Let it grow

A digital garden gives your ideas room to flourish.

If you find yourself lost on the path to getting back on someone’s good side, I have it on good authority that a plant can win them over.

Maria moved in downstairs a few months after I moved into my new apartment—just before I headed to Arizona at the beginning of the pandemic. On the day we headed out, Maria lended us a hand by jump starting my car, which I’d left running for too long thanks to a flighty mind that can never juggle more than one task at a time. 

I wanted to believe my roommate’s warnings of Maria’s passive aggressive comments were just miscommunications between the two of them, but that ended up being a pretty big goof on my part. A few nights after returning, we decided to go on a long bike ride and soak up the ocean breeze we’d missed while basking in the Arizona heat all summer. I hadn’t yet gotten baskets to plop my pups into so they could be my copilots, so they got left behind. We were gone maybe an hour, and didn’t make it halfway up the stairs before Maria popped her head out to say hello.

Since I hadn’t seen her in seven months, I thought it’d be nice to catch up, see how Long Beach had adapted to the pandemic, and maybe catch a little building gossip if I were so lucky—no dice, Maria had other plans. She quickly changed the subject from our block’s stressful parking situation to the fact that my dogs had been barking all night, but that it wasn’t really a problem for her, though she warned some neighbors might get fussy.

Disagreements in the perception of time aside, I wouldn’t normally brush this off. Behr’s separation anxiety has been pretty bad since I took him in after my nana and tata passed, and Baxter often likes to bark in a sort of “How dare you” tone whenever we shut the door on him; we’re working on it. Still, it feels excessive to raise the concern after one instance, especially considering her five dogs can’t let someone pass by without dashing out to let them know what’s what. That’s not my business, I have no way of knowing what precious toys or treasures those dogs may be guarding, but I’d hoped Maria would be a little more understanding of how difficult it is to turn the volume down on an unruly symphony of howls.

This didn’t set a great tone for Maria and I, so I mostly tried to avoid her, which worked until last Friday. I’d just settled in for the night, ready for another go at stopping my dad from killing me in Hades, when I heard a knock on my door. Given the uptick in ISP sales reps popping up outside my door lately, I’ve tried to avoid answering unless I’m expecting something. Maria wouldn’t budge, though, until I recognized her voice.

Maria immediately broke the ice with a warm tone, asking how my night was, quickly following up with an invitation to run downstairs and snag a plant she needed to get off her hands. She didn’t beat around the bush: the tree needed some love. Planta hasn’t been much help in identifying it, and my capabilities as a plant dad haven’t yet caught up to my love for my green pals. But, like a shaky relationship with a seemingly well-intentioned neighbor, it’ll just take a bit of time and patience to get things right.

Piling up

As I tend to my newly adopted plant, I’m also trying to remedy my grossly messy notes setup. I’ve tried to keep it organized, but over the years my attempts at storing the information my selective brain likes to toss out has shifted countless times.

If the goal were to have a stockpile of interesting and useful bits of info that I hardly revisit, that would be fine, but there’s no use in having a second brain if it’s left neglected and unkempt. As I’ve revisited how I collect and organize thoughts and information, I’ve drifted further away from the notion of a second brain in favor of the increasingly popular digital garden.

As Maggie Appleton notes in her overview about digital gardens, the term first popped up in Mark Bernstein’s 1998 post, “Hypertext Gardens”. The web has evolved a lot since then, and so has the term digital gardening. Unlike blogs, modern digital gardens lie somewhere between wikis and Tumblr pages, with a focus on curation and expansion rather than chronology and interaction. If blogs are the ticks left on your wall from every childhood growth spurt, digital gardens are the collages of good grades, accolades, and art class projects our parents plastered on our fridges.

There aren’t many criteria for a digital garden, and they can vary from a collection of clippings taken from web articles and quotes snatched from your favorite books, to the names of books you liked that none of your friends have heard of or a list of list ideas. The key is that you’re cultivating a space of things you find interesting or useful, and letting connections between ideas grow. An easy way to start is thinking of notes as singular bits of information, whether that’s an idea for a funny tweet, the title of your forthcoming memoir, or an interesting quote you got from a podcast that you want to follow up on when you’ve got the time.

Ready for harvest

Once you let go of the notion that your notes have to be linear outlines of connected ideas and start to think of each bit of information as its own sort of note, your possibilities begin to expand and seemingly unrelated thoughts begin tying themselves together. If this were a productivity blog, I’d talk about how breaking down your notes can help you better structure your thoughts and lead to better outcomes in your projects, which can be true, but there’s been plenty of great writing on that already. Instead, I’d like to look at how atomizing our ideas could lead us to more meaningful interactions with each other, and cultivate a focus on curiosity rather than reactivity.

Rather than jumping straight to tweeting my thoughts after reading an article, I’ve been using a tweaked version of the Zettelkasten note taking method to help me process my thoughts. The basic concept is to take a small idea, be it a clipping from another body of work, an original thought for a new project, or a question you’d like to find the answer to, and flesh it out into a complete thought that you can later connect to other ideas you’ve gathered. Sure, this is useful for improving your memory, but there’s a lot of power in using this idea for sharing information with others, too.

