Planting a Digital Garden

One of the cool things about working at a place like Automattic is that you are part of this global network of inspiring people that often think deeply, creatively, and publicly about expression. Unfortunately, it is incredibly easy to become blind to the verdure, as a result of the daily obligations that our busy roles require.

Over the past couple of days I decided that the thicket of ‘low priority’ e-mail notifications I had allowed to build up was becoming unreasonable – even by my standards – and that I urgently needed to wrest some kind of control back. As I hacked through the undergrwoth, I came across some posts on my colleague Cheri’s blog talking about the idea of a ‘digital garden’ – which immediately sparked some kind of mental wildfire.

What is a digital garden?

So what the heck is a digital garden anyway? I am well aware that it may sound dangerously twee, but bear with me, as I think there’s something to it. There isn’t a specific definition that I am aware of, but if I had to boil my understanding of it down to a simple summary, it would be:

An open, personal collection of perpetually evolving notes and other media, which eschews attributes commonly associated with blogs or other platforms such as presentation via chronological order based on publication date.

That’s quite a mouthful, but effectively what this describes is an approach to a website that has an assortment of different snippets on various topics, loosely organised. Kind of like a personal Wikipedia, or a public notebook.

The concept isn’t really new, even if the nomenclature is – and it actually strongly reminds me of the way that personal websites used to be, before the web became more structured, and often siloed through the use of social media timelines. An important element of such a thing is the reliance on contextual hyperlinks, to tie pages together in a much more organic and idiosyncratic way, as opposed to rigid categorical linearity.

Reimagining blogs

One of the things that we know people struggle with when it comes to blogging is how to keep their site active. Commitments to a regular posting schedule quickly fall by the wayside in the face of internalised pressure to have something ‘worthwhile’ to say, particularly when the output has to be the finished article. Even with the best of intentions, disillusionment can often follow, with the process becoming more of a chore than a liberation.

Despite my love for – and involvement with – blogs, I too feel this sense of inadequacy keenly. That should be self-evident purely based on the date of the last post I made here, which was over 9 months ago. However, I also currently have 71 drafts in progress over on my main photo blog allmyfriendsarejpegs. While I am constantly writing and updating, the nature of these and my own perfectionism means that I am often stuck in a constant state of false progress, working on articles that will potentially never see the light of day.

Preservation, not Presentation

I find fascinated by the possible reconception of blogging that the idea of a digital garden brings. Removing the finality of publication, as well as the perceived need for time based updates means that you can focus purely on the act of writing and collation – as opposed to chasing what effectively amounts to a kind of news update or dated diary.

Over the past couple of years I have struggled with a declining interest in photography – something that used to be central to my identity. As part of an ongoing period of reflection on that, I’ve come to realise that part of the reason may come down to a gradual change in why I take pictures. I think that I have probably become so concerned with getting the right shots for an eventual, theoretical blog post, that I no longer enjoy or engage with the process itself. In other words: my preoccupation with the final presentation of the work has supplanted the reason for participating in its creation in the first place.

As I’ve begun to explore this revelation, I’ve consciously shifted my approach away from a concern with the eventual presentation of content, to one of preservation, where I take pictures or shoot video to capture moments purely for the sake of doing so itself – not thinking about what I will necessarily do with them later. That simple adjustment has completely transformed my way of thinking, and reinvigorated a lot of the passion that I once had in these kinds of expressive actions.

The notion of planting and growing a digital garden which is more concerned with the ongoing as opposed to the culmination strikes a chord with me partly because of this understanding, and is one that I find incredibly exciting.

The Plan

Going forward, I am going to experiment with the idea on this site. As far as I’m aware, there aren’t any specific themes or established methodologies for doing so with WordPress, but it seems like fertile ground on which to explore.

My plan is to:

  1. Move the date-specific blog portion of this site to its own dedicated area.
  2. Create pages for specific ideas, notes, and musings that come to mind, as and when they do.
  3. Replace the home page with a splash which will help people navigate this brave new world.

There are some challenges of course, including the fact that page updates won’t necessarily produce any kind of notification to readers, and it will be difficult for folks to track what is new. However, I am keen to embrace the chaos, and kind of like the idea of things sprouting up naturally in what may end up as a tangled, inter-connected suffusion. For that reason, I am not going to implement any specific automated systems of categorisation and sorting, as that would spoil some of the magic.

Irrespective of how this turns out, I am looking forward to breathing new life into this site, and perhaps feeling a bit less terrible about paying the annual domain renewal fees for something I rarely update.

Leave a Reply