Screens, Research and Hypertext

Powered by 🌱Roam Garden

Digital Gardening

How "blogging without a publish button" is reclaiming the web as it used to be.

Blogging may have routed the homepage for now. But a resistance is forming in one small corner of the internet. Where the blog privileges a reverse-chronological broadcast of fully formed ideas, this movement prizes a slower, more incremental approach to writing.

The movement is called digital gardening. Its advocates describe it as "blogging without a publish button." Maggie Appleton describes it in A Brief History & Ethos of the Digital Garden:

They aren't refined or complete—notes are published as half-finished thoughts that will grow and evolve over time. They're less rigid, less performative than the personal websites we're used to seeing.

It's a style of public thinking in which ideas are put out in raw form and refined in full view of the world—or at least whatever corner of it is interested in the same things we are.

It's not a completely new idea. in 2017, Ben Thompson argued that his daily newsletter/blog had allowed him to develop Aggregation Theory far more fully than a book would ever have allowed. As he argues:

To be sure, I had discovered in 2015 what might have been a worthy book topic: Aggregation Theory. That, though, makes my point: the biggest problem I have with Aggregation Theory is that that old article I keep linking to is incomplete. My thinking on what Aggregation Theory is, what its implications are, and how that should affect strategy both inside and outside of technology and, particularly over the last year, potential regulation, has evolved considerably.

Digital gardening provides a space for ideas to grow. (Metaphors, eh?) Here's Appleton again:

The Garden is the web as topology. The web as space. It's the integrative web, the iterative web, the web as an arrangement and rearrangement of things to one another.

The digital garden reclaims that hypertext-as-space metaphor that so enchanted early hypertext theorists.

The digital gardening movement picked up steam with the release of Roam Research, a note-taking tool that incorporates automatic bidirectional links, using an authoring system that is more like a wiki than like a traditional note-taking app. Roam's linked notes surface new information—not unlike the graph database.

Sadly, websites for research organizations are not built to accommodate digital gardening. They are generally built to house artifacts—the outcomes of research, not the process for generating those outcomes.

There's nothing wrong with generating artifacts. Those are, after all, the things that answer questions about how to make the world better.

But what we often forget is that today's research outputs form the backbone for tomorrow's research processes. You can't very well engage in public learning when so many of the inputs we need are locked away inside documents.

As Joel Chan argues:

The fundamental information models that underlie most scientists' everyday reading and communication practices are not readily amenable to integration, comparison, sharing, and translation across publications, researchers, or domains.

He goes on to point out that studies of researchers have shown that researchers themselves describe the process of synthesizing research findings as "arduous and effortful" and that "the labor of transforming the 'raw data' of unstructured texts into forms amenable for analysis" is the major driver of those difficulties.

In other words, our set of digital tools has solved for one problem—documenting research outcomes—in a way that actively hinders the process we need to produce those very outputs.

For more context

For many research organizations, it's the report ĂĽber alles.

What to read next

A more curated web is just one tool for making the web a better place for research.

Other items of interest

Oh, no, it wasn't Facebook. It was blogs that killed the homepage.

The digital garden embraces the spatial ambiguities of hypertext.

Digital gardening means letting go of documents as the central metaphor for content.