We’re all familiar with the feeling of dancing around our keyboards trying to find the right wording for a tweet or comment that’ll get the point across without getting misconstrued or ruffling too many feathers. For me, that’s backed by the fear of having my big dumb brain exposed by a poorly articulated comment or and impulsive remark. Digital gardening can help not just by building a barrier between your immediate reactions and the rest of the web, but by encouraging you to present your thoughts as a growing part of you, rather than an evergreen representation of your take on a topic.

Like a struggling plant that’s doing its best to hang in there, our ideas are always growing, and what we thought about a given topic last week has probably been shaped, at least a little bit, by whatever’s taken place in our lives since. Streams like Twitter feeds and blogs can’t account for this; you can’t really go back to a tweet from last month and add some context or tweak your thoughts after your perspective changed or you’ve deepened your knowledge on the topic. You can post new tweets, but the context gets lost and there’s no thread tying all your ideas together.

Digital gardens alleviate that by ditching the linear stream for a sort of web of interconnected ideas. By removing yourself from the chronological nature of feeds, you’re allowing for the space to let your ideas breathe, free from “well actuallys” and the like, and keeping record of it all.

The best part is that you can publish your digital gardens, so they don’t have to exist in a complete vacuum. So if you decide to put yours online, you can use it to share interesting findings with your friends, share reviews of books you’ve read or movie’s you’ve watched, or provide resources for people who may not have the same depth of knowledge as you on a given subject. You can take Maggie Appleton’s approach and blend together anthropology, illustrations, and Javascript together. Or maybe you’re more into Tom Critchlow’s wiki of web clips, books, and drafts. For more guidance through one’s garden, look to Gwern Branwen’s impressive layout, which organizes things by latest updates, popularity, or even significance. Whatever approach interests you, the strength of digital gardens is in their invitation to let others explore the journey your mind’s been going on lately, either to gain something from your insight, or just broaden their knowledge based on your findings.

Learning’s never a bad thing, and putting our thoughts, ideas, and facts that grabbed our eyes out in the open in a way that fosters growth allows for people to gain from your experiences while also encouraging you to think more deeply about the things you engage with online. It may not scratch the same itch as quippy lines added to articles you glossed over, but it’ll give you a better understanding of the ways your surroundings are impacting your thinking, and where you may like to take things next.

📚 Good Reads:

The rise and fall of Getting Things Done (The New Yorker): A year ago, I still clung to the idea that clearing your to-do list was, itself, a feat worth celebrating. It’s true that a fine-tuned task management system would be satisfying if it solved all our feelings of overload, but so much of that is out of our control. The best to-do list app can’t solve the problem of being put in charge of a project without any guidance from above on how to make it happen. Cal Newport lays out the history of David Allen’s Getting Things Done movement, and how its shortcomings have been brought to light by COVID-19. 

The loneliness of one-click shopping (The New York Times): There’s a restaurant in downtown Long Beach that’s taken the inside of their building and turned it into a mini winter wonderland, packed with colorful Christmas decorations and cute ornaments. You can only see it if you’re going in to pick up an order, which we haven’t done as we’re really limiting our time outside, but in a year that’s felt unbelievably bleak and tragic, it’s still nice to see. As Alec MacGillis notes, the massive shift to online shopping this year has already left numerous casualties, and as the pandemic rages on, we’ll see more shops we love struggle to hang on. 

Room Rater needs to let us live (Motherboard): Roasting people for little things in their backgrounds, whether it’s on a Zoom call or in a screenshot full of tabs you definitely should’ve closed before snapping your shot, is nothing new. Room Rater, Gita Jackson notes, feels particularly tone deaf nine months into a pandemic when we’re all just trying to do our best. I’m not going to back Jeb Bush’s over-serious notion that Room Rater is somehow The Problem, but the bit’s run its course—rooms are rooms. 

Imagine a world without apps (The New York Times): A few issues back, I wrote about the many privacy issues that can arise in the apps you’ve installed on your phone. That’s not the only problem that apps bring about, though. As Shira Ovide notes, the focus on app-oriented systems like iOS and Android gives companies like Google and Apple a lot of power over what our devices are capable of and how it all happens. That has its benefits, like keeping the crud out and ensuring a theoretically better experience, but it’s probably left some talented developers out of being able to make something great on the platforms. Maybe switching to web-based apps wouldn’t be worth the trade-off, but now’s a good time to start questioning how our decade-long relationship with apps should change. 

🌐 Just Browsing:

🧹 Now’s a good time to tidy up your digital life. 🔥In this week’s Hades plug: what makes the game’s God Mode so great 🎭 This breakdown of the drama surrounding the series finale of Supernatural is wild, and you can’t convince me that old Sam Winchester isn’t just three little boys stacked on top of each other doing the thing from The Little Rascals. 🏡 Taylor Lorenz writes about dreaming of a better life by browsing Zillow listings. 📚 Read this high school student’s perspective on how remote learning has impacted their mental health. 👔 Ever wanna know what happens to the clothes your friends never gave back

💕 And now, here’s something we hope you’ll really like:

This goofy dude can always make me smile, so hopefully this gif brings you a little joy this week. 


As always, if you have any questions, feedback, or just want to say hello, feel free to drop me a line on Twitter.

My thanks to Medea Giordano for editing this issue.