One month of learning in public


Exactly one month ago, I started a project known in some groups as a digital garden. In appearance, it is nothing more than note-taking, provided that you generate links between the notes and that you are active at creating new knowledge, in your own words. I wanted to take better notes and create self-awareness of my thinking processes. I also wanted to lower my barrier to put content online. I decided, therefore, to start cultivating and to make my digital garden public. This is what I learned after one month of experimenting with it.

The first thing I liked about digital gardens is that the way they are presented does not include a specific taxonomy. There are no categories, nor lists ordered by date. Each page is linked to others in pretty much the same way Wikipedia pages are linked together. The taxonomy will emerge naturally after creating enough content. Some nodes in the graph will have a higher number of inbound connections, naturally emerging as categories. This gives me a lot of creative flexibility since I can write both about Python and politics without fearing that a reader may be misguided. For example, in this blog, I refrain from writing technical articles, it is not its purpose.

I also forced myself to start my days writing something. Whatever I read or podcasts I listened while biking to work are good enough triggers. Perhaps even during the day, I had some ideas worth writing down. Sometimes they are rough ideas, sometimes I just mark links to articles I would like to read or things I would like to reflect upon. It is not the first time I try this, but it is the first time I know that whatever I'm jotting down will become public right after I save it. I am mindful of the links I create between notes. After all, the relationships between different pieces of information are what make gardens a powerful tool. Links are what allows us to piece together information and build new knowledge and insight.

I have tried to publish almost any thought that crosses my mind, regardless of how incomplete my knowledge is. I also have to remind myself that they are not daily notes or minutes of meetings. They are really seeds of ideas to build upon. I try to keep each record succinct and self-contained, but I do not limit myself to it. Sometimes notes start shaping up as short pieces. My main objective was to start publishing content. Therefore I was not willing to impose limitations on what I could create. Knowing that whatever I write will become public, puts a bit of a quality standard check that for personal notes may not be necessary. I have the urge to polishing (at least a bit) how and what I write. The idea of learning in public is that you are entitled to make public mistakes, which may be frightening. That is why I have separated this website from my garden. This one is the home for better thought articles that are edited, checked, on which I sit for days before clicking 'publish.'

Daily, just by forcing myself to sit down and start writing and linking ideas together, I get a very pleasurable feeling. Even though I could have always taken notes, the extra push of knowing they will become public as soon as I save them adds extra motivation. I really regret I didn't start this earlier, especially during my Ph.D. I wrote countless pages on a lab journal, noted papers on their margins, but never tried to systematize the process as I am doing now. Almost everything I have generated for years is locked somewhere far away. Now what I write is there, perhaps it will be indexed by the Wayback time machine and will stay available for centuries to come.

I have no idea how many people may read what I write since I don't collect statistics. I didn't want market forces to dictate what I reflect upon. In a month, I have written around 15 thousand words. It is not much, but considering that writing is not my main occupation right now, I am delighted. In these past 30 days, the garden's content has triggered at least two different, independent discussions. One was very technical about something in Python, the other was a bit deeper regarding gender inequalities in academia. I didn't have any expectations before starting, but this outcome creates a great feeling. It also helped me realize that my mind roams freely through many different subjects, and now I am free to publicly express them. Some links between very diverse topics emerge very slowly. Still, it will take much more time to actually provide value for new knowledge generation.

Some of the people I've discussed the approach of learning in public fear that others may steal their ideas. I really don't know how to respond to that fear yet. If someone goes through my notes and builds an article linking ideas together, I should be proud. In the end, it wouldn't be too different from someone reading a blog article and writing their own take on the subject. So far, I think the benefits outweigh the risks. I have to acknowledge that I am not embedded in the mindfulness community of people. There are a lot of different takes on methods for note-taking, mind mapping, and whatnot. I took the elements I liked from them, and that served my own purposes. In the end, this is also a learning experience that has just started.

Also, I don't have a particularly popular online persona. The self-perceived risk of being mistaken is much lower for me than for someone who sells themselves as thought leaders and content creators. I have explored some digital gardens, including some belonging to higher-profile people, and many are virtually (pun intended) abandoned. Not practicing what they preach is a big sign to pay attention to.

The experience so far has been great. I am glad I can put things online this quickly, not only from a technical perspective but also from a personal one. While there is an explicit agreement between my readers and me regarding the nature of the content I publish, there are no problems. For the next few months, I will be just collecting and linking notes. Once I have a slightly bigger body of knowledge, I'll re-evaluate how the project is going and where it is headed.

If you are interested, you can always see more at my digital garden: