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The Secret Garden.
In the field of personal knowledge management, a popular term’s popped up to describe knowledge bases: digital gardens. It’s cute and endearly quaint - perhaps it reflects a sort of Walden-esque desire to step away from the hustle of grind culture and bustle of digital life and returning to a humbler life of tending one’s knowledge garden. There’s a growing trend of publishing your personal wikis online, often complete with little Sprout / Sapling / Tree / Evergreen labels to denote the state of thoughts. The quintessential example I see linked the most is Andy Matuschak’s notes. My good friend Uzay Girit’s started one with his tool Archivy. And many, many more - Maggie Appleton’s, Anne-Laure Le Cunff’s, and Jacky Zhao’s, just to name a few.
These public gardens of thought fill a liminal space between a messy notebook, and more polished blog posts. It’s part of the larger trend to work in public, ship in public, and now, think in public - gardens like this spark thoughts and conversations, and can open up room for more experimentation and play. Some blogs can feel corporate and stale, and lack the freshness of digital gardens that are updated weekly, or even daily. Digital gardens take away the pressure to perfect every last word - the phrase ‘garden’ itself comes with connotations of a certain type of dirtiness, but good dirtiness. They come with the expectation that not everything will be perfect, but that eventually, every little thought and insight will grow, and provide joy and beauty and inspiration.
I could go on about the benefits of digital gardening, but I think plenty of people can do that better than I can1. Instead, I’ll discuss some of to preserve your knowledge only for yourself, and garden in private, not public. It sounds selfish and counterintuitive at first - after all, I’m sure everyone’s had at least one solid insight that’d be of use to someone else. And even notwithstanding the value of thoughts and of publishing, there’s a certain merit in encouraging people to expand their thinking habits. I know some of the course notes I took likely would be very useful to incoming students; and maybe some of my longer musings on tech culture could be interesting. But with all the practicality and advantages of digital gardens, I think there’s a case for walled, secret gardens as well.
There’s a novel I used to love as a kid - The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The main character begins as a spoilt little girl, forced to live with her uncle in a dreary corner of England. She hates her new home, and the people she’s made to interact with. The rest of the story isn’t really relevant, but the major finding and focal point of the story later becomes a secret garden she finds, tucked away into a corner of the manor. It’s locked, but she somehow finds the key. From then on, the main character gradually becomes more carefree and joyous, spending her hours playing in the beautiful garden and having little escapades with the animals there. It’s a cute story, but I think it’s an apt metaphor for the maintenance and wonders of private knowledge.
This article is a collection of some of my thoughts on private and public memory, thought, and ideation. For the rest of this post, ‘walled garden’, or ‘secret garden’ will refer to private wikis and knowledge bases whose primary intent isn’t to be shared, or plainly isn’t shared. I’ll discuss the tending of these gardens, their benefits, and how they can work together with public digital gardens as well.
I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel that when I write for an audience, and for any person that isn’t myself, my tone and my content and my voice changes. When I’m writing these articles, I do feel like I’m talking to a friend, but it’s different than writing my own notes or scribbling away in my personal journal. I worry that if I’d start a public garden, I’d end up curating for others - imposing structures and optimizing for someone else’s experience, not mine. And it’s easy to say, “Oh, just don’t do that! Write as if you’re writing for yourself, and no one else!”, but to me, putting something out there in the world, even if it’s something as small as a post here, is associated with a certain level of polish. That level of polish doesn’t have to be very high - read some of my first couple blog posts for a great example of ’literally only spellchecked’. But I’d like to think that I do things now with a bit more intention, and that implicit drive to fulfill that resolution shapes how I write.
Having an audience shapes how you write, and how you take notes. At least for me, I felt that when I was working through my CS50 or CPSC 110 posts, I was writing actively with helping someone in mind. I was including basic things that were glossed over in lectures, and things that I myself already understood. This is good - if I’d returned to my notes at any point in time, I’d be able to get a bit more of an overview and brush up on the basics. But that’s a small example, at least, of my perception of how my own writing changes with more technical explanations that are aimed at people, instead of just for myself. I found myself embedding lots more context - I did this a lot too when I started writing about my notetaking system. Almost every post would include a ‘if you haven’t heard of the Zettelkasten system’, with the same links and the same references to Ahren’s book and Luhmann himself.
In one of his tweets, Linus Lee said that it seems like digital gardens and note dumps are moving to replace longer-form blog writing. I agree - I feel like a good portion of the value of ideas comes from the context they occupy, and the potential they hold to spark future thoughts and ideas. I feel that public gardens tend to shift this focus from the context to the content itself, where often the context surrounding certain ideas is left out of notes entirely, and we’re focusing just on the raw ideas. I was introduced to the concept of the death of the author in English class last term, and I can see how that concept applies here. Notes in digital gardens can sometimes feel detached from the contexts they came out of, and because they’re just published as-is by the author, who’s retained all the implicit context but perhaps hasn’t written it explicitly, it feels like they’re being viewed solely as detached points.
