Nerding out about "digital gardens"

I encountered the idea of a “digital garden” Friday and was instantly enthusiastic and spent some time this weekend nerding out about it. Here is the result – the beginning of my digital garden: mitchwagner.com.

A digital garden is a personal website curated by its author, with essays and information about the subject or subjects they’re excited about. Some are wide-ranging and complex and cover a variety of subjects, while others cover a single subject, such as neurology or books,

Here’s a directory of digital gardens. It’s a digital garden of digital gardens!

Digital gardens provide an alternative to chronological streams such as blogs and social media. Streams are great for finding out what’s happening and whats new now. But they’re lousy for organizing information. Also, streams are terrible for longevity. Once stuff gets pushed down off the top of the stream, it disappears. Digital gardens are places where you can organize information and keeping information available over the long term.

Digital gardens can be very simple, just an index page or a Google Doc. Or you can use sophisticated software to create complex, Wikipedia-like documents.

After a while thinking about this idea, I realized that we’re talking here about the old, 90s “personal website.” People back then would create websites devoted to their favorite bands, or hobbies, or just their own lives and interests. Eventually these got swallowed up by Wikipedia, Google and the various social media silos.

Digital gardens are an extension of, and renaming of, personal websites. That doesn’t make the idea less powerful though.

Digital gardens are exciting to me, personally, because they solve a couple of problems that I’ve been noodling about for years. One problem is that I post a lot of stuff to my streams. Some days I post a dozen or two dozen items. Most are ephemeral – links to breaking news articles, some with comments, some without. Wisecracks. Memes. Old ads and photos from the mid-20th Century.

But some of what I post seems like it should be more long-lasting, whether it’s a book review or the journal of our 25th anniversary safari to Africa last year.

A digital garden solves that problem. I can just put up an index page of links to long-lived and notable content, and let that — rather than the blog or my biography — be my home page. I’ll continue with the blog and keep the bio. But the index page will be the main entrance to my site.

Again, this is not a new idea. Gina Trapani has been doing that a few years, and I don’t think she would say her idea is particularly original to her. But it’s still a great idea — and it’s new to me.

The second problem that digital gardens solve for me is that I’ve been noodling about ideas for projects for, well, several years now. Interviews with people I find interesting, software reviews and how-tos. Occasionally I have even acted on these ideas. But I don’t do it often because I don’t have a permanent home for them.

Resources

My digital garden: mitchwagner.com.

Here’s the article that got me excited, and introduced the idea of “digital gardening” to me: Digital gardens let you cultivate your own little bit of the internet

How the blog broke the web – Amy Hoy provides a brief history of blogs and social media, and discusses why they’re not great ways to organize information.

Hoy says there were only 23 blogs in 1999? Amazing. By late 2001 there seemed like a million of them.

Maggie Appleton: A Brief History & Ethos of the Digital Garden – Apparently the term and idea has been around in various forms for more than 20 years. Not surprising. The internet is a tangled web. Streams and search engines are two great ways to find stuff, but stuff can still be hard to find. That’s not a new problem.

Maggie Appleton’s directory of digital gardeners and digital gardening tools

Maggie’s Digital Garden

Maggie again: A brief overview of digital gardens as a Twitter thread.

A list of artificial brain networked notebook apps – These include a couple of familiar names to me, such as Roam Research and Obsidian. They seem to be a mix of private note-taking apps, Internet publishing tools, and private apps that can also publish to the public web.

This is a take on “digital gardens” that borrows from the philosophy of “zettelkasten.” Put simply, a zettelkasten is a system of note-taking where you write down each idea separately — in its original vision decades ago, you wrote each idea on a slip of paper or index card, though now of course there are digital versions — and then link madly between related notes. Ideas can come from books, articles, thinking, observations, whatever. Zettelkasten advocates say they can come up with fresh insights simply by returning to their zettel and following the links. German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who invented the idea, credited his zettelkasten as a collaborator on many papers and books.

