digital garden

A good starting point to understand this topic would be Maggie Appleton’s A Brief History & Ethos of the Digital Garden(external link).

In brief, a lot of personal websites and presences on the web these days are in strictly chronological format: you post, then never touch that post again. Social media silos in particular often don’t even let you edit your post. As a result, we’ve also come to consume a lot of web content in a similarly chronological way, as a linear stream (although the modern-day alternative of an algorithmic stream doesn’t strike me as better). But in the early days of the web things were different: there was so much more manual curation, and the publishing of evergreen content with the intent that you’d keep coming back and editing the page whenever you had something else, or different, to say about the topic… and even today, I’m sure I’m not alone in saying I have a much easier time disappearing down Wikipedia rabbit holes (for better or worse) than browsing a single blog for hours. The way that Wikipedia links content together, ideas connecting to related ideas, makes it so easy to reach out for “one more page…” as you seek the next answer to your next question. It feels more organic and engaging as a way of browsing.

Tom Critchlow’s Of Digital Streams, Campfires and Gardens(external link) includes some good quotes that I think also help to explain the difference. For example, the garden:

In the Garden, to ask what happened first is trivial at best. The question “Did the bridge come after these trees” in a well-designed garden is meaningless historical trivia. The bridge doesn’t reply to the trees or the trees to the bridge. They are related to one another in a relatively timeless way.

…compared to the stream:

In the stream metaphor you don’t experience the Stream by walking around it and looking at it, or following it to its end. You jump in and let it flow past. You feel the force of it hit you as things float by.

It’s not that you are passive in the Stream. You can be active. But your actions in there — your blog posts, @ mentions, forum comments — exist in a context that is collapsed down to a simple timeline of events that together form a narrative.

Chronological timelines and feeds have their merits as well, of course. If you’re talking about things that actually are relevant at a specific time, they make perfect sense. If you’re a reader, looking to get updates whenever a site you know you enjoy adds something new, then subscribing to a feed is the best way to achieve that. And streams are good for those quick posts that don’t need to be anything but ephemeral, too. But it’s still the case that there would be a lot of quality, evergreen content out there that’s hard to find (unless it ranks highly in search engines for some specific term) because it’s been buried in a blog archive, or worse, posted and lost in a “stream” on a platform like Twitter or Mastodon.

So for this site, I wanted to have the best of both worlds. Chronological content, and pages that I cultivate over time, weave together with hyperlinks as I make organic connections, and are equally browsable no matter when you find them. It’s this progressive cultivation that Maggie Appleton and others call “digital gardening”. For my own version, I’m calling it a “personal wiki”, because I personally feel more familiar with the concept of a wiki than a digital garden – but it’s really the same thing, I think.