What is a “digital garden?”

I encountered the idea of a “digital garden” Friday and was instantly enthusiastic and spent some time this weekend nerding out about it. Here is the result – the beginning of my digital garden: mitchwagner.com.

A digital garden is a personal website curated by its author, with essays and information about the subject or subjects they’re excited about. Some are wide-ranging and complex and cover a variety of subjects, while others cover a single subject, such as neurology or books,

Here’s a directory of digital gardens. It’s a digital garden of digital gardens!

Digital gardens provide an alternative to chronological streams such as blogs and social media. Streams are great for finding out what’s happening and whats new now. But they’re lousy for organizing information. Also, streams are terrible for longevity. Once stuff gets pushed down off the top of the stream, it disappears. Digital gardens are places where you can organize information and keeping information available over the long term.

Digital gardens can be very simple, just an index page or a Google Doc. Or you can use sophisticated software to create complex, Wikipedia-like documents.

After a while thinking about this idea, I realized that we’re talking here about the old, 90s “personal website.” People back then would create websites devoted to their favorite bands, or hobbies, or just their own lives and interests. Eventually these got swallowed up by Wikipedia, Google and the various social media silos.

Digital gardens are an extension of, and renaming of, personal websites. That doesn’t make the idea less powerful though.

Digital gardens are exciting to me, personally, because they solve a couple of problems that I’ve been noodling about for years. One problem is that I post a lot of stuff to my streams. Some days I post a dozen or two dozen items. Most are ephemeral – links to breaking news articles, some with comments, some without. Wisecracks. Memes. Old ads and photos from the mid-20th Century.

But some of what I post seems like it should be more long-lasting, whether it’s a book review or the journal of our 25th anniversary safari to Africa last year.

A digital garden solves that problem. I can just put up an index page of links to long-lived and notable content, and let that — rather than the blog or my biography — be my home page. I’ll continue with the blog and keep the bio. But the index page will be the main entrance to my site.

Again, this is not a new idea. Gina Trapani has been doing that a few years, and I don’t think she would say her idea is particularly original to her. But it’s still a great idea — and it’s new to me.

The second problem that digital gardens solve for me is that I’ve been noodling about ideas for projects for, well, several years now. Interviews with people I find interesting, software reviews and how-tos. Occasionally I have even acted on these ideas. But I don’t do it often because I don’t have a permanent home for them.

Resources

My digital garden: mitchwagner.com.

Here’s the article that got me excited, and introduced the idea of “digital gardening” to me: Digital gardens let you cultivate your own little bit of the internet

How the blog broke the web – Amy Hoy provides a brief history of blogs and social media, and discusses why they’re not great ways to organize information.

Hoy says there were only 23 blogs in 1999? Amazing. By late 2001 there seemed like a million of them.

Maggie Appleton: A Brief History & Ethos of the Digital Garden – Apparently the term and idea has been around in various forms for more than 20 years. Not surprising. The internet is a tangled web. Streams and search engines are two great ways to find stuff, but stuff can still be hard to find. That’s not a new problem.

Maggie Appleton’s directory of digital gardeners and digital gardening tools

Maggie’s Digital Garden

Maggie again: A brief overview of digital gardens as a Twitter thread.

A list of artificial brain networked notebook apps – These include a couple of familiar names to me, such as Roam Research and Obsidian. They seem to be a mix of private note-taking apps, Internet publishing tools, and private apps that can also publish to the public web.

This is a take on “digital gardens” that borrows from the philosophy of “zettelkasten.” Put simply, a zettelkasten is a system of note-taking where you write down each idea separately — in its original vision decades ago, you wrote each idea on a slip of paper or index card, though now of course there are digital versions — and then link madly between related notes. Ideas can come from books, articles, thinking, observations, whatever. Zettelkasten advocates say they can come up with fresh insights simply by returning to their zettel and following the links. German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who invented the idea, credited his zettelkasten as a collaborator on many papers and books.

You don’t have to use dedicated software for a digital garden. Mine is just an index page for my existing blog.

Second Brain – “A curated list of awesome “Public Zettelkastens 🗄️ / Second Brains 🧠 / Digital Gardens 🌱”

Digital Gardens – Another explainer with a couple of examples. The author says:

In basic terms, [a digital garden] is a different format for written content on the web. It’s about moving away from blog posts ordered by dates and categories, into more of an interlinked web of notes.

One of the main ingredients is bi-directional links between those notes, creating a network of notes, similar to Wikipedia.

I would not say that the notes have to be interlinked, Wikipedia-style. Though they can be.

gwern.net – A very nice example of a digital garden covering a broad range of subjects.

Article: My blog is a digital garden, not a blog by Joel Hooks.

Mitch Wagner @MitchWagner