What’s a digital garden?
Before we get too old
Show me a garden that’s bursting into life
— Snow Patrol, Chasing cars
There’s a recent concept called a “Digital Garden” gaining popularity. In this article, I’ll explain what digital gardens are and what I’ve learned from them.
So, what’s a digital garden?
Unfortunately (or not), it’s not an allotment on Fortnite. You know, with carrots and stuff.
A Digital garden is like a blog but ideologically different. Blog articles have a published date, tags, and some kind of editing process. Digital gardens don’t, intentionally. If a blog is a magazine, then a digital garden is a public notebook.
Posts in a digital garden range from in-the-moment notes to finished articles. The idea is to update your notes and “grow” them over time, hence the garden analogy. No publication date or nitpicking over writing.
Another component of digital gardens is an emphasis on connecting your notes. Not all gardens implement that but it’s not rare to see. Let’s also mention that it’s not an either-or scenario. Some people have both a garden and a blog. Maybe one day you and I will, too.
Why they’re great
More fun, less friction. There are less expectations, so they’re great if you struggle to put yourself out there. Or if being a perfectionist prevents you from ever publishing. Digital gardens are less serious, messier, and more intimate.
They forego chronological sorting. The only value of chronological sorting is showing the latest article without effort. But people don’t visit blogs every day anymore. Chronological sorting just makes it harder to find older articles, and this creates all sorts of problems.
The Lindy effect and publication dates.
Here’s a problem: We consider older things on the Internet as “probably outdated.”
There are valid reasons for this, because technology changes at break-neck speed. Software tutorials become useless faster than ever1. “HD” 720p videos look terrible on today’s 4K phones.
The ultimate counter argument is a theory called “the Lindy Effect.”
The Lindy effect states that the longer something non-perishable (like a book, a movie) has existed, the longer it should exist. If a book has been in print for 40 years, it should remain in print for another 40 years. For obvious reasons, that doesn’t apply if the surrounding context changes. For example, anything ever written about the DVD economy circa 2010.
Here’s what I’m getting at here: Technologies fade but good ideas don’t. Applying “old equals irrelevant” to all online articles can take you away from some wonderful writing.
Digital gardens bypass the problem by removing publication dates altogether.
A whole new world
Reading about Digital Gardens had an unexpected side-effect for me.
Gardens sits at this very interesting space between the worlds of Productivity, Blogging and Web/Software. Notes that you edit, evolve, and connect fit with the concept of “networked thought.” There are new apps exploiting this like Roam Research, its open-source clone Logseq, Obsidian and Notion (kinda) that keep popping up everywhere.
I found that people with gardens often think about problems at the intersection of these fields. And it’s a refreshing change from sterile CSS discussions or “tabs vs. spaces.”
Around 2010, it became trendy to use trade-related terms in web design. It was all about “handcrafted” websites, “software craftsmanship” and “carved” PSD files2 done by so-called digital artisans.
I now have a mild allergic reaction to verbs like “tending”, “tilling”, “weeding” or “crafting” in digital. Maybe that’s why I have a
/writing and not
/garden? I’d like to think it’s for the following reasons.
- A published date forces me to draw a line and stop re-writing. With the freedom to publish “seedling” articles I would endlessly update the same ones.
- There’s something about knowing what you thought x years ago.
- I actually like obsessing over words.
Finally, these are lessons I took from digital gardens:
- Published doesn’t and shouldn’t mean perfect. I know from coding that your current best work will look odd a year later. “Published” means “I’m done thinking about this for a while.”
- Re-visiting and updating things is fine.
- Create a curated, organised writing page (when I have more articles). Reverse chronological sorting is bad.
- Add a prominent search. (As above, I don’t have enough articles yet.) Give your readers and yourself more freedom to explore.
As with most recommendations on the Internet, this works for me, right now. Your story is a different story.
I want a digital garden!
Great, remove your published dates and organise your articles. And publish more. That’s all you need!
If you want to go deeper into the rabbit hole I recommend checking out these NPM packages.
I hope this motivates you to experiment with your own website or take the plunge into the world of digital gardening.
- There are exceptions, this article about game physics is still referenced 17 years later.↩
- Yes we used Photoshop back then 😅. It was just a bit before the “code ninja” stuff started. Dark days.↩