On Digital Gardening, Blogs, and Knowledge

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I’m seeing a lot less internet chatter about “productivity” and a lot more about information structures.1 I think this represents a natural followup to the task management craze of previous years. The market responded to GTD with a huge variety of apps and systems and most of us have settled into something that works well enough. Where I’ve found the most friction is in the information management that often drives task management, and I’m not alone.

I have no solutions but I do have a variety of problems. Let’s start there.

Digital Gardens: Problem the First

Digital Gardening is a fun expression that means nothing to me, regardless of how much I loved Maggie Appleton’s exhaustive explainer.

That said, some degree of faffing about, sorting, and pruning are certainly part of the practice of digital gardening.

While there are better pull quotes in Appleton’s essay, that one really sums it up for me. Digital gardening is the work we do to make an organic mess less messy and more useful. It’s certainly not a new idea but I think it’s something that is becoming a major problem for may digital spelunkers. We’ve never had a greater variety of information inboxes and it has never been easier to capture new information into these boxes. The problem now is with recalling the information and making connections between it all.

Let’s do an exercise. Read Appleton’s essay and take notes in whatever way suits you. I’ll wait.

Great. We’re all done. Now imagine sending your notes, unmodified, to a friend. Do you think they will make sense? Will they have to go read the original article or do a bunch of internet searching to realize you aren’t insane? I’m guessing they probably will. Your friend is a stand-in for the future you. The “you” that hasn’t read about digital gardening in two years is the person you should be taking notes for.

I like the idea of grooming my reference material but I can barely find time to do laundry. I think one of my biggest problems is over-saving. Stars, favorites, reading lists,bookmarks, notes, playlists, and the whole mess of podcasts, is exhausting to keep track of, let alone keep alive and healthy. I recently looked back over my collection of Pinboard bookmarks when I moved to Raindrop.io. It was a nice walk down memory lane but most of it has very little value to problems I am now dealing with.

I’ve learned a few things about myself over the years and I’ve decided to accept some of it rather than fight against it. If I bookmark something to read-later I almost certainly will NOT read it later. I’m bookmarking as aspiration. I want to be the person that reads these long heady articles “later” but life has different plans for me. I don’t read anything later. I read now or I don’t read it.2

Reference Integrity: Problem the Second

How do we know what we know? In the bad old days, I was a student and I read hundreds of scientific articles each month. I photocopied, annotated, and then converted them to summarized references on 3x5 cards. It was a simpler time but it had one incredible feature that the internet isn’t giving me: I always had the original source paper in my files and could trace back from a simple summary to the full text within a minute. It was physical proof of my effort.

Exercise time! Maggie Appleton references a YouTube video in her essay. Let’s watch it below and maybe take a few notes. I know you didn’t come here to do a bunch of work, so here’s a quick reference you can copy to your notes:

1title: The Garden and the Stream: A Techno-Pastoral
2author: Michael Caulfield
3date: 2015
4source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckv_CjyKyZY

I thought it was an interesting video.3 I wrote down a few things that were valuable to me. How will my reference note work five or ten years from now? I doubt the YouTube video will be around forever, so that source link will be useless at some point. If I doubt my understanding, or I want to share my understanding with someone else, I will definitely need that video. So I will search the internet for it again. Will I trust that I found the video that I remember? I will likely update my reference to something that is a facsimile of the original whether it is correct or not. Here I am, the victim of my own outsourcing. I’ve outsourced my primary references to commercial enterprises that prefer to be advertising companies than libraries.

Text is being eaten by video and audio on the internet. It was inevitable. We did the same to Newspapers. Video and audio are often richer experiences with nuanced context that is much harder to achieve with text alone. But it sucks to reference video and audio, and these days I find myself watching a heck of a lot of YouTube.

You know what? PDFs are damn good! Those little suckers do a lot of heavy lifting for me. They are portable, relatively small, and I can annotate them. I need something similar for audio and video.

The Speed of Thought: Problem the Third

Now we come to the third bit of complicated reality. I can think a lot faster than I can write (usually). I’ve already spent my lifetime trying to deal with this. If you are of a certain age (or wish you were) you will remember personal voice recorders. That was an attempt to make information capture operate at the same speed as ideation. Dictation is getting better but still not good enough for my technical work or for “thinking out loud” kinds of work.

Over the past decade I’ve changed something substantial about how I capture information. I’ve gone from pure text to a wide mix of content in my notes. It’s so much faster to grab a screen shot of something than it is to explain it with words. It’s also a lot faster to draw a diagram than it is to explain all of the possible connections between concepts. So, unlike five years ago, my notes are now full of drawings, images, mindmaps, and flow diagrams. This makes it much easier to understand complex ideas but much harder to use a pure Markdown note system.

