On Digital Gardens, Blogs, Personal Spaces, and the Future

The concept of digital gardens is not new. It predates the modern blog, but there may be a resurgence, albeit small, of the sort of curated content that grows within a digital garden.

The term “digital garden” is not well-defined. In general, it is a collection of thoughts, unfinished projects, links, and much more. However, it can be different and wholly unique to the individual. I would like to broaden the term to enclose any sort of website that allows you to truly browse without viewing posts chronologically. Digital gardens, collections, spaces — call it what you want.

I began my personal website in 2003. I hacked together a main page with a few internal links. I began blogging before I knew what blogging was. This was all done with basic .txt files that I edited in Notepad on Windows. I knew enough PHP to load and display those files. My blog posts were merely random thoughts — bits and pieces of my life.

Despite having something that worked sort of like a blog, I maintained various resources and links of other neat ideas I found around the web. It was a digital garden that I tended, occasionally plucking weeds and planting new ideas that may someday blossom into something more.

I created a films page in which I shared 30-second trailers of short films I was planning. I maintained a list of my DVD collection. I had a page in which I showcased hate messages I received on my guestbook. All in good fun, of course. I kept a curated list of cool webpages to visit.

All of this was a painstaking, manual process before WordPress crashed into my life, but it was still fun.

Over the years, WordPress changed everything for me. I officially became a blogger. The problem was that, at a certain point, blogging became work. I needed to think about keywords, perfecting a post title, and making sure that each word was carefully crafted. The initial joy I had with my personal space had waned.

“The idea of a ‘blog’ needs to get over itself,” wrote Joel Hooks in a post titled Stop Giving af and Start Writing More. “Everybody is treating writing as a ‘content marketing strategy’ and using it to ‘build a personal brand’ which leads to the fundamental flawed idea that everything you post has to be polished to perfection and ready to be consumed.”

It is almost as if he had reached down into my soul and figured out why I no longer had the vigor I once had for sharing on my personal blog. For far too long, I was trying to brand myself. Posts became few and far between. I still shared a short note, aside, once in a while, but much of what I shared was for others rather than myself.

I still love the idea of a personal blog, but there is room for this space to be reshaped. Personal websites can be so much more than a progression of posts over time, newer posts showing up while everything from the past is neatly tucked on “page 2” and beyond.

Amy Hoy, in How the Blog Broke the Web, describes the downfall of the digital gardens that once grew across the landscape of the web. It is a history of how personal websites, particularly through the ease of use of the modern CMS, changed for the worse. Instead of carefully tending to our gardens, we became lazy caretakers of our space, molding our content based on the tools the system provided.

She concluded with:

“There are no more quirky homepages. There are no more amateur research librarians. All thanks to a quirky bit of software produced to alleviate the pain of a tiny subset of a very small audience. That’s not cool at all.”

She shares my nostalgia for the early web in which webmasters poured everything about themselves into their little slice of it. It was done over the sweat and tears of late-night HTML mastery. It was about fighting weird CSS quirks just to align something on the center of the page. No grid or flex-box existed in those days.

While I lament the loss of some of the artistry of the early web and lay much of the blame at the feet of blogging platforms like WordPress, such platforms also opened the web to far more people who would not have otherwise been able to create a website. Democratizing publishing is a far loftier goal than dropping animated GIFs across personal spaces.

WordPress is in a position to reshape the web into whatever we want.

Throughout the platform’s history, end-users have remained at the mercy of their WordPress theme. Most themes are built around what WordPress allows out of the box. They follow a similar formula. Some may have a fancy homepage or other custom page templates. But, on the whole, themes have been primarily built around the idea of a blog. Such themes do not give the user true control over where to place things on their website. While some developers have attempted solutions to this, most have never met the towering goal of putting the power of HTML and CSS into the hands of users through a visual interface. This lack of tools has given rise to page builders and the block editor.

WordPress has not been, by and large, an ideal platform for building a unique digital space, unless you had the technical know-how to wrangle its front-end output into something unique. At times, that is more frustrating than building a simple HTML page.

This is the reason that I continually push the Gutenberg project. I write about some of the wild and wacky ideas. I share things like a T-Rex game within a block.

I want end-users to be able to create their own digital gardens. I want them to put a large yellow box on their homepage to share a notice that everyone should read “this important page” on their site. I want them to be able to do this without having to learn how to code or ask their theme author how to make such customizations. It should be as simple as clicking a few buttons.

I also want them to be able to easily build something like Tom Critchlow’s wikifolder, a digital collection of links, random thoughts, and other resources.

More than anything, I want personal websites to be more personal.

We’re still in a somewhat frustrating transitional period where WordPress is not even halfway to becoming the platform that it will be. We are still beholden to our themes, though less so than before.

