a rickety bridge of impossible crossing

rabbit holes and rabbit trails

Using the phrase "fell down a rabbit hole" in yesterday's post reminded me that I've heard people say "down a rabbit trail", and remembering that made me go hmm...

I wonder if it's just a natural semantic drift among people who aren't familiar with the origin of "down the rabbit hole", or if it's some sort of convergent evolution, like there was a similar expression about rabbit trails for an entirely different reason. "Rabbit trail" seems to carry more of a "wild goose chase" connotation: a rabbit hole is something you go down, a rabbit trail is something you don't want to go down.

In my usual style, I'll start out with stream-of-consciousness speculation and google it to see if I can figure out the answer. BRB!

man in The Simpsons pretending to go down a flight of stairs

ok i'm back

This is more interesting than I thought it'd be! According to a blog for helping ESL learners understand english idioms:

If you've ever seen a dog follow a real rabbit trail in a field or someone's back yard, you'll see where this idiom comes from. The dog will endlessly sniff around in circles, never getting anywhere. And it certainly never finds the rabbit! Rabbit trails in discussions can be fun and interesting, but they usually interfere with resolving the topic at hand.1

One of the reasons I thought the expressions are related was that I wasn't sure what a "rabbit trail" even is. I didn't think rabbits were big enough to leave visible trails except in the snow, which makes it sound more like some sort of hair-related euphemism. It makes perfect sense if you're a dog, because one's idea of a "trail" is based on an entirely different sensory system. Thanks, Cherie!

the difference

"Rabbit hole" implies a destination. You can dive down a rabbit hole, or you can stumble into one accidentally, but in the end, you're going to understand things differently. Take the red pill, and I'll show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Thanks to the Matrix, the expression has a strong association with discovering the truth about something2 (cf. putting on the glasses in John Carpenter's They Live,) but you could also go down a rabbit hole for a topic you want to learn about, or a rabbit hole of personal discovery. Going down a rabbit hole is a journey by the end of which you hope to have learned something.

When you go down a rabbit trail, there is no destination. You're running around in circles chasing something that may or may not be there. It could be a fun diversion, it could be a harmful distraction, or worse, you could convince yourself that the rabbit trail is leading somewhere.

the point

There's a very popular youtube show that I don't like at all called "Down The Rabbit Hole".3 It's a pseudo-documentary series about the lives and downfalls of marginalized people, typically ones manifesting serious illness in a very public way on the internet. It perfectly illustrates why the difference is important: typically when you make a documentary, it's in service of making a point or helping people understand something. With the couple episodes of DTR I've tried to watch, I didn't get any of that.

The show has all the trappings of a serious documentary, and it's skillfully edited and produced, but by the end of an episode I feel like I just wasted my time. He doesn't build to any sort of narrative point; it's just describing a series of events.

I get the distinct impression that Fredrik Knudson was someone involved in online "drama" (i.e. harassment) communities like Encyclopedia Dramatica and kiwifarms, realized that he knows all this stuff most people don't, and figured he could use his knowledge to make documentaries. He studied the form and technique very carefully, makes exquisitely polished videos, but forgot the part where he's supposed to actually care about the subject.

There are no greater points about where society let these people down, no meaningful criticism of the forces that caused their downfall, no speculation about what could have happened differently. He doesn't condemn the people who stalk and harass the subjects of his videos, they're just neutral characters in the story he's telling. What's the story? "Once upon a time, a bunch of weird and bad stuff happened (passive voice) to this person. Isn't it crazy?! It's so sad. 😒 Anyway, bye!"4

By the end I realized I didn't go down a rabbit hole at all, I've just been running around in circles, chasing a point that wasn't there. It's a deep dive into a shallow field. The red pill is a placebo and the glasses don't even offer basic UV protection.


So circling back to where I started, did I really go down a CSS rabbit hole? Nah. I didn't have a goal other than making the site look pleasingly different, and I didn't come away with a greater understanding of web design. And that's okay! Going down a rabbit trail isn't inherently badβ€”it's good exercise, and hey, you might get lucky and find a rabbit. Just don't head down one hoping you'll find wonderland at the end; you'll be one disappointed doggo 🦝

  1. Cherie. And Today's Idiom Is... (blogspot.com, 2010)↩

  2. Or being tricked into believing you understand the truth by someone who wants to exploit you. Hopefully this goes without saying, but my use of "red pill" is purely with respect to the Wachowski Sisters' film, not any current internet misappropriation of the idea.↩

  3. Knudson, Fredrik. Down The Rabbit Hole (youtube.com, 2016-2021)↩

  4. To be fair, the videos that gave me a bad impression are several years old, and he's recently started talking about more historical topics, so maybe he's genuinely trying to do better and I should give him another chance. But he made his name with videos about people like Christine Chandler and Terry Davis, those videos are still up and being monetized, and they're not good. At best they do their subjects a disservice, and at worst they veer into exploitation. If he wants to be taken seriously as a documentarian, those videos should come down.↩