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A Brief History & Ethos of the Digital Garden

Planted Jun 10, 2020
Last tended Mar 21, 2021
Digital Gardening
The Web

Back in April of 2020 I put up a long twitter thread on the emerging trend of Digital Gardening. It gathered a little buzz, and made clear we're in a moment where there is something culturally compelling about this concept.

My small collection highlighted a number of sites that are taking a new approach to the way we publish personal knowledge on the web.

They're not following the same conventions as what we've come to know as the "personal blog". Rather than presenting a set of polished articles, displayed in reverse chronological order, these sites act more like free form, work-in-progress wikis.

They're collections of evolving ideas that aren't strictly organised by their publication date. They're inherently exploratory – notes are linked through contextual associations. They aren't refined or complete - notes are published as half-finished thoughts that will grow and evolve over time.

They're less rigid, less performative, and less perfect than the personal websites we're used to seeing. It harkens back to the early days of the web when people had fewer notions of how websites "should be." It's an ethos that is both classically old and newly imagined.

A Brief History of Digital Gardens

Let's begin with the term itself. The notion of a digital garden is not a 2020 invention. It's been floating around for over two decades. However, it's passed through a couple of semantic shifts in that time, meaning different things to different people across the years. As words tend to do.

Tracing back how Neologisms are born and evolve helps us understand why we needed the word in the first place. Which is a game I am very here for.

The Early Gardens of Hypertext

Mark Bernstein's 1998 essay Hypertext Gardens appears to be the first recorded mention of the term.

While the essay is a beautiful ode to free-wheeling internet exploration, it's less about building personal internet spaces, and more of a manifesto on user experience flows and content organisation.

A screenshot

Let's note that Mark's graphics are to die for

To put it in a bigger picture context, Mark's writing was part of a larger conversation happening throughout the nineties around hypertext and its metaphorical framing.

The early web-adopters were caught up in the idea of The Web as a labyrinth-esque community landscape tended by WikiGardeners and WikiGnomes.The caretaking roles given to people who cleaned up broken links, attributions, and awkward white space on shared wiki websites. These creators wanted to enable pick-your-own-path experiences, while also providing enough signposts that people didn't feel lost in their new, strange medium.

The early web debates around this became known as The Navigation Problem – the issue of how to give web users just enough guidance to freely explore the web, without forcing them into pre-defined browsing experiences. The eternal struggle to find the right balance of chaos and structure.

"Unplanned hypertext sprawl is wilderness: complex and interesting, but uninviting. Interesting things await us in the thickets, but we may be reluctant to plough through the brush, subject to thorns and mosquitoes"

While Mark's essay was concerned with different problems to the ones we face on the web today, its core ethos feels aligned with our emerging understanding of digital gardening. It captures the desire for exploratory experiences, a welcoming of digital weirdness, and a healthy amount of resistance to top-down structures.

After Mark's essay the term digital gardening goes quiet for nearly a decade.

Digital Puttering on Twitter

In April of 2007 when Tweets first started ringing through the internet airwaves, Rory Sutherland (oddly, the vice president of Ogilvy Group) used the term "digital gardening", but defined it as "faffing about syncing things, defragging - like pruning for young people" For those from outside the Commonwealth, "faffing" means mucking about without a clear direction or useful output

The next dozen mentions on Twitter all followed this sentiment – people were using the term as a way to describe digital maintenance - the act of cleaning up one's digital space. The focus was on sorting, weeding, pruning, and decluttering, rather than growing and cultivating. People mentioned cleaning out private folders, codebases, and photo albums as the focus of their gardening efforts.

These people were digital puttering more than gardening.

Since none of these folks reference to the earlier nineties notion of digital gardening, or mention issues of hypertext navigation, this use of the word feels like a brief tangent. Given the tiny size of Twitter in the early days, these people probably belonged to the same social flocks and were riffing off one another. It's not necessarily part of the mainstream narrative we're tracking, but shows there's not one strict meaning to the term.

That said, some degree of faffing about, sorting, and pruning are certainly part of the practice of digital gardening. Though best enjoyed in moderation.

Gardens, Streams, and Caufield's Metaphors

At the 2015 Digital Learning Research Network, Mike Caufield delivered a keynote on The Garden and the Stream: a Technopastoral. It later becomes a hefty essay that lays the foundations for our current understanding of the term. If anyone should be considered the original source of digital gardening, it's Caufield. They are the first to lay out this whole idea in poetic, coherent words.

