down and pause on tricky bits. I can turn things off, come back to them on my phone with all the usual favouriting, sharing and liking. The links are invaluable, often signalling a sub tunnel to explore.

The YouTube holes are not social in themselves though. Thankfully, each rabbit hole is multifaceted and social media is awash with rabbits. As with all topics, enthusiasts love to share and be shared and this openness is beneficial. (Again, some are terrible narcissists and need to be handled with ego mittens).

The rabbit holes and the warrens they create are organic and unplanned. They occur because there are enough rabbits to hang around in them and sustain them. The routes and markers are there from usage rather than conscious mapping. We need to respect that. A hands-off approach is a requisite. These are rabbit holes not libraries, after all.

Rabbit holes are dug by enthusiastic subject matter experts. These rabbits care more about their subject holes than any normal rabbit. As we know, SME rabbits might not be the best designers and communicators, so handle them with care. I believe the most helpful of them don’t consider themselves as subject experts. They are enjoying and expressing their enthusiasm and are quite humble about what they don’t know. Once anointed as such, an SME can start to believe the title and stray quite far from their utility. That’s my experience anyway. 

None of this means we should manufacture rabbit holes. It means that we absolutely should not. We might facilitate them with space and peace and quiet. We should definitely identify them and point them out. We should offer guidance for them to be treated with respect – none of us are the proprietors of the rabbit hole, we are visitors. It pays to be prepared down there, so take a packed lunch and a good torch to allow enough time to find your treasure. 

The Kahn Academy is an instructive example. Having spotted the value of maths learning rabbit holes, Salman Kahn created a structured curriculum library in a different space. The rabbit holes are all still there for solo explorers. The Academy is also there for those in an education system demanding formal structure. The ‘demanding’ label is deliberately used here, there may not be many cases where this extent of deliberation and formality is valuable.

You can’t be heard or seen down a rabbit hole either. So we need to come out and talk about what happened down there. I am emerging from the “choosing some replacement pickups” rabbit hole today. Now, that is an extensive and confusing hole, nay burrow. It took me around six weeks to navigate it to my satisfaction with a return visit anticipated later in the year. Next is the “soldering and electrics” hole to fit them when the confidence levels are right. If only I could play the instrument properly…

Rabbit Hole by BroodingOne on DeviantArt

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