I don't want a digital garden. I just want a garden.
I first started seeing the term "digital garden" bubble up on the web sometime around 2019 or 2020. Some what related terms like "second brain" had also recently emerged, and before that, "personal wiki" . The digital gardens I found online usually manifested in the form of a personal website that displayed a mix of documentation, commentary, loose research, blog posts, project descriptions, scattered thoughts, and other hyper-linkable text, usually centered around niche interests. Now, this wasn't happening en masse at the scale of social networking, but what I was seeing felt like something of a resurgence of the personal website, and I quickly became entranced by it. It was everything I wanted from the internet, and during the isolation of the pandemic, I found people’s cultivated corners of the web to be a peaceful way to feel connected without the need to succumb to the brash noise of social media. I want to tell you a little about my relationship with these ideas. But before I do that, let’s talk about these concepts a bit more.
Preceding the (micro)boom of second brains and digital gardens was new software (with old ideas) that featured the ability to bi-directionally link documents together such that people could create a web (commonly called a graph) of nodes (or notes, if you rather). I think this especially paved the way for the popularization of the “second brain” concept.
The second brain and the digital garden are two different concepts, though. My take is that the second brain attempts to be an all-encompassing box of notes linked together, and is generally used to be a loose dumping area where interconnected ideas are collated or traced. Ideal for study notes, brainstorming, research, and documentation. People often reference the Zettelkasten concerning this.
To me, a digital garden might be something that evolves out of your research (perhaps from your second brain if you happen to have one); a virtual, public place where something a bit more refined can be on display. It’s a corner of the web that you can cultivate to your liking and present whatever content you want, however, you want. I think this article from the MIT Technology Review surmises this nicely:
Digital gardens explore a wide variety of topics and are frequently adjusted and changed to show growth and learning, particularly among people with niche interests. Through them, people are creating an internet that is less about connections and feedback, and more about quiet spaces they can call their own.
It’s pleasant, isn’t it? I won’t disagree. And I’m not here to put down digital gardens. I’m here to talk about the rabbit hole I found in my digital garden and how distracting it was from what I wanted to be, publicly.
My interest in personal information management (PIM, for short) began shortly after finding creative technologists online who displayed their projects and interests, how-to documentation, scattered research, and even fiction on their sites. Sometimes these sites were labeled digital gardens or personal wikis. Some of them feature time-tracking on their projects, as well as “backlinks” to take people to other content that is linked to the current content you would find yourself reading.
All of it fascinated me. I wanted aboard this train, and I wanted it now! I began creating a folder full of documents aided by org-mode (and org-roam) and then started filling out a mix of project-specific notes, and arbitrary documentations on my hobbies, and found ways to integrate metadata like related files and time-tracking to show where my time went. What would I write about? Anything and everything. For example, around that time I started studying art, specifically drawing, and so I created a page about drawing which was, well, about drawing: my relationship to it, why I started, thoughts on books that taught technique, other resources, and so on. And of course, Drawing the page, linked to other pages.
My personal wiki grew. I’d have blog posts on it that chronicled my struggles writing code, pages for projects I’d created, and, somewhat strangely to me now, pages on Proper Nouns: pages for programming languages (Elm! Elixir! C! Go!), pages on places (Montreal! Vancouver! Europe!), pages on activities (Drawing! Cycling! Computing!). I was in the rabbit hole, and that rabbit hole consisted of digging other holes so that each hole (read: page) could connect to another. I wanted a visual web that encompassed the depth of my capacities and interests. I wanted to show off to the point that I was creating things that didn’t really need to exist publicly — it was the kind of stuff that should have just been in an offline second brain.
My obsession continued to grow. Last summer, I became intrigued with creating a memex - a concept that I had come across through a talk by a programmer at a conference (and something that originated much farther back). I wanted a system that was indeed something of a second brain, and yet I was convinced tools like Obsidian couldn’t provide the functionality I needed.
Before long I had conceived the infrastructure for a software system that would be responsible for logging almost anything in my life. I wanted a system where I could ask it, "What was I doing on March 5th, 2022?" It would tell me the books that I had been reading, the links that I had bookmarked, the people I saw that day, things I was grateful for, what my mood was, and so on. And so I continued to imagine all the possible things that I could capture about my life that would supposedly become useful. This idea consumed me for far longer than I would like to admit, and I want to talk about why.