Whether it is a digital garden, a plain ol’ blog, or some new thing we do not have a term for yet, we will all be able to put our unique spin on our personal spaces. It is part of the web that we lost in the last couple of decades with the emergence of the CMS. However, WordPress is on the right path.

It may be a rough ride for some agencies and businesses around the platform, but I am OK with that. They will manage and pull through on the other side, mostly unscathed. I am more concerned about our mission statement of democratizing publishing. And, that mission is not simply about having the ability to write content via a $free system. It is about the freedom to create whatever types of digital homes that we desire without learning to code or breaking the bank.

Pre-Gutenberg WordPress got us part of the way there. It is the post-Gutenberg world that will get us the rest of the way. I am ready to see what people create when they gain the freedom that particular world promises.

11 responses to “On Digital Gardens, Blogs, Personal Spaces, and the Future”

  1. Interesting read Justin, thanks.
    Reminds me of my own personal website journey, writing code by hand 20 years ago when I was on my MA, before adopting WordPress in 2006 (when I was on a different course). And I’ve been fighting/wrangling WP ever since ;-)
    And, this has suddenly made me stop work on my theme revision. My site is part professional home page, part chronicle of my descent into madness. But sometimes there are things that I write that get picked up and shared by professional counterparts – how can I curate my site better so that they can be discovered? Are tags and/or categories enough? Also, do I bring back the blogroll?

    • I kind of miss the old blogrolls. I found many interesting websites through those things. In part, they were just one more bit of insight into who a person was. Assuming I like your website, I’m probably interested in websites that you choose to share.

  2. Makes complete sense to me. I started back in the mid-90s on tripod and angelfire. I’ve had a blog since 2003; on WordPress since 2005. For about a year somewhere around 2012 I tried the whole SEO thing. It was tiresome. So I went back to not caring and blogging about whatever/however. I will admit that sometimes I feel the pull of Jekyll or some other system (mostly it’s the explorer in me), but WP works so well that I never truly leave.

    • I used to host all of my images off-site on Angelfire when I was first starting. The webpage (not website) service I was using at the time didn’t have storage — just an HTML editor with inline CSS. Weird times.

      I moved my personal site away from WordPress over a year ago and onto a custom-built system. Part of it was for my own edification. Part of it was wanting do something new. Plus, a host of other reasons that are not relevant. I still use WP for all other sites I’m involved in. The custom project really gave me a newfound appreciation for the work that goes into our beloved platform. But, I always think it’s important to step outside of the WordPress comfort zone from time to time.

  3. Thanks Justin.
    I am stumbling on the Digital garden term for the first time I must confess. But I got to understand what it means from this post.

    And yes I have a digital garden too

    • Just running through the rabbit hole of links from the post has inspired me to try some new things with my personal site. I have far too many things on my “to do” list that never get done. I need to learn to let go and just start publishing those things without trying to perfect them first. It’s OK to have works that are in progress. That’s part of the fun of the digital garden idea.

  4. I like the idea of a garden. My idea is to use an LMS where multiple stand-alone sites feed into one umbrella site.

    The LMS would then manage the content. Visitors would check off content they consumed. So when they returned they’d always be able to see what they previously saw and then peruse the site for content they hadn’t seen. Each piece of content would have links to both internal and external links.

    It would truly be a curation of my ideas, philosophies, and offerings.

  5. Most people have decided to make their platform streams their digital gardens, and within the confines of a story card, they’re largely free to combine whichever content they want. For a decentralised, self hosted solution to make sense for them, that solution would have to solve market reach and interactivity problems before it should think about canvas issues. Actually, for most “daily blogging” people are fine with facebook’s title-less box, and even for much of longform blogging market/connectivity issues have led many people to move to Medium, which is basically a single theme for everyone.

    Basically, I’m not sure WP isn’t trying to solve the wrong issue first for those customers who are intersted in that kind of recreational gardening. It’s like giving them the tools for (learning to) gardening without giving them the real estate to do it with.

    “It may be a rough ride for some agencies and businesses around the platform, but I am OK with that. They will manage and pull through on the other side, mostly unscathed.”

    That would imply business customers stick to the platform in the long term, which I’m not sure about. Market share and people used to working with the
    WP are clearly an important asset. WP.org sites are, if I’m not mistaken, mostly powering small business sites world-wide, which don’t care their employees gardening needs.

    So the question will be to which extent a single product can support the gardening needs it may consider its digital heritage and future (like you suggest) and the requirements of those currently mostly using the product.

    It was a bold strategic decision that’s for sure, and I’ve spent so much time with WP since about 1.5 that I hope the platform will continue to thrive. But I’m less sure than in a long time, despite the market share and power.

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