What’s a Blog

I’ve pontificated about blogging way more than I’m comfortable admitting. What’s one more time?

I stopped blogging for a lot of reasons I won’t go into here… except for one. It was getting hard to justify the time it took away from other things in my life. Maybe that was the wrong way to look at it. I never worry about that when I’m taking notes. Maybe my blog posts are just public notes. That’s not a novel concept at all. In fact it is the original impetus of the “web log”.

I think I want to return to this old-fashioned concept of blogging for Macdrifter. I want to worry less about “reviewing” things and more about leaving tasty breadcrumbs. That’s not to say I don’t still enjoy writing fun reviews but they are very time consuming and not very re-usable.

Inspiration and Aspiration

A good start for any project is usually a bit of intellectual theft. There are blogs I really like that I probably wouldn’t recommend to most people I know. They are weirdly structured or oddly specific or the writing is hard to digest. Those writers are my kind of people.

Tweet Blogging

Dave Winer is part of the classic “web log” world. He’s probably one of the original forces behind blogging, given his contributions to RSS. I subscribe to his blog at scripting.com. He writes about his work in real-time. His latest project is an outliner called Drummer. He also writes a lot of short opinion posts that are more familiar on Twitter than they are as blog posts. But, I kind of like that. Everything I know about Dave Winer I know from his blog. His relationships, conflicts, and turmoil are all there as little public nuggets on his blog. I don’t agree with everything but I can understand him a bit and that feels good.

Work Log

I’ve enjoyed posts from Christian Tietze, even if I don’t understand half of them. I like this format where there is only a thin idea of a topic or conclusion. I find a lot of this kind of content as one-off Github pages, which aren’t great blogs. This seems like an area with perennial value that is somehow off limits for most bloggers. I like this format and plan to steal it.

I already write a lot of work logs. I always have. Retros, root cause analysis, project status updates, and achievement logs are the things I write down to make things understandable. I kind of like the idea making this part of a blog. It will be terrible for driving traffic but it will be great for finding answers to my own questions on my own site. Maybe that’s good enough.

The Explainer

Of all the blogging formats, I love The Explainer the most. These are detailed, well-researched articles that are also a slog to write. I’m thankful to people that put the extra effort into explaining something, calmly, with data and references. I’m especially digging The Electric Light Company these days. It’s painfully opinionated in the choice of topics, but wonderfully written. It fluctuates between detailed art history and technical explainers of the M1 Mac architecture.

I also read almost every word from Derek Lowe’s commercial blog. His explainers are always well referenced and generally have an easy on-ramp for those unfamiliar with the topics. While he sticks to pharmaceuticals and chemistry, he keeps his language and explanations at a lay-person level.

Opinions about Opinions

I enjoy reading blogs that are mostly opinions. Over time I’ve curated the list don’t to voices and opinions that I like. To me, the quintessential opinion blog is Daring Fireball. John Gruber’s writing has a voice that I like. He’s very smart and his joy of commenting about wrong-headed opinions really comes through.

I really like Pixel Envy in this category too. The site is a bit of a link blog mixed with opinion pieces. Nick Heer’s voice comes through and feels consistent from post to post.

Many of the opinion bloggers I liked have moved to Substack, which I hate.4 But, I still enjoy reading strong opinions and screeds.

There’s a lot that I dislike about BoingBoing but the site is one of the original opinion blogs in my feed reader. I like their format which is ostensibly a link-blog peppered with opinionated comments.

The Linkers

Jason Kottke is the king of link-bloggers in my mind. He publishes more links per day than is humanly reasonable. While he does include plenty of opinions in his posts, they are mostly for context.

I can’t be the only person that thinks the weird random links from Andy Baio at Waxy.org are pure joy. I have no idea what Andy does for a living these days, but he’s a magician at surfacing the obscure and wonderful.

  1. I’m riffing on a concept familiar to coders: “data structures”. Information structures are more about how information is persisted and interconnects than it is about the nature of the information. ↩︎

  2. Books are a different story. I buy and read a lot of books. But those are not entirely aspirational. Usually if I invest in a book it is to solve a category of problems. I treat most of my technical books encyclopedias. I rarely read any of them cover to cover but I do read a lot of them in short bursts. ↩︎

  3. If you skipped reading Maggie’s article then you are probably wasting your time reading my essay. The web is connected. Don’t skip the connections because the rest of it is empty space. ↩︎

  4. I really do not understand the fascination with cramming more stuff into my email inbox. Is this a sustainable business model? If email was so superior to web publishing, you wouldn’t need to offer a website for people to “discover” the content. Email is a powerful tool, but it feels like using a shovel to cut down a tree. ↩︎