You don’t have to use dedicated software for a digital garden. Mine is just an index page for my existing blog.

Second Brain – “A curated list of awesome “Public Zettelkastens :file_cabinet: / Second Brains :brain: / Digital Gardens :seedling:

Digital Gardens – Another explainer with a couple of examples. The author says:

In basic terms, [a digital garden] is a different format for written content on the web. It’s about moving away from blog posts ordered by dates and categories, into more of an interlinked web of notes.

One of the main ingredients is bi-directional links between those notes, creating a network of notes, similar to Wikipedia.

I would not say that the notes have to be interlinked, Wikipedia-style. Though they can be.

gwern.net – A very nice example of a digital garden covering a broad range of subjects.

Article: My blog is a digital garden, not a blog by Joel Hooks.


Canonical URL for this post: https://mitchwagner.blog/2020/09/08/what-is-a.html

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Great post @MitchWagner . I really like what you have done with your garden, and the idea of (digital) gardening is the perfect analogy.

I have restarted a journal/diary after a few years, I have just shifted to Diarly having used Day One originally, and was wondering how I could record some of my other streams of thinking. Now you have me thinking!

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Thanks for this. I remember having one of these years ago, I must be talking around 20 years, Geocities era, and just enjoying laying out my interests and writing them up for no one to see or care about. I certainly had some game reviews up on it.

When I have time, I think I’ll be in on this again because it is a much better format than a blog for me.

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I have been thinking about this idea lately too.

Three questions are top-of-mind:

  1. How should someone decide what’s worth publishing in a digital garden?

It seems likely that it’ll be easy for digital gardens to contain a lot of noise, or at least “unfinished” or “still growing” concepts. Does this matter? Or should folks set some threshold for what’s worth showing to the public?

  1. How should updates be shared or promoted?

Unlike a blog, in which people post sequential articles, a digital garden might develop through fits and spurts all over the site’s content. What’s the best way of engaging an audience in this growth? It seems like conventional RSS doesn’t suit. Maybe a changelog?

  1. Is linked thinking problematic in the long term?

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, cites some research suggesting that people think less deeply when using hyperlinks. (I haven’t actually read the book, just listened to his recent interview with Ezra Klein. (I recognize the irony here.))

To oversimplify: hyperlinks increase cognitive load when reading, as the brain is distracted by whether the link is valuable or useful as it’s also trying to comprehend and contemplate the content at hand.

I’m not convinced this is just a new version of the classic “new technology is bad because it’s not like old technology” argument (cf. the prophesied problems of the printing press, the radio, etc.) but I think it’s worth considering as the digital garden hype grows.

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I read The Shallows. It’s an interesting, provocative read, and I recommend it, along with William Powers’s HAMLET’S BLACKBERRY from a decade ago. But that argument about hyperlinks doesn’t impress me; there’s about as much ‘cognitive load’ in a footnote or endnote as a hyperlink, and no one ever particularly urged caution about them.

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Good point. A well-controlled study would have to include the core content and then at least three conditions: hyperlinks with additional content, footnotes with additional content, and inline additional content. I wonder if the research used such a design… If I get the chance to look it up, I’ll report back.

But! Your point is what I meant by this fearmongering being another example of “new technology bad.” The bases on which these claims are made are rarely caught up with the context of the technology.

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For me, the blog is the first draft of the digital garden. I figure once a month, I’ll go in and review what I published on the blog over the past month, and see what looks like it’s worth highlighting for posterity.

Many “digital gardens” have email newsletters. I think I’ll just do a “what’s new” post on the blog, and either link to it from, or copy-and-paste it into, the digital garden page. If I do the latter, I’ll replace it monthly.

Yup, that’d work.

I’ll defer comment to another day. However, I’ve been making a conscious effort recently to make time to read books. And it does require conscious effort to make that time, whereas until 20-25 years ago books were my main reading because there was not a lot of alternative.

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