October 04, 2020
Building a community digital garden
topics: articles, digital-gardensRosie Sherry
I don't know about you, but I cannot escape all the talk of digital gardens. It feels like it is everywhere.
Some examples: Anne-Laure Le Cunff, Maggie Appleton, and the rise of Roam Research and the 'cult-like' community behind it.
I like how Joel explains digital gardens on his website:
The phrase "digital garden" is a metaphor for thinking about writing and creating that focuses less on the resulting "showpiece" and more on the process, care, and craft it takes to get there.
While not everybody has or works in a dirt garden, we all share a familiarity with the idea of what a garden is.
A garden is usually a place where things grow.
A digital garden for me is about moving away from the idea of a blog (or even a newsletter like this 😬), where the posts are displayed chronologically and with a focus on perfection. It becomes more about moving towards a curated resource where you, the owner, tries to surface what you think is most important.
Personally I've dipped in and out of the concept of personal digital gardens for years. I even remember opting for a wiki at one point as my personal blog (which I loved). This was a very long time ago and I no longer have evidence of this, sadly, or maybe thankfully!
Over the years I've created personal things online, then binned them, many times over. This really is down to my personal (lack of) discipline. The person inside me struggles to do a digital garden for my own personal website. I think I will get there one day, I've made small steps by making rosiesherry.com a Notion website.
However, when it comes to building community I've taken a very different mindset. As I was building up Ministry of Testing I knew that the discussions, information, and talks we recorded were all valuable resources that deserved to be preserved and shared in some kind of useful way.
🎉 I realize now that my thinking has been in line with creating a community digital garden.
What do I mean by a community digital garden?
A community garden is a single piece of land gardened collectively by a group of people. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community_gardening#cite_note-1
Ironically, I went to Google (then to land on Wikipedia) to search the meaning of 'community garden' to then realize that Wikipedia is probably the best example of a community digital garden out there.
Please, laugh with me. 👏🏽
However, in all seriousness, when thinking about a community digital garden, it can be easy to get carried away thinking that we have to have a wiki (or some fancy Roam like community tool) to make it a true community digital garden, however, I don't think this has to be the case.
The more I try to think about this and try to convey the idea to you now, the more I think it is about the process and the intention to constantly surface value from within the community.
Some community garden thoughts that spring to mind:
- When you build a community it is about growing together.
- Things will look simple and clean to begin with, but can quickly become messy and disorganized.
- When building a community it is easy to fall into the trap of getting measured by the number of posts, comments, or views, rather than the combined and potential value
- It’s important to look at the long term value of content and what it means to your community
- Members can easily default to (lazily) checking and posting from the homepage or forum, over taking time to search and discover
- Educating your community about where you are heading is probably key to making it work as they can then hopefully align their actions to help you
- It doesn't need to mean that everyone has access to add or edit everything, it's more about having some kind of commitment to creating continual value based on the contributions from the community
I think we would all love it if community members willingly spent their time contributing and organizing awesome bits of content and knowledge. The reality is that mostly this doesn't happen, or it doesn't happen in the way you want. Sometimes it's just easier to invest in some kind of process and become the community leader for the process of surfacing what is valuable.
Why create a community digital garden?
When people join communities it is often the case to mostly focus on sharing and discussing information that is trending right now. It can be hit and miss how interesting or valuable a piece of shared information is. It can also be hit or miss whether a discussion was posted in the right place.
In addition to this, often community members need time to lurk and get a feel for everything that surrounds them.
There can also be so many useful bits of information shared in places that people often won't look. The comments section on Indie Hackers, for example, is full of gold. Yet so many people will never discover this.
Another example is repeat questions. When questions are being asked over and over again, that is a clear sign that we could create a resource to stop this happening, or at least respond really easily to the people that are innocently asking the question.
To me, it feels wasteful to not try to consider all the things that are being shared and surface them in some kind of useful way.
Another powerful aspect is that community content and curation is hard and tedious. This is probably why people don't seem to tackle it well. There is something really powerful about creating content with a long term view.
When you build a community digital garden you are building a mini searchable powerhouse for your niche and you can become the first place that people go to search for information.
The commitments needed to maintain a community digital garden
When I think about what is needed to maintain a community digital garden, I think of these things:
- the need for curation: the world moves fast, there needs to be a way to constantly stay on top of what is happening in your industry
- the need for expertise: we need to be constantly tapping into people and their knowledge
- the need for a process: just like a business, a community digital garden will die a death if there isn't some kind of process to keep it in place.
- and of course, the need to build community around all of these things
The need for curation
Curation is a hot topic at the moment, but it is not a new thing.
The people who curate content have a process to stay on top of information that matters for them. You can take this idea to communities too. When you build a community you must stay on top of the information that matters for your community.
