Maintaining a #digitalgarden

Since the mid-1990s, I’ve maintained a personal web site of some sort. Originally my sites were constructed using Frontpage and Dreamweaver, then I used Blogger for a period until around 2010 when I moved over to keeping self-hosted WordPress sites. There was a period when I used it as a form of online diary and then Twitter and Instagram came along and I became confused about where to post and everything became a mess. At least twice I’ve had catastrophic losses of everything I’d written. More recently, I tried to use for about a year before I realised I could easily replicated the micro-blogging aspect on my site. I’ve deleted Instagram and very close to ditching Twitter, too. Despite social media, I’ve continued to keep a personal web site for a variety of things like reviews, reminiscences and as a public place to keep my notes and thoughts about all sorts of things. It’s a rattlebag. (It’s also just the tip of the iceberg of my personal notes which are stored in Joplin, Tiddlywikis, OneNote, Apple Notes and Drafts. What is kept private or public has no methodology.)

This is why I’m increasingly taken with the concept of the Digital Garden.

A digital garden is an ethos of personal website building that’s a combination of notebook/blog/wiki and appears to be more like those that were hosted in the early days of the web than the chronological blog that dominates what’s left of personal websites. It’s less a product than a note-collecting process (essentially it’s an approach to personal knowledge management that’s presented in public). Anne-Laure Le Cunff calls it “a place to share your evergreen notes—not raw notes you may have stored in your note-taking app, but not quite the level of polish you would expect on a blog.” It’s a way of expressing current understanding of a topic which is continually crafted and developed. The use of bi-directional links – much like wikiwords – is a chief feature in making connections. Many sites that are presented as examples of digital gardens are forms of wikis.

A good starting point is Tanya Basu’s article in MIT’s Technology Review Digital gardens let you cultivate your own little part of the internet:

Welcome to the world of “digital gardens.” These creative reimaginings of blogs have quietly taken nerdier corners of the internet by storm. A growing movement of people are tooling with back-end code to create sites that are more collage-like and artsy, in the vein of Myspace and Tumblr—less predictable and formatted than Facebook and Twitter. Digital gardens explore a wide variety of topics and are frequently adjusted and changed to show growth and learning, particularly among people with niche interests. Through them, people are creating an internet that is less about connections and feedback, and more about quiet spaces they can call their own.

The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral by Mike Caulfield is a seminal text in terms of the digital gardening movement. In this keynote, Caulfield imagines digital gardens as a process of developing thinking through the use of a federated wiki:

just imagine that instead of blogging and tweeting your experience you wiki’d it. And over time the wiki became a representation of things you knew, connected to other people’s wikis about things they knew.

Caulfield describes his process: “de-streaming” what he wants to write about, then the revisions he makes to the page (links to previous things he’s written, links to other sources):

Note how different this sort of meaning making is from what we generally see on today’s web. The excitement here is in building complexity, not reducing it. More importantly note how meaning changes here. We probably know what the tweet would have “meant”, and what a blog post would have “meant”, but meaning here is something different. Instead of building an argument about the issue this attempts to build a model of the issue that can generate new understandings.

Caulfield’s approach is to collect “simple knowledge that builds complexity through linking”. For Caulfield, the “web [is mostly] seen as a tool for self-expression rather than a tool for thought” and, instead, he emphasises “the integrative garden over the personal and self-assertive stream”.

Maggie Appleton in A Brief History & Ethos of the Digital Garden presents the digital garden as “inherently exploratory”, “less rigid, less performative, and less perfect”:

Rather than presenting a set of polished articles, displayed in reverse chronological order, these sites act more like free form, work-in-progress wikis.

Appleton’s history starts with Mark Bernstein’s 1998 Hypertext Gardens” (where Bernstein asserts that “The garden is farmland that delights the senses, designed for delight rather than commodity”) and then shows how the term was used as a form of “digital maintenance – the act of cleaning up one’s digital space” in the late 2000s to Mike Caufield’s “The Garden and the Stream: a Technopastoral” in 2015. Appleton draws on the analogy to assert: “The garden helps us move away from time-bound streams and into contextual knowledge spaces.” She then brings her history up to date with Tom Critchlow’s Of Digital Stream, Campfires and Gardens in 2018 (which adds “campfires”, conversational places where people write in response to each other) and other writers. She brings her history up to date, showing how the term has caught the attention of a number to the extent that it featured in the MIT Tech Review. Finally, Appleton discusses the reasons why digital gardening is drawing a great deal of interest at the moment. While Appleton welcomes “no-code” tools used for non-programmers to create digital gardens, she sees existing applications as limiting (she uses the analogy of them being “pre-fab houses”).

