While the concept itself (and even the name) is rooted in tools we’ve been using for years, Maggie Appleton wrote a fantastic piece outlining how the way we’re using those tools has evolved considerably—and how through the magic of semantic drift, we’re beginning to put it to words. (Seriously, if you geek out about things like information systems, publishing, and the notion of authenticity, go check it out.)

When you think of a blog, you probably have a very specific vision in mind. First and foremost, posts are organized chronologically. As publishing platforms and techniques have developed over the past few decades, we’ve also grown to expect that these collections of content are pretty well-polished: not only in the presentation, but in the content itself. You might navigate via tags, or carefully curated inline links or recommendations, but the very core of a blog’s design philosophy is linear.

Compare that with the hypertext and CSS gardens of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when designers were publishing proofs-of-concept for how HTML and CSS could be leveraged (and how it might be used in the future). These presentations could still wow and inspire, but they were inherently exploratory, and often grew and evolved over time.

Maggie Appleton points to Mike Caulfield’s keynote at the 2015 Digital Learning Research Network as a compelling (and quite possibly the first) summary of this phenomenon: The Garden and the Stream: a Technopastoral. He argues that we’re inundated with “streams” of information. Linear, temporal navigation paths. Great for cultivating an ongoing sense of immediacy (as social media platforms are designed to do, for instance), but not always ideal as a means of organizing a body of thought—let alone iterating upon or exploring it.

The modern notion of digital gardens is “what’s old is new again” at its finest, harkening back to those early explorations of hypertext as a medium: a freeform, contextualized web of information. It’s not a tool, so much as it is a way of thinking about how we cultivate, share, and contextualize information.

At the risk of placing the medium before the message, you might think of it as the “wiki-fication” of digital publishing. One that flows with the grain of its design intent of its underlying medium a lot more readily, I’d argue. We know how to reason about books; we’ve had them for some 700 years. Digital publishing hasn’t been around for even a fraction of that time. And, being the pattern-seeking creatures we are, we often made sense of that by applying existing schema—mental models of how we organize information.

The trouble is we’re not dealing with a fixed sequence of leather-bound pages. We now have heavily indexed asymmetric digraphs of staggering size, and the technology to store, reference, and traverse that information from virtually anywhere.

Put in those terms, it’s no wonder we fell back to what we knew.

Why a Digital Garden?

One of the things I found really striking about Maggie Appleton’s exploration on the subject is the way in which she called the blogs we know today “performative.” And she’s right: especially for someone who works in web engineering and architecture, there’s a lot to consider when trying to stand out from the crowd—and depending on the reasons, there can be a lot of pressure to do so.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of wisdom in the advice to “just focus on producing good content,” but what makes content “good?” Obviously its social and intellectual merit, arguably its presentation, but will it stay good? No, not often. Our understanding grows and evolves so fast that we’re constantly publishing updates to previously updated material. And being swept up in these feeds, these streams of content, we’re increasingly left with the feeling that if we’re not constantly producing, we’re risking our own voices being lost.

Which brings me back to the “why.”

For my personal site, I decided to:

  • Lean into authenticity, confidence, and humility. No more performing what I think other people want to see. After all, healthy disagreement is what drives us to continue to grow. I have plenty of wins under my belt at this point, and at least as many mistakes. There’s value in sharing both. As an aside, I’ve also reached the point in my career where technical demos and code samples have less and less value. Where I shine in my career is how I communicate, orchestrate, and strategize, and a digital garden strikes me as a much better fit for sharing that.
  • Don’t worry about what others are doing. One of the best decisions I’ve made for my mental health over the past five years was cutting away privatized social media (I’m not counting LinkedIn here, which I use as a networking tool rather than a social media platform, but I do shy away from its more curated elements). It’s led me to build deeper, more authentic relationships, organically expand my perspectives, and focus on the ways in which I’m trying to grow. It follows that the same philosophy will help here.
  • Provide evolving resources, not fixed snapshots of understanding. Organizing content temporally works some of the time, and its certainly a navigation paradigm that people can follow, but it has its limits. Instead of rewriting the same article every year, why not take the same article, and update it annually? It’s certainly less work, and ensures that your latest resources are always available at the same place.
  • Work with the grain, not against it. Some of you may have caught the Marshall McLuhan reference earlier. “The medium is the message,” emphasis mine. McLuhan suggested that rather than hyperfixating on the content of a communication artifact, we should be spending a lot more time studying the medium used for conveyance. While I might not agree with the approach universally, I do think there’s an awful lot of truth to it here. The Web is great for creating graphs of constantly evolving resources with fixed points of reference. Why not play to its strengths, instead of using it to recreate the printing press?
  • Experiment. I’m sure this list itself will be updated someday. That’s okay. This entire concept might fall flat. That’s okay, too. But at least as I’m first beginning to write this, I’m genuinely excited to explore the possibilities of the medium in ways I haven’t experienced since the advent of CSS3. I’d say that’s more than enough reason to run with it.