What are digital gardens?

At work a few months ago, I mentioned the concept of digital gardens on a call. Not everyone knew what digital gardens were, and the term means different things to different people using it, so I put together a P2 about what I think a “digital garden” is.

What is a digital garden?

  • A collection of thoughts, ideas, highlights, annotations, quotes, summaries, and notes that are richer than a tweet, but lack the timestamped nature of a blog post or published essay.
  • Digital gardens are tended to and evolve over time. Sometimes they grow, sometimes they get trimmed back. Though they change, they have the four-dimensional permanence of a river or Theseus’s Ship.
  • A digital garden embodies the nature of working in public and learning out loud: Sharing your current understanding and allowing others to learn from it.
  • Like entangled roots and interwoven vines, the individual plants of digital gardens form a latticework of bi-directionally linked content that supports and encourages bridging and pollination to further understanding.

to link, annotate, change, summarize, copy, and share — these are the verbs of gardening

Mike Caulfield in The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral

Where is this term from?

I first started noticing people I follow talking about it in April of this year: Maggie AppletonTom CritchlowAnne-Laure Le CunffVenkatesh RaoAndy MatuschakAnna Gát, and Joel Hooks.

Maggie Appleton found the earliest use of the term, which harkens back to the old school web: Mark Bernstein’s 1998 essay Hypertext Gardens.

It is similar to a commonplace book, another popular term on the IndieWeb. A Zettlekasten comes to mind, too.

Essays to check out

Commonly used tools

Some thoughts, digital garden-style

  • Web technology enables some cool things:
    • Version control allows users ability to see how digital artifacts change over time.
    • Bi-directional linking brings the Wikipedia-style wormhole exploration to other websites, increasing the scope of knowledge exploration.
      • WordPress’s trackbacks and pingbacks are a great start to bi-directional linking. Webmentions are another. Category-style taxonomy pages need to get added to the mix, too.
    • Live preview of links (transclusion) on hover or focus
    • Linked footnotes and sidenotes with references
    • Highlighting and sharing/reblogging/regardening of other content and notification with trackbacks, webmentions, and pingbacks.
    • Hierarchical post types for hierarchical content, tagging for non-hierarchical content
    • Links to relevant related content by search indexing
    • Real-time glossaries for slang and jargon
  • P2tenberg (the block-based comment editor built into P2) is awesome for front-end editing and is likely crucial to any digital garden built on WordPress.
  • Public wikis are digital gardens of sorts, but build to be highly collaborative, whereas digital gardening is more of a personal endeavor, or at least relatively small groups.
  • Imagine if we applied Edward Tufte’s principles in a web-first way, rather than just porting his style guide to CSS.

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