April 4, 2022
I’m a big fan of Robin Sloan. I discovered his work after idly picking up Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore at a, well, bookstore, and being appropriately hooked. And then I Googled him, as one does. That led me to snarkmarket.com, which led me to stock and flow, which lit up a giant LED lightbulb in my head. It has now cemented itself as one of my Favourite Concepts of All Time. A hardcore economic principle being applied to types of content we’re bombarded with on a daily basis — cross-pollination at its finest. But I digress.
At any given point in time, Twitter’s feed is refreshing, throwing up new tweets to scroll through. On the other hand, we have some instances of stock—like books, tomes and gigantic essays—that haven’t been updated since they were published.
This is the paradox of information today. It is either passing us by in a split second or created and left untouched, like Stonehenge but made of words. Neither of these in isolation is good. But sacrifice neither, win them all — now that’s an interesting balance.
The digital garden, I believe, strikes the ideal balance between the two. The term has been around for decades, but the digital garden’s earliest avatar is embedded in Mike Caufield’s keynote, The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral:
"Every walk through the garden creates new paths, new meanings, and when we add things to the garden we add them in a way that allows many future, unpredicted relationships."
It’s pretty evident that this is in stark contrast with what content arrangement looks like today. We tend to favour chronological sorting—like blogs or social platforms presenting posts from the latest to the earliest—over thematic structures. Rabbit holing in such an environment is more effortful because you have to intentionally find links based on your intuition and mental connections, rather than stumble upon them serendipitously.
But a few separate revolutions have tilled the field, so to speak, for digital gardens to take root now and possibly hit critical mass. According to anthropologist and designer Maggie Appleton, three concepts, in particular, seem to have had the most impact in bringing digital gardens back to the fore: Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain, the “Learning in public” way of building, and increasingly intuitive note-taking apps.
What defines a digital garden?
The concept, like the information inside it, is ever-evolving and isn’t pinned down to one tool or way of working. But most digital gardens today share a few salient features that set them apart from blogs, websites and other repositories of knowledge.
I compiled this list after referring to Maggie Appleton’s and conducting my personal research on digital gardening.
Connections over chronology
In a digital garden, interlinking topics and themes are tonnes more important than chronology. Publication dates are only helpful insofar as you want to indicate when this thought or essay was formed and how long the gardener has been thinking about it.
Pick your own path
Unlike other knowledge or content platforms, the digital garden’s primary audience is the researcher or writers themselves. That in itself brings about a fundamental change in how information is presented, written, and explained.
Digital gardens are inherently exploratory, and their notes are rarely complete or refined. They’re also heavily interlinked, which creates a sort of “pick your own adventure” experience for the reader with enough signposts to guide them along.
I’ll go back to the stock and flow analogy for a second. Stock structures tend to be set in stone, inasmuch as you can do that on the internet. Research is private, presenting only the final piece in all its glossy glory. Once it reaches that final form, it’s left pretty much untouched. Flow, on the other hand, very rarely reached a cohesive stage, often doomed to be read in one minute and forgotten the next.
By contrast, digital gardens are almost always a work in progress, much like regular gardens. There’s plenty to weed out, plant, repot, trim, and rearrange. And you do all this in public, occasionally taking advice from fellow gardeners or experts.
Digital gardens are far from perfect — they’re organic. This is a tough one to relearn because, over the last few years, the rise of the Personal Brand has made it almost taboo to publish anything less than polished on the internet. God forbid someone finds a typo in your post, much less an incomplete or under-researched thought. On the other end of the spectrum, the safety of sitting behind a screen almost anonymously leads to more noise, and fewer signals. Gardens, then, balance the wiggle room to make mistakes and the accountability in doing so in public.
A variety of ideas
In a true garden, you would probably never see 50 plants of the same variety and colouring. You’d see a lemon plant next to a fern, a fiddle leaf fig next to an addenium. You may plant chamomile seeds you bought off the internet, only to see them grow into an eggplant plant (true story).
The idea is to question homogeneity and embrace variety. You may choose to focus on areas you’re broadly interested in—say tech, anthropology, or Buddhism—but you then give the garden free rein to sprawl about in whatever direction it wants to. The surprises are endless.
Go on Twitter and in 5 minutes, you’ll have seen snippets of Twitterati’s lives with absolutely no context. Or, you’d have seen them in the context of what that platform deemed “worthy information” — where they live, what device they posted from, who follows them, what words they mention, and how many likes they get per post. Small wonder then, that we tend to assume the worst about people — a lack of context leaves no room for the Most Reasonable Interpretation.
Digital gardens have acres of space for nuance, complexity, and airing your personality. If everyone were to follow the terms of service (more on this below), then you’d have a relatively safe space to present yourself in a more 4D avatar.
Terms and conditions of a digital garden
Starting and maintaining a digital garden means unlearning a few things and learning a whole different set of rules. Shawn Wang’s Digital Gardening Terms of Service covers almost all ground, but I’d like to pull out one section:
"People with audiences do of course have some obligation to not do them a disservice, else they don’t deserve that audience. However this doesn’t mean that they must do exhaustive due diligence and be authoritative in every context — there needs to be space to experiment, grow, and quite frankly, be ignorant and wrong."
We tend to take any form of the written word as gospel, but that’s not how things work in a digital garden. A digital garden is representative of interests, rather than someone’s best work. It’s probably the closest digital equivalent to how their mind works. That comes with the right to be wrong or half-baked. However, the gardener owes it to themselves—and to their other audiences—to give each post a marker of maturity and reliability. Maggie Appleton uses seedling (rough ideas), budding (somewhat cleaned up), or evergreen (fairly mature). I use:
Seeding: Freshly planted ideas that need more exploring.
Sprout: Has a good foundation. More growth is expected.
Plant: Fairly established. Minor edits might still happen.
One thing most digital gardeners will agree on is that there’s no one definition of a digital garden. There isn’t one best way to do it or an ideal tool to use. The answer to all this depends on what works for you.