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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Folks in this thread might be interested in Obsidian’s now-available Publish feature, though note that it is still in beta. Read more:
https://publish.obsidian.md/help/Plugins/Publish

(Obsidian’s Help docs, linked above, are now using the Publish feature if you want to explore how it looks/works at this stage.)

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Cross-posting from Obsidian’s forums:

Publishing your thoughts on services like Obsidian Publish affords new kinds of opportunities for sharing linked thinking1 on the web. It seems to be easier (or at least more intuitive to do) than publishing conventional articles. This kind of writing also facilitates the accretion of knowledge in a way that breaking thoughts down into standalone articles seems to discourage.

Yet, there are some challenges. These ideas all work really well in terms of input, but I don’t think it’s so straightforward when it comes to output. Readers typically expect some method of easily keeping up with your contributions. Perhaps we need a paradigm shift from conventional publishing models to linked-thinking publishing, but until that happens, I think most readerships will be confused when they try to follow a writer along on a knowledge base.

That is, unless the writer provides some kind of help.

Far as I can tell,2 authors of linked thinking sites can do a couple of things to help readers follow progress. Here’s what I’ve come up with. (These options aren’t necessarily exclusive of one another—you can probably use multiple. They are also not ordered in any deliberate way.)

1. Updating an Index page.

One way to emulate “blogging” via linked thinking sites might be to keep an Index page. Every time you post a new item, link it there, perhaps with a date or some other kind of ordered identifier. That index becomes your homepage. Readers can check in to see when things are new.

2. Hybrid Blog–linked thinking site hybrid.

Publish a linked-thinking site. Maintain a blog within the site, perhaps by using a Blot-like service to watch a specific folder for new blog posts.

3. Posting a changelog.

Perhaps using a blog–linked thinking site hybrid or simply with “Changelog” pages in the knowledge base, track and annotate the changes you’re making in a specific report and share those reports as often as is appropriate.

4. Externalize the update mechanism.

Don’t provide readers with help tracking changes in-site. Push updates via other forms of social media—tweet out “Just added a new section to my page on abductive reasoning!” (or trumpet it on Mastodon or whatever) instead.

5. Embed RSS functionality.

I don’t think this is easy, but technically savvy folks may be able to set up an RSS service such that new (or modified) pages get pushed out via RSS. (Perhaps this is a good feature request for Obsidian Publish…?)

What are folks doing to help readers follow changes in this newish format? What have you seen? What do you think is the best model?


1: These sites used to be called “wikis,” but I think what we’re seeing people publish as “mind gardens” no longer fits the definition of wiki—which, to me, is a single dedicated repository of information about a given subject. A wiki should basically be all referential fact, while linked thinking sites seem like more than that! So, somewhat following Nick’s work, I like the idea of a “linked thinking site.”
2: I don’t actually have a linked thinking site—yet. I am still thinking about what such a thing should look like (obviously).

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What’s the difference between this concept … and a blog?

Yes, No. Maybe so! Zoinks!! I don’t know! Websites can and do take so many forms. This, to me, is just sort of a part of the cycle which seems to be this forward, backward, sideways exploration and re-exploration of forms and blends and blended forms. Which is to say, woot, it’s a party and anything goes. A wiki, a blog, a static page, a microblog, a notebook, a painted underpass. It’s fun to change and play around with format and structure but at the end of the day I’m not sure any of that matters. It seems to be ongoing experimentation and exploration of what’s possible. What’s old is new again.

All that said, I think the most important aspect of it all is that it be something used for self growth. A journal, a diary, a whatever you want to call it to write, sketch, doodle, research, etc. Also, I think perhaps more important than the particular structure is that it be backed up on local computer and published on self-owned/controlled spaces. Where these things seem to most likely get lost or loose value is when they are only placed in ephemeral corporate timelines like Twitter or Facebook. Then they are truly lost.

I’ve been publishing on the interwebs since 1998 and mostly do it for myself. I have no real expectation or goal with regards to readers. I do it for me as a temporary or semi-permanent place to explore. If others find it interesting that’s fine. But I’m pretty spotty in terms of consistency of topic and frequency. I don’t really care as much about the format because even blogs do a decent job of allowing keyword and category searches or just text searches. Or I can just search a local source.

As time goes on I generally care less and less (maybe I’m getting lazy?) about the question of form and structure. I think that statement comes from a place of semi-techno-burnout, similar to that related to the endless exploration of other computery things like to-do apps, note-taking apps, etc. In fact, this is the first time I’ve posted in many months. I think I just got a bit bored and wandered off to spend time riding bikes around the countryside. 6,000 miles and 10 months later I popped back in to see what’s been going on. Hi!

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@quorm All mechanics, to me. A blog has an obvious place for readers to go to see what’s new, and there’s usually RSS or newsletters built in—because it’s easy to feed readers new articles. A linked thinking site doesn’t necessarily have these things.

Maybe an example will help explain my thinking. Say you run a blog on app reviews—every week you publish a couple of articles with reviews of new apps, or updates to old apps. For your readers, this model is simple: check the site and see if there’s new articles since the last time they visited, or better, sign up to your newsletter or RSS feed to get notifications.

Compare with a linked thinking site on app reviews. Such a site would probably maintain a unique page with each app, and the writer would update the page when a new version is released.

So, say a new update is released for OmniFocus, for DEVONthink To Go, and both announce new widgets for iOS 14.

The blogger releases two new blog posts: one for OmniFocus, one for DEVONthink. Both have sections on widgets. Readers see the two new articles and know that that’s all there is to see.

The linked thinker updates their OmniFocus and DEVONthink pages. They probably also create a new Widgets page that references or embeds sections from the DEVONthink and OmniFocus pages on their widgets.

So, the question: what mechanism is best to inform the linked thinker’s readers about the new content? Are they supposed to check a homepage, see that there’s new content in OmniFocus and DEVONthink, and then they go there to see what’s changed?

(Granted, this strawdog makes this scenario as complicated as possible… but hopefully it’s illustrative.)

@Denny Hi, welcome back!

I half-agree with you. For me in general and perhaps for many others, publishing is less about readers and more about the writer.

But still, if I were to start up a site specific to making it easy to use my research on strategies for systems change, I’d want it to be easy to keep up with, and these questions start to matter more. Ergo I’m thinking of all those bloggers that are doing it for their readers—recipe sites, the Cal Newports of the world… hell, it might be interesting for a news site to be built like this.

I’ve been really enjoying Craft app at the moment, and I’m starting to build a digital garden in it. I’ve been wanting to since this topic started, but it’s only now that I use Craft that the barrier to entry has just vanished.

The app is so pleasant to use, and linking things and making it look decent is so simple; it’s a lovely way for me to organise things personally, but it also allows me to share it as a web page with people (my parents) if I choose to. Maybe when it gets a little more rounded.