In the past few years there has been a movement towards different degrees of openness online. In her book, Working in Public , Nadia Eghbal explores how people decide to build software tools in the open. In the same line, Andy Matuschak decided to make public his thinking process.
There are two aspects of digital gardening: the creation of knowledge and the dissemination of that knowledge. A digital garden can be private, which means that it only becomes a way of structuring notes in the long run. On the other hand, a garden can be made public (or at least partially public), and then can be regarded as a way of learning in public , but it can also become a new way of blogging .
The idea of tendering a garden is relatively simple from a technical perspective: just write down notes with links to other notes. With enough time, the notes will start to form a graph of interconnected thoughts.
Each note is a seed, that has to potential to develop branches. At the same time, each branch is a seed itself, and therefore the garden becomes a graph. But, gardening sounds better than graphing .
To make the best of the notes that we take there are different approaches. The Luhmann method of note-taking has a very well defined structure, including transient notes, literature notes, and permanent notes. However, the digital medium allows a much more flexible approach if we know how to build our own tools. One of the possibilities is the use of backlinks . This idea alone enables one to explore possibilities way beyond what Luhmann himself imagined.
On the other hand, while the Zettelkasten method may be very useful for people trying to build new knowledge, publish books or papers, it may become too convoluted for people writing online. For instance, the sources of literature notes are very diverse and harder to reference properly.
Links on the Internet last forever or a year, whichever comes first. This is a major problem for anyone serious about writing with good references, as link rot will cripple several percent of all links each year, and compounding.
Blogs, news articles, podcasts, they all build an interconnected network of sources that are very valuable for anybody creating content online. Gwern has a very sophisticated approach, in which he actually stores each page he links to in order to make his website self-contained.
I need backups not just for my files, but for the web pages I read and use—they’re all part of my exomind. It’s not much good to have an extensive essay on some topic where half the links are dead and the reader can neither verify my claims nor get context for my claims.
But we can work at different degrees of technical complexity depending on what we want to achieve and we don't need to start right away with such a sophisticated tool-chain.
The most important aspect to a garden is, therefore, the idea of tendering it. We should have a system that makes it easy to review notes, update them, delete them. Digital notes are easy to revisit, to find, to extend. However, when we don't need to keep our thoughts short, it can become a double-sided sword.
Gardening in Public
Two of the examples I mentioned above are of people who decided to learning in public . Both the notes of Andy Matuschak, or Gwern 's website evolve over time. Some of their thoughts are more stable than others, but you can see the entire process happening.
I agree that this approach is not for everyone, the consequences are still poorly understood, since there is not enough data. This level of openness could not have been achieved until relatively recently. An intermediate option is to follow what I define as a new way of blogging , that does not require to make public the intermediate steps of our thinking, but can help increase the quality of our content and lower the barrier to writing . (See: What happens when notes become long )
The biggest challenge is to find a system that satisfies everybody. I, for instance, like taking notes offline, in plain markdown. However, I was able to develop the programs needed to compile the notes as a public website (see: how i built this website ). I think there is still room for improving the available tools (see: digital learning tools based on the luhman method and leveraging the digital medium for better note taking ).
Gardening is not just collecting
Something very important to point out is that to properly grow a garden, we must not become collectors. Gardening requires actively creating knowledge on every note.
These are not Evergreen notes . Most “storage-oriented” notes will never be useful again ( Most people take only transient notes ). More importantly, this framing misses that it’s possible for note-writing to be the “real” work ( Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work ).
If we put our own voice on each note (as opposed to quoting by copy/pasting), then the most part of the work is done. We can go from content consumers to content producers simply by putting thought and our context into what we write (see: hermeneutic circle , lower the barrier to writing ).
Gardens for Inspiration
I have modeled this website on the following gardens, although not all have the same approach, nor are actively maintained:
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