Digital gardens

and the stream of content

Previously,

I’ve been writing about the gardening of software: using permaculture theory to reorganize the digital world. Thinking about technology as one part of a wider human system, embedded in social and ecological networks and connected in a feedback loop with human behavior.

What about the newsletter format itself? The feedback loop here is pretty weak: I spend a few hours racking my brain until an idea falls out, then polish it up for a few more hours and send it on its way into the Abyss, never to be heard from again.

Well, sometimes I hear back from you, when you hit that “reply” button and take the time to tell me what you thought. Or I get a hint of approval from the Like button. At least I know an email will get to you; spam filters are stern but fair, unlike the capricious algorithmic feeds of social media. I may be shouting into the void, but it’s a predictable void.

I was grumbling this to my internet friend thejaymo recently. The internet is all fucked up these days, said I. Social media is annoying, blogs are boring, portfolios are glossy but hollow. I wish I could publish more, but it just all feels so fake and corporate.

But, said he, those aren’t the only options. What about a digital garden?

🌱 What is a digital garden?

I remembered reading about this idea somewhere long ago, and a bit of searching turned it up quickly. Many people have written about it lately, but my favorite is Maggie Appleton’s A Brief History & Ethos of the Digital Garden (with its beautiful graphics).

The metaphor goes back as far as 2015, as a contrast to the stream metaphor. Instead of a “river of news” flowing past your eyes, a garden encourages wandering and cultivation.

The blog is a stream of content, as is the feed. The social apps pretend to be a stream, even though they hide or promote content based on what they think you want.

A garden doesn’t stream past. It invites you in.

A garden is a space that is loved. It is semi-public: anyone can look around, and perhaps comment, but you are the one who crafts it. You can decide which parts of it you want to show first, and which parts require deeper explanation.

A garden doesn’t shout into the void. It stays put and complexifies. It quietly grows.

📖 What does it look like in practice?

Well, we each have to decide that for ourselves. I started my own garden at deepfates.com. I built it last week, so it has plenty far to go, but I decided to just put it out there and keep working on it. It’s not a portfolio, after all. A garden doesn’t start fully grown.

Ironically, I chose to call it not a digital garden but a living notebook. It’s my choice to make, right?

And while the metaphor of a garden is useful in comparison to the stream, in the context of my site it’s not being compared to a stream. It’s being compared to a lot of things: first of all, me, the actual guy, Max; secondly to things like a resume, portfolio or CV; then also it’s compared to all the other sites on the internet, some of which are streams and some of which are not.

I’ve written a few thousand words in these letters alone referring to “gardening algorithms,” so I don’t want to muddy my metaphor too much. Plus, as much as I love gardens, I’m also a book guy.

Living notebook sounds like something a wizard would have: a book of arcane knowledge and experimental spells, a book that is forever changing and upgrading itself; a notebook that lives. But also a living notebook, analogous to a “living room”: a notebook that I live in. A place where I spend my time. And, too, a notebook On Living. Notes from someone who lives.

So, my garden is a notebook. Messy, but that’s how life is.

Thanks for reading,

— Max


Longtime readers: if it looks like I’ve changed the branding on this letter, that’s because I did! I thought I wanted a separate persona for these writings, but after a few letters it began to feel forced. I’ll just be Max again.

If you didn’t notice this change, please don’t read the preceding paragraph.

And as always, I’d love it if you pause your scrolling for a second and shoot me a line. Could be what you think about this letter, or what you had for breakfast, or a long rant about something you’re really interested in.

I’m hoping that if I shout long enough into the abyss, the abyss will start shouting back. 😉