You and your community will become irrelevant when you stop doing this. The conversations you start will become stale and boring fairly quickly.
To curate with community in mind, do things like:
- stay on top of what experts get up to
- keep up to date with news, blogs, podcasts, videos, newsletters
- keep a close eye on what your community are talking about, inside or outside of your 'community garden wall'
Then comes expertise
Curating is the beginning of access to people and expertise.
When you know what people are talking and writing about it becomes easier to have meaningful conversations with them. This is where you can start going deeper into the things they know that align with the things you want to know.
You can do this by things like:
- use what you discover to create discussions or content for your community
- inviting people for talks, AMAs, podcasts, articles, collaborations, etc
- this will naturally lead you to have access to so much information and the ability to share it in many different ways
Then comes perhaps the hardest part, the process, the organizing, and the commitment
Communities come in all shapes and sizes. Gathering information usefully and consistently is hard. I don't claim to be an expert in data, research, information architecture or UX design.
I am an expert in caring for the communities I create. I also love seeing how others do this, especially on a (small) indie scale.
As a community builder you are well, or best placed, to be curating content because:
- you are studying your industry all the time
- you are getting to know people daily
- you see what they are talking about and are actively participating
The more of an expert you become in your industry the better placed you become for deciding what is interesting and useful. It is then up to you to decide how you share the information usefully with your community.
I'm guessing it would be nearly impossible to try to organize each and every discussion that happens within the walls of the community, let alone discussions and content that happen outside of the walls.
It can quickly become overwhelming. Which is why a process is needed. Without a process, and a commitment to make that process happen, it quickly dies a death.
I re-iterate, the tool is kind of irrelevant, it's the process of taking action on information and committing to organize it in a useful way.
I’m still exploring this and I would love to see some more concrete examples. For now, a few follow which aren’t necessarily community digital gardens, but the actions and philosophy aligns.
It’s important, imho, to see how people experiment with these things on a small scale too.
Community digital gardens come in all shapes and sizes
Some examples of community digital gardens in action.
This whole post is inspired by the Notion resource that I've been curating for my paid newsletter subscribers.
I started it by collecting a few links and some tools. The amount of time I started spending on it made me realize how useful this could be for people.
I've spent countless hours adding stuff in and trying to keep it organized. It will never be complete and many sections may never get off the ground.
I imagine in time I might hire someone to help me maintain and add to this.
Lenny has a very successful paid newsletter and now Slack community. I love the way he approaches things.
We all know Slack doesn't keep a history of conversations. This goes against all things digital garden-esque. However, as Lenny's Slack has gotten busier he has started to experiment by choosing some of the best posts each week and highlight them in a weekly newsletter.
It is far from perfect, but taking things in stages and whilst also experimenting is key. To me, this is very much in line with a community digital garden in the sense that it is bringing relevant information to people in a different and longer-term way.
Indie Hacker Groups
We've been working on making Indie Hacker groups more useful. One of the things we've done is to create a way for people add relevant links into the sidebar.
In addition to this, members can add links and discussions into specific groups in an attempt to keep things somewhat naturally organized. It’s not completely natural tbh, I end up having to move many posts to the right location. 🙄
We have lots of ideas to improve upon this, I'm not sure how it will all end up looking as we have so many ideas. However, we are trying and making some positive steps in this direction.
Ministry of Testing
At Ministry of Testing we have years and years worth of content. This page here is an attempt to curate and surface content into categories that we feel people would find useful.
This was not an automated job and it required careful hand curation by the team.
I like how Trends.co are pushing really valuable information. The tools they use are not modern (WordPress, Google Sheets, Facebook and email), but the way they approach things is very much on providing value with the information they create and doing their best to organize it in a good way.
They also summarize their Facebook group activity into a regular newsletter.
Some practical tips on how to get started
I'm guessing some people will debate what is defined as a community digital garden. This post is a way for me to get these ideas out into the open rather than getting too pedantic about the definition.
At the end of the day, for me, community digital gardening isn't about expecting the community members to do all the work of curating. It's (usually) unreasonable to expect people to do this in today's world.
It is also about giving importance to all content rather than just whatever has been most recently published. By giving importance to all content, means we will be giving importance to more community members and have an understanding that people join communities with different abilities and experiences.
There needs to be a process and a commitment from the community's leadership to recognize that curating and maintaining a resource is of value to the community.
- Define content to curate: what content is important to your community?
- Create a process: if there is no process it won't happen.
- Take the lead from your community: pay attention to what people are sharing and talking about.
- Remember it's not about the tools
- Embrace chaos: it's ok to be messy
- As with most things, it makes sense to start small, experiment and build upon the habits you create. Over time it will have a snowball effect.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this and whether you can think of other communities that align with the philosophy of community digital gardens. 👇