Caufield makes clear digital gardening is not about specific tools – it's not a Wordpress plugin, Gastby theme, or Jekyll template. It's a different way of thinking about our online behaviour around information - one that accumulates personal knowledge over time in an explorable space.

Caufield's main argument was that we have become swept away by streams – the collapse of information into single-track timelines of events. The conversational feed design of email inboxes, group chats, and InstaTwitBook is fleeting – they're only concerned with self-assertive immediate thoughts that rush by us in a few moments. While this may sound obvious now, the streamification of everything was still dawning around 2015.

This is not inherently bad. Streams have their time and place. Twitter is a force-multiplier for exploratory thoughts and delightful encounters once you fall in with the right crowd and learn to play the game.

But streams only surface the Zetigeisty ideas of the last 24 hours. They are not designed to accumulate knowledge, connect disparate information, or mature over time. Though the rising popularity of Twitter threading is an impressive attempt to reconfigure a stream environment and make it more garden-esque.

The garden is our counterbalance. Gardens present information in a richly linked landscape that grows slowly over time. Everything is arranged and connected in ways that allow you to explore. Think about the way Wikipedia works when you're hopping from Bolshevism to Celestial Mechanics to Dunbar's Number. It's hyperlinking at it's best. You get to actively choose which curiosity trail to follow, rather than defaulting to the algorithmically-filtered ephemeral stream. The garden helps us move away from time-bound streams and into contextual knowledge spaces.

"The Garden is the web as topology. The web as space. It’s the integrative web, the iterative web, the web as an arrangement and rearrangement of things to one another."

Carrying on Caufield

Good ideas take time to germinate, and Caufield's vision of the personal garden didn't reach critical mass right off the bat. It lay dormant, waiting for the right time and the right people to find it.

In late 2018 the corner of Twitter I hang out in began using the term more regularly – folks began passing around Caufield's original article and experimenting with ways to turn their chronological blogs into exploratory, interlinked gardens.

Tom Critchlow's 2018 article Of Digital Streams, Campfires and Gardens was one of the main kick-off points. Tom read Caufield's essay and began speculating on alternative metaphors to frame the way we consume and produce information. They suggested we add campfires to the idea of streams and gardens – the private Slack groups, casual blog rings, and Cozy Web areas where people write in response to one another. While gardens present the ideas of an individual, campfires are conversational spaces to exchange ideas that aren't yet fully formed.

Tom piece was shortly followed by Joel Hooks' My blog is a digital garden, not a blog in early 2019. Disclaimer that Joel is a mentor, collaborator and friend, so my exposure to the idea comes from his early advocacy and enthusiasm for it. Joel focused on the process of digital gardening, emphasising the slow growth of ideas through writing, rewriting, editing, and revising thoughts in public. Instead of slapping Fully Formed Opinions up on the web and never changing them.

Joel also added Amy Hoy's How the Blog Broke the Web post to the pile of influential ideas that led to our current gardening infatuation. While not specifically about gardening, Amy's piece gives us a lot of good historical context. In it, she explores the history of blogs over the last three decades, and pinpoints exactly when we all became fixated on publishing our thoughts in reverse chronological order (spoiler: around 2001 with the launch of Moveable Type).

Amy argues that Moveable Type didn't just launch us into the "Chronological Sort Era". It also killed the wild, diverse, hodge-podge personalisation of websites that characterised the early web. Instead of hand-coding your own layout and deciding exactly how to arrange the digital furniture, we began to enter the age of standardised layouts. Plug n' play templates that you drop content into became the norm. It became harder and more technically involved to edit the HTML & CSS yourself.

"Suddenly people weren’t creating homepages or even web pages... they were writing web content in form fields and text areas inside a web page."

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.

Over the course 2019 and early 2020, more and more people began riffing on the concept. Shaun Wang compiled the Digital Gardening Terms of Service. Anne-Laure Le Cunff published a popular guide to setting up No-code Digital Gardens. The IndieWeb community hosted a pop-up session to discuss the history of commonplace books, personal wikis, and memory palaces.

By late 2020 this whole concept had attracted enough attention for the MIT Tech Review to write a short piece on it.

Digital Gardening's Fertile Soil

What made our current historical moment the right time for digital gardening to take off?

