Digital Worlds and Gardens

A view of the sea and sky of Brighton on a grey and cloudy day

Photograph taken by the author.

Back in August I wrote about a lot of online advice for artists is framed around the trappings of corporate capitalism, and my deep-felt aversion to the call to adopt these trappings in the documentation of my artistic practice.

In that post I laid out a few ideas of how I didn’t want to approach my artistic practice, but I didn’t really propose any well-thought-out alternative that I did want to adopt - mainly because I didn’t have one!

So it was very interesting to read artist Kening Zhu’s last two blog posts: build a world, not an audience and 8 principles for digital world-building.

Kening raises similar complaints about the ubiquitous market-orientated arts marketing advice that I have, so it was interesting to read the ideas she had for an alternative, which starts with this section from build a world, not an audience:

in this digital age where everyone wants to “monetize” something, you constantly find yourself inside a marketing funnels — filled with shiny things, and quick-fix promises, and slippery slopes.

marketing funnels are everywhere.

digital worlds are rare.

so here is my strategy:

instead of “building an audience,” build a world. build a digital garden-ecosystem, that exists — first and primarily — for itself. a world that doesn’t need likes, traffic, subscribers, or clicks — in order to validate its existence.

build a world that the RIGHT people — your kindred people — will discover, will gravitate towards, and fall in love with. build a world that no one else can replicate, except you.

build a world expansive enough to HOLD your work, your multi-faceted spirit — and your audience.

That’s just one section from the first of those two posts, and I’d advise anyone interested in this topic to read both posts rather than me bulk-quoting them all here - they’re both very interesting and they set out an approach which, while not exactly what I want to do, certainly has some strong similarities.

Kening’s posts will certainly work as a springboard for my own ideas.

There are also some very strong similarities with Maggie Appleton’s 2020 essay A Brief History & Ethos of the Digital Garden, which set out to describe the emerging trend of Digital Gardening, and briefly defined Digital Gardens as follows:

They're not following the conventions of the "personal blog," as we've come to know it. Rather than presenting a set of polished articles, displayed in reverse chronological order, these sites act more like free form, work-in-progress wikis.

A garden is a collection of evolving ideas that aren't strictly organised by their publication date. They're inherently exploratory – notes are linked through contextual associations. 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, and less perfect than the personal websites we're used to seeing.

It harkens back to the early days of the web when people had fewer notions of how websites "should be.” It's an ethos that is both classically old and newly imagined.

These Digital Gardens have a degree of popularity within the IndieWeb community (although not specifically a requirement of the IndieWeb, where the main focus is more on owning your own data), and I can certainly see a lot of the attraction to the concept.

I can also see some downsides: the reasoning from some of the devotees of Digital Gardens seems to me to be rose-tinted nostalgia for the web of the 1990s.

As someone who was online during most of that decade, while it was more free (although not completely) of the domination of a few big internet corporations, it was also a pain-in-the-arse in other ways: mainly, I recall, in terms of discovering anything online (and, of course, accessibility was appalling).

Search was primitive, so unless you saw something recommended to you (e.g. on Usenet) you usually found a website from a link in one of the big Directories (Yahoo! and DMOZ spring to mind as the big ones I remember, but there were others) and there was a lot of gatekeeping going on deciding which sites were listed in those directories (I never managed to get this site listed in DMOZ back in the 1990s - yes, it’s that old!).

Even at the level of discovery on an individual website, the ‘charmingly chaotic’ Digital Garden approach can frequently make finding what you want to read more difficult, and any answer of “just use Google” (or another massive corporation’s search engine) does not really align itself with the principles of the IndieWeb.

So I’m still putting things together in terms of how I want to approach the online side of my artistic practice, and I still resolutely want to avoid the trappings of corporate capitalism.

I think there are some very interesting ideas emerging in the various examples and discussions of digital worlds/gardens, but — for me, anyway — they also need something else to make them more than just an echo of a “simpler time”.

I don’t know what that “something else” is yet.