I’m publishing a subset of my private notes as a digital garden, as a home for unfinished thoughts, experiments, and random facts I find interesting. Easy to update and without the pressure to craft a polished essay, I hope it will complement this blog. I don’t necessarily expect anyone to read any of it, but it’d be lovely if somebody found something interesting there and started a conversation with me about it!
Bring back the personal homepage
I’ve always liked the idea of a “home on the internet” - a place to put things I’d like to share, and a place to point people at to see what I’m interested in. When I was 12 or so, I had a “homepage” - a highly cringeworthy website with colourful text, a repeating pattern background, an HTML table of my favourite sound effects, and a recorded voice greeting that autoplayed on page load. That is thankfully no longer online, but there’s still something appealing about having my own little corner of the Web - a small mark on the world.
For a while it looked like social networks could be that home - you’d have your profile page and a space to share things, and all your friends would be there too! It didn’t really work out. From the start, your friend network was always fragmented between different sites that had no real interest in connecting the fragments. Then “social networks” turned into “social media”, sharing became about Building your Personal Brand instead of keeping in touch with friends, and everything got swamped by ads and memes. And renting space from your choice of billionaire edgelord didn’t feel much like home anyway.
At this moment at least, it feels like the answer should look more like a good old fashioned personal website - maybe even with a little cringe, although I promise to hold off on the sound effects.
This blog is part of that. But blogging has never come naturally to me. I feel pressure to Compose a Post that is a Finished Thought at a specific point in time. And the end result - a chronologically ordered mix of essays and journal entries - still feels like it’s missing something as a “home”.
I’m hoping a digital garden will fill the gap. It’s a place to browse, to share things that aren’t finished.
Writing to think, writing to remember
The idea of a digital garden is related to the wave of note-taking tools and workflows that got really trendy over the last few years. They go by names like “linked notes” and “personal knowledge management”, “second brains” and “tools for thought”. Proponents talk about “seeing emergent connections between ideas” and even “thinking better”. I find those ideas fascinating, but some of the more ambitious claims have never really come through for me.
I think it’s because a lot of the note-taking zeitgeist seems to take for granted that the main reason you’re taking notes is to produce some sort of writing for an audience. For some people, a digital garden is where they plant ideas, and cultivate them until they become essays. I do write occasionally, but I’m not a researcher or journalist where producing prose is my main form of output. And writing for an audience brings a lot of baggage - “is anyone going to care about what I have to say?” - and ambiguity - “what background knowledge can I assume? What register should I write in?”
A common response is “write to think”, or “write with yourself as the audience”. I see the value in that, to sort of trick myself into writing blog posts that I do then publish, but I don’t naturally think in prose or well-constructed arguments. When I do write to clarify or challenge my thinking, it tends to be a forest of branching bullet-points, not anything resembling an article. And anyway, most of my writing isn’t to think, but to remember.
Most of the time I’m writing something down to remember it, to refer to it later, or just so it can occupy less space in my brain. For me, that ends up looking like a fairly random collection of notes, without much organisation or relationship between them.
Some of those notes are of no interest to anyone else, like my weekly to-do list or when I last deep-cleaned my cats’ litter box, or deeply private, like takeaways from a therapy session, or just jumbled, half-formed thoughts. But some are halfway between “private braindump” and “finished blog post” - my comparative gin tasting notes, or surprising facts about bananas, or a cocktail I came up with but don’t have an Instagram-worthy photo of. Some are unpolished results of tinkering projects or experiments with generative art that I’m nevertheless proud of.
So I’d like to try putting some of those half-finished thoughts on display, and maybe growing some of them into more over time. I don’t really expect anyone to read them, but at least I can have a little corner of the Web that’s mine, and feels like how I think.
This is pretty similar to the ethos of Learning in Public, but that still seems a bit grandiose to me - I’m not trying to become an astrophysicist here. My notes are primarily about remembering, so I’m calling this “remembering in public”.
Cocktails have been around for a couple of hundred years (estimates vary) and most cocktail recipes are simple variations of other recipes, with an ingredient substituted or proportions tweaked. This means parallel evolution is extremely likely, and any recipe will have been “invented” multiple times by different people. (In fact, many classic cocktails like the Manhattan and Martini have many competing and equally apocryphal origin stories!) So my cocktails are “original” in the sense that I didn’t follow a recipe when first making them, but I don’t claim that they are novel. ↩