She presents six guiding principles for digital gardening:

  1. Gardens are organised around contextual relationships and associative links (rather than chronological order); they use bi-directional links.
  2. Gardens are constantly growing, evolving, and changing. What’s published isn’t final.
  3. Gardens are imperfect by design: “It’s less performative than a blog, but more intentional and thoughtful than a Twitter feed. It wants to build personal knowledge over time, rather than engage in banter and quippy conversations.”
  4. Gardens are unique and experimental: “Gardens offer us the ability to present ourselves in forms that aren’t cookie cutter profiles. They’re the higher-fidelity version, complete with quirks, contradictions, and complexity.”
  5. Gardens should have a diverse content: “Podcasts, videos, diagrams, illustrations, interactive web animations, academic papers, tweets, rough sketches, and code snippets should all live and grow in the garden.”
  6. Gardens should exist on the open web.
Many people have lamented the web’s slow transition from unique homepages to a bland ocean of generic WordPress themes. Digital gardening is part of the pushback against the limited range of vanilla web formats and layouts we now for granted.

Another digital garden advocate, Shawn Wang, has proposed a terms of service (better, a code of conduct) for digital gardens:

A Digital Garden is your very own place (often a blog, or twitter account) to plant incomplete thoughts and disorganized notes in public – the idea being that these are evergreen things that grow as your learning does, warmed by constant attention and fueled by the unambiguous daylight of peer review.

In You and Your Mind Garden Anne-Laure Le Cunff explains:

1.Your note-taking app, such as Roam or one of its open source alternatives for instance, can be used for collating snippets, ideas, and raw thinking. Use it to seed your garden and connect the dots.

2. Once you have managed to articulate a new idea (new to you at least), write down a few more structured sentences, and add it to your digital garden as an evergreen note.

3. You can stop here, but for people who have a proper blog or a newsletter, you may want to publish longer essays there.

Elsewhere she identifies her process as:

I jot down raw thoughts in my note-taking app, and publish longer essays on my blog. My digital garden is a space to connect early-stage ideas, collect evergreen notes, and plant the seeds for more ambitious work.

Taking smart personal notes that aren’t just passive but actively make links between notes (Le Cunff says that hoarding notes gives the illusion of knowledge) to generate your own content.

Cunff defines it like this:

  • Collect. Note-taking, raw snippets, Kindle highlights + personal commentary.
  • Connect. Link to previous notes. Do not keep orphan notes.
  • Create. Write original article.

In The Swale: Weaving between Garden and Stream Will Stedden suggests a looser ethos which encourages different approaches to gardening:

The Stream is the blog, the news feed, the Twitter timeline, all that which flows past us in a line, delivered in discrete chunks, fixed in the fourth dimension with timestamps. The Garden is the wiki, the documentation, the Github repository, all that which continues to resemble itself, residing where it first cropped up, growing in spots, receding in others, what you see is the accumulation of all changes

Daniel Sieger in Digital Gardens. Seriously? considers digital gardens a little more objectively, suggesting that they contribute to different ways of thinking about knowledge management and the technology behind it:

The metaphor itself already fosters a different way of thinking. The aspect of working and learning in public adds a whole new dimension. Longevity, continuous growth and evolution are key characteristics. The connections and relations between different pieces of information get a completely new significance.

In a recent piece, Digital Gardening for Non-Technical Folks, Maggie Appleton suggests using either Notion, Obsidian or Roam for gardening. But she insists:

I want to add a final note on here: we should be careful not to mistake the technical features of a garden for the ethos of gardening. We have reached the point in the gardening hype train where people seem to think backlinks, hover previews, and visual graphs are what define a “digital garden.

This is misguided. Gardening is a practice that treats a personal website as a constantly evolving landscape where you develop your ideas in public.

Gardens are…
a) Explorable, rather than structured as a strictly linear steam of posts. This is usually achieved through deeply interlinking notes where readers can navigate freely through the content.
b) Slowly grown over time, rather than creating “finished” work that you never touch again. You revise, update, and change your ideas as they develop, and ideally find a way to indicate the “done-ness” state to your reader.

No framework, platform, plug-in, service, or fun interface element defines a garden, and never will. Do whatever works for you, at whatever technical level feels comfortable. Just keep gardening.

Digital gardens overlap with the organisational  personal knowledge management and what Andy Matuschak terms “evergreen notes” which are non-transcient notes that are continually in the process of being added to and linked much like Mike Caulfield’s approach.