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Digital Gardens. Seriously?

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Some ideas take time to flourish. Maybe digital gardens are one of those ideas. Is it just a hyped revival of the personal website or is there more to it?

What Are Digital Gardens?

A digital garden is a digital space to cultivate your thoughts, ideas, notes, and knowledge. Think of personal wikis and experimental knowledge bases. Digital gardens are curated and evolve over time, sometimes growing wildly and sometimes getting pruned.

Digital gardens are less focused on publishing highly polished results but more about the process of developing ideas, thoughts, and knowledge over time. Less personal branding and search engine optimization but more personal growth and development instead.

Digital gardens are typically public so that others can learn from your current knowledge and understanding and provide feedback at an early stage. They are a prime example of working and learning in public.

What Are the Origins?

Digital gardens are clearly reminiscent of the quirky personal websites of the early web. Early roots of digital gardens can be traced back to Mark Bernstein’s 1998 essay Hypertext Gardens. Of course personal websites continue to exist today (hello, but they got largely superseded by blogs and social media, as Amy Hoy argues in How the Blog Broke the Internet.

In 2015, Mike Caulfield refined the metaphor of a garden further in his article The Garden and the Stream. In his analogy, the stream is the short-lived linear content like your blog or social media time-line whereas the garden is for content of a more durable nature with more complex relations in between. He traces the original idea of a garden back to Vannevar Bush’s 1945 (!) visionary essay As We May Think (read it, it’s a total blast).

The idea of a digital garden recently gained more and more traction. Two frequently cited examples are John Critchlow’s Of Digital Streams, Campfires and Gardens and Joel Hook’s My blog is a digital garden, not a blog. Maggie Appleton’s A Brief History & Ethos of the Digital Garden provides a more in-depth introduction for those who are curious to learn more.

Are They Any Good?

In short: yes, absolutely! I think it’s an idea worth exploring.

It’s amazing that more and more people think about alternatives to the one-size-fits-all streamlined silos of InstaTwitBook. Digital gardens stimulate the idea to create personalized content that is built to last and independent of locked-down third-party platforms. The IndieWeb community deserves a mention here as well.

One of the most interesting aspects is the idea of non-performative writing, thinking, and learning in public. This allows you to get your ideas out there early and refine them over time. It lowers the friction to start writing, and reduces the fear of being judged. We are all learners. Anyone having the courage to share his knowledge with the rest of the world deserves respect.

Of course, there’s a flip side to that approach as well, and that’s false information. The raw material inevitably contains factual errors. This can, however, be mitigated to some extent by indicating the maturity and reliability of the content. Maggie Appleton keeps up the gardening metaphor and categorizes her content as seedling (rough ideas), budding (somewhat cleaned up), or evergreen (fairly mature). Sounds like a fine solution to me. After all, it’s up to you to always question the reliability of information you find online.

Just a Hype?

Closing the loop to my initial question: Is it just a hype or re-branding of the good old personal website?

Yes. And No.

Digital gardens clearly continue the tradition of personal websites, wikis, and knowledge bases.

But then, there’s more to 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.

And then there’s technical evolution.

People are constantly exploring new tools to better support this style of working. Especially bi-directional linking between pages seems to emerge as a key technology. Interactive visualizations enable completely novel ways to explore these relations. And then there is the question how to bridge the boundaries of individual gardens.

Get Your Hands Dirty?

Now, should you grow a digital garden?

I can only offer my perspective: I’ve been tinkering with different approaches to capture personal knowledge for quite some time. The simple linear nature of a blog never really cut it for me. Therefore, I integrated a simple workflow to capture notes and ideas directly into my website. It’s based on Jekyll and plain Markdown and serves me quite well. You might call this a digital garden, it’s just not a public one for the moment.

Maybe it’s time to rethink a few things.

References and Further Reading