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A Brief History & Ethos of the Digital Garden

Last tended on August 25, 2020
🌱 Budding

Back in April 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.

What's a Digital Garden?

A Short History

This term is not new.

It's been floating around for over two decades. Though it's passed through a couple of semantic shifts - 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. A game I am very here for.

The Early Gardens of Hypertext

The earliest mention of digital gardening I've found at least partially aligns with the way we're currently using it.

Mark Bernstein's 1998 essay Hypertext Gardens is an ode to free-wheeling internet exploration.

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

It's less about building personal internet spaces, and more of a manifesto on user experience flows and content organisation. The essay was part of a larger metaphorical conversation happening throughout the nineties around hypertext.

The promise of The Web was a labyrinth-esque landscape tended by WikiGardeners and WikiGnomes.The caretakers cleaning up broken links, attributions, and awkward white space. 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 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 concerned with different problems, the core ethos of Mark's essay 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. Until Twitter...

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 and 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 - cleaning up one's digital space in general.

The focus was on sorting, weeding, pruning, and decluttering, rather than growing and cultivating. People mentioned private folders, codebases, and photo albums as the focus of their gardening efforts. Whereas now we're mainly talking about public notes and wikis.

These people were digital puttering more than gardening.

Given the lack of reference to the earlier nineties notion of **digital gardening** these feel like isolated thoughts. Perhaps riffing off one another, but not part of the mainstream narrative we're tracking.

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 delivers 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. Mike is the first to put this whole idea into poetic, coherent words.

Caufield makes clear digital gardening is not about specific tools – it's a different way of thinking about our online behaviour around information. Away from time-bound streams and into topological thought gardens

Caufield's prescient insight was that 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 Insta-Twitter-Book, are 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. Twitter is a force-multiplier for exploratory thoughts and delightful encounters once you learn how to swim in its currents.

But streams are fleeting. They surface the Zetigeisty thoughts 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.

"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."


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.

There's a few key pieces.

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.

  • Building complexity through linking - it takes the web seriously as a linked medium. It leans into what the web is good at - linking.
  • Blog posts present an established opinion, collections of connected ideas don't know what they think yet.

Our existing understanding of blogging is performative. The Premium Medicore 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.

Informal, personal streams of ideas were sidelined into social media or burrowed underground on the Cozy Web.

Digital gardening is the Domestic Cozy version of the 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.

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Maggie Appleton © 2020