Digital gardening: Thoughts on writing on the internet

These being my last days as a free man, I thought I would spend a lot of time off-screen, but instead I've fiddled with this site endlessly. The truth is even if it can be time-consuming and somewhat aimless, I simply enjoy working on this site; and as a newcomer to web development, I manage to learn a little more about JavaScript, React, etc. each day. In these days when much of the internet seems increasingly nothing but huckstering, one may feel driven to labor quietly in the building of one's own place.

Before I migrated from WordPress, I was already interested in the idea of the digital garden, something that seemed to be gathering a little steam in certain corners of the web. In general, a digital garden might take the form of a personal wiki, or a loose collection of networked pages, folders, and files, which may or may not be organized by publication date. There are no hard and fast rules, but in my view, its distinguishing features are 1) personal ways of organizing content (in particular, getting away from the reverse-chronological stream that dominates much of the current web), 2) wide-ranging subject matter, and 3) a strong sense of being "in progress."

As for the form that content takes (what an odd phrase), it seems anything goes. I've seen a number of these sites that emphasize short, very rough notes with liberal use of quotations, though I find that isn't really my style – though I certainly don't go for the polished and optimized "Article" either. Ultimately, who knows if any of this stuff will catch on, but I see it as a natural successor to what I experienced of the web in the early to mid-2000's. Back then nobody wrote "content," and the average person on the (virtual) street was not trying to become some kind of self-help or productivity guru.

Instead, all my friends (the interesting ones anyway) had Blogspots or LiveJournals. We left comments on each other's posts and linked to each other on our sites. Nobody wrote about anything in particular – just high-school nothings, certainly not anything meant to sell or "build an audience." But by the end of the 2000's, the word "blog" in the mainstream was beginning to mean something quite different. I first noticed this when I was interviewing for an internship at an IT company, and I told the tech-savvy entrepreneur-type director that I was into blogging, which I think excited him a little, not knowing my blog at the time was just anonymous rants about school, the Catholic church, etc. Nowadays I'm not so into teenage ranting myself, though I've retained a love for well-written glimpses into other peoples' lives that may not necessarily have any practical benefit to me.

Perhaps it's true that "the Stream" (see Mike Caulfield's widely cited post on the subject), effective as it is, has shaped our common experience of the web to a larger degree than we realize. The fleeting nature of reverse chronology pushes the marketplace of content to favor the novel, "useful," and attention-grabbing, which could only have culminated in our social media landscape (hellscape?) of today. Here personality is reduced to snark, and snark itself reduced to how much of the word "fuck" one can get away with. And Paul Graham's otherwise sound advice to "write simply" is abused by the lazy who confuse simplicity with flatness, or by productivity types who are in too much of a hurry to read anything longer than a few short sentences.

Enter the digital garden: as I see it, one gets a chance to have a little personality again (to the extent that one can still have a personality over the internet - this is the Age of Cancelation after all, though it has always been part of common decency to present oneself appropriately according to context), and not necessarily the kind that can be flattened to n characters and memery. Away from likes, comments, and timelines one can set their own terms and change them as they go. Furthermore, the intermingling of code and content offers many possibilities for those willing to obtain a minimal amount of technical ability. I greatly enjoy working on mine and checking out what others are doing, just as I enjoyed reading my friends' old blogs.