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This is the Modem World: Nerds in rabbit holes


Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

I have many interests: mountain biking, martial arts, video games, running, reading, cooking and horror movies. For each one of these, there is an internet rabbit hole so deep, so full of information and compatriots that it's a miracle I ever actually follow through on them. Ask yourself this: Do you do what you say you do online?

The internet is great at allowing people to nerd out on their particular interests. While it serves up news and media like a champ, many of us spend our time deep-diving into whatever rabbit hole interests us. When we nerd out about technology here at Engadget, for instance, we're getting a double dose: reading about technology in a tech environment. It's a beautiful thing; it's addictive and we lose sight of reality while we're going deep. We could be in a bar, at home, at the office -- wherever it is, we lose sense of our environment.

When it comes to my latest online rabbit hole -- mountain biking -- I can spend hours dreaming via the bits and bytes of others. I can watch helmet-cam videos of riders bombing down local trails I can't wait to ride. I can read technical tips from more-skilled riders. I can download trail maps and order 1,200-lumen LED night lights straight from China. I can talk myself into thinking I need a new carbon frame when my current one doesn't even have 1,000 miles on it yet.

That sense of community and like-mindedness for our unusual interests is, without a doubt, the single most addictive facet of the internet. Want to discuss your love for cartography? There's a community out there. Even if you're into My Little Pony when you are arguably too old to be, you'll find legions of Bronies in a well-lit corner of the 'net, and every single one of them is willing to accept you for who you are. Years ago, you'd be a sad, lonely individual collecting action figures in the corner of McDonalds, but now... now you have friends.

In most cases, this is a great thing. Healthy people need like-minded people who make them feel as though they're not alone. That sense of "I'm not as weird as I thought I was" is a major relief and, in the end, it's really fun as long as you're not hurting anyone.

But what happens when we spend more time talking online about the things we love than actually doing them? In my mountain-biking case, while I'm engaging in a silly online argument regarding the pros and cons of using clipless pedals, I sometimes pause to wonder why I'm discussing riding online when I could be outside actually doing the thing I'm discussing. Sure, sometimes it's because the clock reads 2 AM and I shouldn't be out when the monsters are roaming the trails. Other times, it's because I'm working. But sometimes there's no reason at all -- I'm sometimes nerding out about mountain biking when I could be out there doing it.

It's these online rabbit holes that we often find ourselves in, unable to separate the mental space from the actual act. Whether we're following a chain of videos on YouTube into cringe-worthy obscurity or pounding the keyboard in defense of our favorite tech company, we sometimes go too deep.

And then one has to wonder if the ubiquity of online communities allows us to take on an interest without actually engaging in said interest. I know that on some days -- especially those between Monday and Friday -- I am guilty of spending more time talking online about my interests than I do actually following through on them.

Sure, I may come out the other side perfectly fine and loaded with new information for my next ride, happy to have met new compatriots. But maybe, just maybe, I forget to actually do what I've been talking about the whole time.

I'm going for a ride. No, really. I am. After I read this post about cornering.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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