The timing coincided with a few complimentary ideas and communities rallying around personal knowledge systems, note-taking practices, and reimagining tools for blogging. The scene was ripe for new ideas around curating and sharing personal knowledge online.

Many of the people who jumped on the early digital gardening bandwagon were part of communities like...

  • The IndieWeb collective – a group that has been championing independent web spaces outside the walled gardens of Instatwitbook for nearly a decade.
  • Users of the note-taking app Roam Research – Roam pioneered new ways of interlinking content and strongly appeals to people trying to build sprawling knowledge graphs.
  • Followers of Tiago Forte's Building a Second Brain course which popularised the idea of actively curating personal knowledge.
  • People rallying around the Learn in Public ethos that encourages continuously creating 'learning exhaust' in the form of notes and summaries.

Developer-led Gardening

Many of these early adopters were people who understood how to build websites – either professional developers or enthusiastic hobbyists. Any kind of novel experimentation with the web requires knowing a non-trivial amount of HTML, CSS, and JS. Not to mention all the surrounding infrastructure required actually to get a site live. Developers took to the idea because they already had the technical ability to jump in play around with what garden-esque websites might look like.

The current state of web development helped here too. While it feels like we've been in a slow descent into a horrifyingly complex and bloated web development process, a number of recent tools have made it easier to get a fully customised website up and running. Services like Netlify and Vercel have taken the pain out of deployment. Static site generators like Jekyll, Gatsby, 11ty and Next make it easier to build sophisticated websites that auto-generate pages, and take care of grunt work like optimising load time, images, and SEO. Plenty of people will disagree that this explosion of JavaScript-stuffed rubbish is a net gain for the web. We all lament the loss of being able to upload pure HTML and CSS files via FTP. But those days are gone, and the only thing we can do now is slowly untangle our JavaScript spaghetti and package it up into more accessible build tools. These services are trying to find a happy middle ground between tediously hand-coding solutions, and being trapped in the restrictions of Wordpress or Squarespace.

While developers were the first on the scene, plenty of writers, researchers, and note-taking enthusiasts have been drawn to the idea of digital gardening. To help folks without programming skills join in, there's been a surge in templates and platforms that allow people to build their own digital gardens without touching a ton of code. Obsidian, TiddlyWiki, Notion, and Hyperdraft are all great options. Many of them offer features like nested folders, Bi-Directional Links, footnotes, and visual graphs.

However, many of these no-code tools still feel like cookie-cutter solutions. Rather than allowing people to design the information architecture and spatial layouts of their gardens, they inevitably force people into pre-made arrangements. This doesn't meant they don't "count," as "real" gardens, but simply that they limit their gardeners to some extent. You can't design different types of links, novel features, experimental layouts, or custom architecture. They're pre-fab houses instead of raw building materials.

The Six Patterns of Gardening

In all the recent gardening flurry, we've run into the inevitable confusion around how to define the term.

There are contested ideas about what qualifies as a garden, what the core ethos should focus on, and whether it's worthy of a new label at all. What exactly makes a website a digital garden as opposed to just another personal blog?

After reading all the existing takes on the term, observing a wide variety of gardens, and collecting some of the best examples, I've identified a few key qualities they all share.

This amounts to a kind of digital garderning Pattern Language. A few guiding principles, design patterns and structures people are rallying around.

1. Topography over Timelines

Traditional blogs use the timeline as their primary organisational structure. Posts are presented in reverse chronological order by their publication date.

Gardens are don't use chronology as their main organising rule. They're organised by contextual relationships. The concepts and themes within each note determine how it's connected to others. Notes link to other notes that touch on similar themes and topics. One of the best ways to do this is through Bi-directional Links – links that make both the destination page and the source page visible to the reader.

A linear timeline of posts vs. a spatial layout of connected posts

Ideally, a garden will offer a number of entry points and ways of browsing its contents. Dense links are essential, but gardeners often layer on other ways of exploring their knowledge base.

They might have thematic piles, nested folders, tags and filtering functionality, advanced search bars, visual node graphs, or central indexes listing notable and popular content.


Draft in Progress

The quality of writing below this point is haphazard, disjointed, and possibly nonsensical. It's probably a good idea to come back later.

