The Enthusiast Trench is a metaphor for a topic/hobby/community/pastime that can’t easily observed and understood from outsiders without a similar amount of interest or involvement of the curious party.
There isn’t just one Enthusiast Trench. There are many trenches and they are easily to find if you are walking on the surface of the earth. It’s like the concept of rabbit holes but rabbit holes or rabbit holing is usually a pejorative about wasting time. Enthusiast Trenches are about interest, enthusiasm and the hidden nature of the payoff in these things until you spend enough time to appreciate them. At that point, you are in the trench and now you are unable to explain to outsiders what you have learned and witnessed in the Enthusiast Trench. The trench in The Enthusiast Trench metaphor isn’t a pejorative. It isn’t related to dirt or digging. Enthusiast Trenches aren’t good or bad.
Anything that can’t be explained why it is fun is probably an Enthusiast Trench. When a person has to resort to metaphors, they are trying to think of things that surface people have seen and use those for stand-ins for things they have seen underground in the Trench.
If you listened to someone talk about why they built a life-sized Lost in Space blinking computer replica they might tell you “it was fun” but if you probe “why” then they are going to have a rough time explaining it. The raw answer in their head is probably something like:
I didn’t think I’d be able to get the neon bulbs refresh time to be precise enough to look like the original Burrows props. But, after I did some tests and talked with some friends that I met (and have become good friends with since), I knew I could get the full scale version working. Then it was just a matter of time …
The Trench isn’t this project or this person. It’s the whole community of people doing projects like this. The Trench hides the real “why” behind a time and interest wall.
A community where mods, hacks or extensions exist and are plentiful is a strong indicator that it is an enthusiast trench. The important thing about Enthusiast Trenches is not that it is one or it isn’t one. It’s that it can’t be easily appreciated.
I can think of a lot of examples but some of the biggest trenches are the ones that are abstract and not physical. Photography is one but it can be demonstrated physically (maybe not the process but the product). The abstract trenches are really tricky. So, naturally, being a software person I can think of a lot of software trenches.
A working irc client in minecraft using mods.
A raid-proof base in Rust (a survival/building game), designed in an external CAD program with mods.
A development board with the PCB shape of a Lego minifig
These examples pictured above are easily demonstrable because they are visual or physical. Abstract things are not.
This is true for software libraries in every language I can think of. Maybe I’m not in some of these communities. Maybe I’m haven’t been in the communities for a long time. I might ask the question “what are modern libraries to use in Java these days”? This is like calling down to someone in the trench after you have left. People are extending tunnels that can’t easily be explained.
Python Trench: “oh, nobody uses urllib2, everyone uses requests and there’s this great requests addon that makes uploads so easy, it really ..” (etc etc).
Maybe software libraries aren’t purely fun. But people can be enthusiastic about them because they are amazing in their eyes. If you are an outsider, you won’t be able to see the fun in the interior tunnels of their trench.
Fear of Missing Out
There is definitely a relation to the fear of missing out (FOMO). You could feel bad about not being in all trenches and many times I do. I don’t want to encourage FOMO. I don’t want to give FOMO any more fuel. I don’t really have a solution to FOMO and really that’s a different topic.
I follow the City Skylines subreddit but I don’t play the game. I know people are having fun. I sort of understand the game mechanics and the game loop. But there are a lot of mods and deep mechanics I don’t get. This is true of a lot of games with “mods”. The community is digging its own trenches from within a trench by extending the game. But I really don’t grok the fun.
Sometimes, I just let the weight of the trenches flow over me and appreciate the complexity. Like looking at a landscape from really far away. It’s beautiful because it’s missing the details.