Digital Gardens

In the computer world, there is the term Cattle not pets which means that when you build out computer systems, you don't want a lot of individual machines that you have to love and care for, instead you want a lot of identical machines that can be built and tore down over and over all day long. When it comes to ideas on the internet, the equivalent could be digital farms vs digital gardens. But which one do you want to go with? When dealing with computers it's better to have a large number of uniform systems you don't care about, but is that how you want to treat the ideas you do care about? A digital farm is a place where you create content for the masses that are hungry for their daily content, where as a digital garden is a place where you nurture your ideas and build them up over time. No idea on a digital farm is special, it's just another piece of content to send out; each day you create more new content, and when you stop creating content your farm dies and goes away. In a digital garden, you only have the ideas that you the creator cares about; as you continue to work on these ideas you update the post you have on your site, and the post on that subject will grow over time; becoming better and better with each iteration. With the digital garden you aren't on the content creation treadmill; having to create new content every day just to satisfy the masses and judging algorithms.

In this article by Robin Sloan, she defines Flow and Stock:

Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that reminds people you exist.

Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.

Flow is the digital farm, stuff you create every day, and people forget a few hours after you post it. Stock are the things that you post on the internet and no one finds until they actively search for it, but when they do find it, they may actually appreciate the post and remember it, as it's something they were actively interested in instead of just another piece of content shoved in front of their face.

Flows don't build and curate ideas; flows distribute content, they keep the algorithms that rank your importance happy.

Technological determinism states that tools drive human behavior. This concept is explained well by Amy Hoy in her post on how the web was changed when the tools used to build it changed. If you are given tools and rewards by your tools to post to a Flow every day, then you'll accept that format and start posting to the flow. I've always felt that blogging systems were wrong somehow; I'd create a post, and then when it came time to update that project, there was never a good way to just update the post with what was updated, no way to easily move the post to the top of the Flow, you have to just create a whole new post, abandoning everything from your last post, thus creating a fragment story spread across your blog (some people seem to really like this fragmented, part 1 of 10 post type of thing....)

At some point Twitter was probably meant to link to "stock" content, but over time the Flow in Twitter became the message; ideas that used to expand over pages are now just a few lines of text, ideas that can't fit the format are abounded for witty quips that'll get the most likes. Not only do platforms like Twitter create a Flow of ongoing trash, it moves people into a shallow thinking mindset, so not only is the person creating the content becoming stupider which each thing they add to the Flow, the people reading it are also making themselves dumber.

The medium is the message, and the current medium is pushing us toward the inability to think, the inability to have complete thoughts.

In Jerry Mander's summary of his book "Four Arguments for the Eliminations of Television" he says:

Well, one of the points of the book is that you really can't summarize complex information. And that television is a medium of summary or reductionism – it reduces everything to slogans. And that's one criticism of it, that it requires everything to be packaged and reduced and announced in a slogan-type form.

One could say that Twitter is the new slogan generating tool, there is no information there, just a crowd of people trying to yell their slogan louder than everyone around them.

Some Digital Gardens



  • If you're tired of creating one-off things, start building a persistent knowledge base that grows over time. Open Source your Knowledge! At every step of the way: Document what you did and the problems you solved. Shawn Wang