2. Continuous Growth

Over the last decade, writing on the web has moved away from casual blog posts and live journal entries. We now publish "articles" and "essays" that are carefully crafted, edited, revised, and published with a timestamp. When it's done it's done.

Gardens are continuously evolving works in progress – the notes, posts, and ideas we add to them are never finished. They grow over time.

Last updated, not published

Digital gardening is low friction - tending it shouldn't take more effort than a Tweet. Just like a real garden, watering and clipping it is part of a daily ritual.

3. Learning in Public & Imperfection

Our current understanding of blogging is highly performative. The Premium Mediocre culture of Millenialism defined the last decade of blogging as a way to Promote Your Personal Brand™ and market your SEO-optimized Content.

Weird, quirky personal blogs of the early 2000's turned into cleanly crafted brands with publishing strategies and media campaigns.

Digital gardening is the Domestic Cozy version of the professional personal blog. It's less performative than a blog, but more intentional and thoughtful than our Twitter feed. It wants to build personal knowledge over time, rather than engage in banter and quippy conversations.

Blog posts present an established opinion. Garden notes present a set of loose ideas that don't know what they think yet.

Right to be wrong Digital gardening terms of service

Around the web development community, folks like Shawn Wang have advocated learning in public

4. Playful, Personal, and Experimental

Gardens are by nature non-homogenous. No two gardens are alike. Even if you plant the same plants as your neighbours, you plant them in a different arrangement.

The point of the garden is that's it's a personal playspace. You organise the garden around the ideas and mediums that are particular to you.

Medium, Wordpress, and Squarespace created the standardised, monotone personal website. The digital garden invites people to use the web's native languages of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to experiment with weirder, wilder designs.

Personal gardens are about contextualisation. One of the overwhelming lessons of the last decade of Web 2.0 social-media-driven platforms is that dumping millions of people together into unregulated social spaces, devoid of any established social norms, and abstracted from their specific cultural identities and context, is a shit show.

A 240 character bio on Twitter, or a fill-in-the-form profile on Facebook limits the scope of how we present ourselves. The platform picks the categories it deems important - relationship status, gender, hometown.

Gardens offer us the ability to present ourselves in forms that aren't cookie cutter profiles.

5. Intercropping & Content Diversity

All varieties of mediums grow in the garden - videos, podcasts, short notes, long essays, academic papers, sketches.

6. Independent Ownership

A large part of gardening is claiming a small patch of the web for yourself, one you fully own and control.

One that does not live on the servers of Facebook, Twitter, or Medium. If any of those go under, your writing and creations sink with it (crazier things have happened in the span of humanity). There is no easy export button for Twitter.

The garden plans for long-term change.

No one can take your garden away. If you give it a bit of forethought – storing notes in flat markdown files – you can built it in a way that easily transfers as platforms and technologies inevitably change.

This is my take on it, but knowledge and neologisms always live within communities and no one owns The Official Definition of digital gardening. Numerous people have contributed to the growing conversation and you should read their thoughts as well.

Gardening Manifestos & Navel-gazing

Futuristic Communal Gardening

A key piece of the narrative I've left out until now is the discussion around what our current gardens lack

One strong thread that runs through all these gardening theories is the dream of communal gardening

Multi-player mode.

Linked Data

Roam's Original Whitepaper made clear the original vision for the tool is toward collaborative networked research.


How do we make our digital gardens multiplayer?

Linked References

A Short History of Bi-Directional Links

With the recent rise of Roam Research , the idea of bi-directional linking is having a bit of a moment. We're all very used to the mono-directional link the World Wide Web is built around. They…

Growing the Evergreens

Andy Matuschak proposed the term Evergreen Notes to describe a system of note-taking that aspires towards cumulative personal knowledge, rather than simply information capture. The idea builds off…

A Meta-Tour of This Site

Jared Pereira has been running a wonderful series of personal website tours this year. The guest list features many of my favourite Digital Gardeners and indie web creators such as Tom…

Transclusion and Transcopyright Dreams

In 1965 Ted Nelson imagined a system of interactive, extendable text where words would be freed from the constraints of paper documents. This hypertext would make documents linkable. Twenty years…

The Pattern Language of Project Xanadu

Ubiquitous Computing, also known as " Ubicomp ," was a technological dream of the 1990's. A group of researchers at Xerox PARC predicted that computing interfaces would disappear, dissolving into the…

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Maggie Appleton © 2021