I never stopped really to ask myself why I needed the information that I would be capturing. But looking back I think I had some ideas. For one, I thought it would help me feel important and successful when I could look back on what I'd accomplished. Next, I thought it would help inform future decisions, as I could look back at decisions I had made in the past and look for patterns in my life that might be useful for making future decisions. I also thought it might help others who might find themselves in similar situations. I could point to a moment in time or a stretch of time that documented something that might be useful for other people. And lastly, I was curious, I was, frankly interested in my own navel.
The first is probably the most important. I wanted to feel impressive and important. If I had a track record of the things I had done, especially if those things were displayed publicly, I could give myself a pat on the back and potentially use it to continue to hone my discipline and stay motivated based on a somewhat fabricated persona. I think this is all very valid, but this is also where things get into the realm of the digital garden or the personal wiki. In a sense, I was determined to create a public persona and I wanted to look good.
Informing the future
Secondly: using a Memex to inform future decisions. I think this is completely valid. Now, I haven't had a robust enough system to actually confirm that this would inform future decisions, but hypothetically, I think it makes sense. Even if I need to build something for someone else that I'm feeling hesitant about, I might be able to turn to a log I created and tagged related to my present situation and find how I felt in the moment. In a sense, I wanted something that could help me make decisions based on how I've behaved in the past. Because frankly, I might not be able to remember, and I might not have a strong enough gut feeling to know that I'm making the right decision at the moment.
Being useful to others
The third point, helping others with similar interests, comes down to more public persona stuff in the realm of digital gardening. Hypothetically, the parts of a Memex that would be publicly available would ideally be useful to other people, in some sense or another. Now I supposed to myself that as long as I was doing this documenting and capturing for myself, then whether or not it was useful was not for me to worry about. It would simply be a positive byproduct if someone was able to benefit from what I had captured.
And then finally out of curiosity, as a programmer it's easy to become obsessed with data. An infinite source of data can be found in yourself. So when you are finding yourself with a desire to build something, all you have to do is turn to yourself and find no shortage of raw material. This leads me to my next point.
Before long I realized that before me was quite a large task. What I wanted to build would take a long time, and because it didn't really have any limits on what it could do, the possibility of sinking hours upon hours into this was all too real. But behind that was the creeping feeling that I was making something to avoid making something else. Something new, with higher stakes. Before me, the memex, and by extension, my (perhaps mis)conception of the digital garden was a limitless canvas with infinite capabilities of what it could be. And creating this tool? Yes, it would in some sense scratch the itch to create. But underneath that, I knew there were other things that I'd rather be creating. Things that were scarier to create because they were more challenging. Things that were less familiar. My desires to write, create art, and try other new things were all much scarier than looking at what I had already done. And so I realized I was making one thing to avoid making another. I had these small dreams of creating generative art, comics, posters, novels, paintings, all these different avenues of creative expression, and ironically all things that could exist in a show-yourself-off-portfolio if you are hoping to display it publicly.
But instead, I had my head buried in the idea of creating a system that would let me look into the past. And of that system, I might choose to display parts of it publicly as a digital garden. All of that looking back made me realize how much I was avoiding what the future might hold.
Soon another realization came, the creatives that I looked up to didn’t seem to have digital gardens. They might have second brains to speak of, but they were almost certainly private. No, it seemed the creatives that I wanted to be like were busy creating and working on their next thing.
I don’t mean to say that folks who run a digital garden aren’t creating creative things. Many of them are, and are more forward-looking than I. On top of that, many others were kind caretakers sharing what they were cultivating. I just couldn’t make it work for me. I was too torn between wanting to specialize in creative output and having something to show for it, that I put the cart before the horse, and stopped time in order to dredge up past accomplishments to try to make them look appealing.
The digital garden is one of the more wholesome forms of internet communities I have yet come across. And I very much wanted to belong. I was eager to catalog and present what I had done with my time to such a point that I started inventing new systems to continue cataloging as time went on. I just couldn’t put the brakes on once I had enough of a system in place, and before long, bigger ambitions were pushed aside for what was comfortable: presenting who I had already been.
Slowly I realized that I don’t want a digital garden, I want a garden: a place to plant new seeds, help things grow, and harvest what I’ve worked to make. Once that’s done, it might be time to bring it into the digital world. At the risk of overextending my metaphors, writing this piece has showed me that I've been lost in the wrong kind of weeds!