Digital Gardens Let You Cultivate Your Own Little Bit of the Internet

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Beneath the umbrel­la term, how­ev­er, dig­i­tal gar­dens don’t follow rules. They’re not blogs, short for “weblogs,” a term that sug­gests a time-stamped record of thought. They’re not a social-media plat­form — con­nec­tions are made, but often it’s through link­ing to other dig­i­tal gar­dens, or gath­er­ing in forums like Reddit and Telegram to nerd out over code.

Tom Critchlow, a con­sul­tant who has been cul­ti­vat­ing his digital garden for years, spells out the main dif­fer­ence between old-school blog­ging and dig­i­tal gar­den­ing. “With blog­ging, you’re talk­ing to a large audi­ence,” he says. “With dig­i­tal gar­den­ing, you’re talk­ing to your­self. You focus on what you want to cul­ti­vate over time.”

What they have in common is that they can be edited at any time to reflect evo­lu­tion and change. The idea is sim­i­lar to edit­ing a Wikipedia entry, though dig­i­tal gar­dens are not meant to be the ulti­mate word on a topic. As a slower, clunki­er way to explore the inter­net, they revel in not being the defin­i­tive source, just a source, says Mike Caulfield, a dig­i­tal lit­er­a­cy expert at Washington State University.

In fact, the whole point of dig­i­tal gar­dens is that they can grow and change, and that var­i­ous pages on the same topic can coex­ist. “It’s less about iter­a­tive learn­ing and more about public learn­ing,” says Maggie Appleton, a design­er. Appleton’s dig­i­tal garden, for exam­ple, includes thoughts on plant-based meat, book reviews, and digres­sions on Javascript and mag­i­cal cap­i­tal­ism. It is “an open col­lec­tion of notes, resources, sketch­es, and explo­rations I’m cur­rent­ly cul­ti­vat­ing,” its introduction declares. “Some notes are Seedlings, some are bud­ding, and some are fully grown Evergreen[s].”

Appleton, who trained as an anthro­pol­o­gist, says she was drawn to dig­i­tal gar­dens because of their depth. “The con­tent is not on Twitter, and it’s never delet­ed,” she says. “Everyone does their own weird thing. The sky’s the limit.”

That ethos of cre­ativ­i­ty and indi­vid­u­al­i­ty was echoed by sev­er­al people I spoke to. Some sug­gest­ed that the dig­i­tal garden was a back­lash to the inter­net we’ve become grudg­ing­ly accus­tomed to, where things go viral, change is looked down upon, and sites are one-dimen­sion­al. Facebook and Twitter pro­files have neat slots for photos and posts, but enthu­si­asts of dig­i­tal gar­dens reject those fixed design ele­ments. The sense of time and space to explore is key.

Caulfield, who has researched mis­in­for­ma­tion and dis­in­for­ma­tion, wrote a blog post in 2015 on the “technopastoral,” in which he described the fed­er­at­ed wiki struc­ture pro­mot­ed by com­put­er pro­gram­mer Ward Cunningham, who thought the inter­net should sup­port a “chorus of voices” rather than the few reward­ed on social media today.

“The stream has dom­i­nat­ed our lives since the mid-2000s,” Caulfield says. But it means people are either post­ing con­tent or con­sum­ing it. And, Caulfield says, the inter­net as it stands rewards shock value and dumb­ing things down. “By engag­ing in dig­i­tal gar­den­ing, you are con­stant­ly find­ing new con­nec­tions, more depth and nuance,” he says. “What you write about is not a fos­silized bit of com­men­tary for a blog post. When you learn more, you add to it. It’s less about shock and rage; it’s more con­nec­tive.” In an age of doom-scrolling and Zoom fatigue, some dig­i­tal-garden enthu­si­asts say the inter­net they live in is, as Caulfield puts it, “opti­misti­cal­ly hope­ful.”

While many people are search­ing for more inti­mate com­mu­ni­ties on the inter­net, not every­one can spin up a dig­i­tal garden: you need to be able to do at least some rudi­men­ta­ry coding. Making a page from scratch affords more cre­ative free­dom than social-media and web-host­ing sites that let you drag and drop ele­ments onto your page, but it can be daunt­ing and time-con­sum­ing.

Chris Biscardi is trying to get rid of that bar­ri­er to entry with a text editor for dig­i­tal gar­dens that’s still in its alpha stage. Called Toast, it’s “some­thing you might expe­ri­ence with WordPress,” he says.

Ultimately, whether dig­i­tal gar­dens will be an escapist rem­nant of 2020’s hellscape or wither in the face of easier social media remains to be seen. “I’m inter­est­ed in seeing how it plays out,” Appleton says. 

“For some people it’s a reac­tion to social media, and for others it’s a trend,” Critchlow says. “Whether or not it will hit crit­i­cal mass … that’s to be seen.”

MIT Technology Review source|articles

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