The Digital Garden

Maggie Appleton (via Gabe Weatherhead) writing about the practice of “Digital Gardening” — that is, personal scratchpads of ideas, links, snippets, and unfinished thoughts categorized loosely and tended to frequently:

In performance-blog-land you do that thinking and researching privately, then shove it out at the final moment. A grand flourish that hides the process.

In garden-land, that process of researching and refining happens on the open internet. You post ideas while they’re still “seedlings,” and tend them regularly until they’re fully grown, respectable opinions.


Gardens are imperfect by design. They don’t hide their rough edges or claim to be a permanent source of truth.

I love this idea, but I think assuming good faith and reckoning with bad and ill-formed ideas in public is a hard shift to make.

“Learning in public” is something I have been thinking about since my friend G. Keenan Schneider wrote about, among other things, the piling on of people on Twitter who have said something stupid. Not something racist or sexist or exclusionary or discriminatory — just something dumb and wrong.

There are certainly those who ought to know better — people with a significant public presence who elevate stupidity — but there are also plenty of people with maybe dozens or hundreds of followers who are riffing, and they get something wrong. Sometimes, people will kindly explain to them where they messed up or point them to a good resource. A lot of the time, they will quote-tweet them to shame and embarrass.

It was something I thought about when Joe Rogan said on his podcast that, in his opinion, young people did not really need to get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, and said later that he’s “not a respected source of information” so listeners should not trust his advice. Shant Mesrobian defended Rogan’s comments by saying that it merely proved that “the show is an open platform for debate and a free exchange of ideas”, a sentiment that was approvingly shared by Glenn Greenwald who commented “Rogan doesn’t feign expertise he doesn’t have. He admits what he doesn’t know.”

But there are vast gaps between all of these things. We have all been given the tools to be broadcasters, but most of us probably do not have the responsibility that entails. And, most of the time, that is fine; our sillier comments stay within a small group of people even if our accounts are public. People like Rogan are different: they have massive followings, so they have a responsibility not to workshop uninformed medical ideas before an audience. I do not think many people, if any, would be directly influenced by Rogan — I was going to get vaccinated, but then this podcast host noncommittally shrugged his shoulders so I guess I won’t now — but treating them as though they are open questions with two or more equally probable answers for which someone with millions of listeners cannot possibly find a reputable source is an abuse of that power and position, no matter how innocently- or well-intentioned.

I often wish that I could just post a link with my scratch notes; if I did, this post would have been up two hours ago. But you come here to read full sentences, so it is the least I can provide. However, it is not that simple: while I am certainly not famous, I am lucky to have an audience. It is important for me to remember that I cannot write solely for myself, since other people might read it. No matter whether it is a longer article or just a quick link, I don’t want to further the spread of something that I believe to be false or unhelpful.

Perhaps there is a place in public for loose thoughts and ignorant questions, but I am not sure what happens when that attracts attention and publicity. We have to assume good intentions in every idea and link. Yet, if there is anything we have learned in the last many years of the internet, it is that many people will abuse your trust for their gain.