One of the ways digital and secret gardens can work in concert is a sort of mixed publication method. People usually set it up so that they have some public folder in their knowledge base that gets published, leaving their own personal notes with potentially private information unpublicized. This unfortunately means that everything needs to be processed manually before you set up your notes to publish - this leads to more friction, and more time that someone could’ve spent tending their own secret garden. However, it’s also a good opportunity to revisit notes and think from others’ perspectives, allowing for opportunities to revise based on new contexts, or based on what others. While it’s important to be careful not to overthink the review too much, I think it can also be a useful step of knowledge management regardless.
Into Your Mind
Besides the privacy of the content, with publishing anything on the internet, I feel a slight moral obligation to at least double check what I’ve written for major factual issues. I feel that, in that case, where I’m reviewing even just for editorial errors and the like, I may as well polish things a bit more and turn it into more refined posts that can stand on their own. There’s always going to be tacit judgement (? evaluation? there’s probably a better word for it) of what you put out there on the internet. I personally feel that it’s nicer to put more intention into things like that - I’m sharing my voice, after all, and I’d like to communicate it as clearly and truthfully as possible.
I tend to feel uncomfortable with taking responsibility for my unfinished work - I remember when I was working on projects last summer, I was loathe to share with friends. When I did, it was always after a caveat or two that ’this wasn’t the final product!’, just in case. This is something I’m working on - as I mentioned in my 2022 goals post, I’d like to share what I’m doing more often, and gather more perspectives while my work is in progress. Right now, I’m still working with this sense of uneasiness - I used to hate it when my friends would read my blog posts. It took me a long time, and I still cringe when they decide to link my posts in chat, but I’m starting to feel more comfortable with that type of sharing.
Most of my articles here are works that are at least somewhat finished, and done with having a reader in mind. However, with digital gardens, notes are often a step or two under finished articles or coherent thoughts. If I felt this disconcerted by sharing work that I was already decently proud of, I don’t think I’d be alright with dumping all my thoughts out into the big, bad Web2. Maybe this is an issue with my personal mindset, but I tend to not like presenting ideas, or versions of things that I don’t see as complete. I like having things I share be working at some minimial-viable-thought level at all times - maybe that’s just me. For some people, digital gardens allowing them to share incomplete thoughts might inspire them to write more and post more often, but I don’t feel that way. Digital gardens offer a window into the running state of consciousness of someone - into how they take notes, and into their mind. Some folks might find this liberating and empowering, but I find that this forces my ideas into certain streams of thinking over and over again. Especially with more personal views or unfinished, brewing thoughts, I think it’s alright to leave those in private, secret gardens.
All this lends a sense of responsibility, and of weight, to the task of tending one’s digital garden. As an extension of your online identity, you’re now in charge of maintaining your wiki. Sure, you could slap a giant notice that this is all to be taken at face value, and that you’re not responsible for any errors or liability or whatever, but I still feel that it’s too much pressure. I know plenty of people have their own views on this, and their own workflows where they just publish whatever and don’t feel like they have to shape their thoughts to fit a specific voice. But for now, setting up a digital garden just isn’t for me - perhaps that’ll change in the future, I don’t know. I think I prefer the quiet tending of a secret garden - one that I can, like in the novel, lock away, yet return to, and find joy in, whenever I like. I like writing for an audience of none (or, well, one) because it gives me freedom to leave thoughts tangled up, in the contexts they came from, and in the phrasing that they first occurred in. It takes away the pressure of having to polish each thought as I write it: I can leave that for another stage of tending my garden.
On one hand of the spectrum, digital gardens that are straight stream-of-consciousness, and true extensions of their landscaper’s mind, suffer from high noise : signal ratios. By diluting core thoughts with a network of unfinished, work-in-progress thoughts that haven’t fully bloomed yet, it’s harder to make information useful, both to the author and to readers. More formal writing can feel distant, and repetitive at times, especially as you’ll have to integrate context and evidence and properly support arguments. In short, public digital gardens can feel a bit brain-dumpy, and long-form content can be a bit stifling and formal. Secret gardens, and gardens that are a mix of private and public all across this spectrum, embrace thought’s inherent lifecycle well. Secret gardens welcome the inherent stages of thought - because not all thoughts are immediately ready to share. They’re a bit more informal and casual, as the primary audience is still just the author. But they allow room for thoughts to grow, take root, become hardy, and eventually be able to be transplanted gently into public gardens.
I see the larger movement towards digital gardens as a sort of reverse ’tragedy of the commons’. Whereas it’s usually that people neglect a shared resource for the sake of their own personal gains, assuming that others will take care of it, with digital gardens, I find that there’s a lot more room for thought if you assume that you need to help no others, and that you should put writing for yourself at the forefront. There’s a fine balance here, between oversharing and undersharing - between not tending a digital garden with the same care as longer, more formal writing, and putting too much thought into the publishing and overthinking it. I’m still working on this, but with this blog, I think I’ve found that good balance. Most of my articles come from well-connected thoughts that I’ve chained together, and almost all of my more complex notes are derivatives of my posts. This way, I can still share the thoughts that I’ve worked on the most, and tended the most, but leave the messier, less coherent work in my own secret garden.
Just Google ‘digital gardens’, click around a few links, and you’ll be greeted with examples of people who are truly experts of thought horticulture. ↩︎
There’s also something to say about this sense of resistance. Maybe that fact that I’m scared, in a way, of sharing like this is a reason to finally start doing so more often. ↩︎
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