The Swale: Weaving between Garden and Stream

Epistemic status: Minimally researched musings from someone who has blogged (poorly) for a few years and has an idea for a thing he wants to make.

In the digital circles where I find myself roaming these days, there is an interesting conversation about two different modalities of online content creation, summarized by a potent analogy called the Garden and the Stream. I think I was initially made aware of it from Chris Aldrich's reference to this post by Mike Caulfield. If you aren't familiar with the tale of the Garden and the Stream, I suggest you read that piece.

This is my very brief, oversimplified summary of the allegory.

The Stream is the blog, the news feed, the Twitter timeline, all that which flows past us in a line, delivered in discrete chunks, fixed in the fourth dimension with timestamps. The Garden is the wiki, the documentation, the Github repository, all that which continues to resemble itself, residing where it first cropped up, growing in spots, receding in others, what you see is the accumulation of all changes.

As you may have noticed, I've enjoyed the analogy a lot, and am very interested in the "garden-esque" projects[1], [2], [3] and ideas[4], [5] that I've seen sprouting on my feed this spring (aside: I'm not even close to finished letting these metaphors flow so best put on your lifejacket). However, the story posed by Caulfield is ultimately more prescriptive than just a suggestion to experiment with some new content formats. He believes that fixation on stream-like works has harmed our information society, which inevitably poses the question: "where should I place my effort, in streaming or in gardening?"

Am I part of the problem?

Currently my social media infrastructure is in a fairly standard streaming modality. My kneejerk reaction is that wikis and garden-esque systems are best for communal development of knowledge, and streams are how we articulate the state of our own minds. Hence, I'm naturally disinclined to the changeover, but, as is the norm, my instinct in one direction leads me to question even more strongly whether the other direction is better. And now this discussion has me wondering whether I've got it all wrong.

To confront this, I've employed my standard adaptive immune response to all statements of dualistic choice.

First, I ask if the proposals are quantitatively or qualitatively different. If only quantitatively different, then the choice between them is continuous and there are infinite blends of the opposing viewpoints. I assume that everyone can find their optimum middle ground. I choose my own and move on.

Unfortunately, in this instance, the modalities as described are incompatible. The Stream that is discrete and time ordered, is by definition non-isomorphic with the Garden. This are qualitatively distinct modes of representation, and so I must choose.

But of course, no, that isn't true either. Similar to my recent musings (link coming soon) on the dualism of matter vs information, I find that the real beauty may lie precisely in the complexity of their combination.


I had an intuition that there is a third choice, but I couldn't articulate it directly. Instead, I worked backwards from yet another metaphor of natural landscape: the Swale.

A swale is a wide, flat stretch of land used to slow down water runoff and help it be reabsorbed into the earth. Additionally, in permaculture and other types of sustainable gardening, swales are often directed to irrigate gardens by diverting a natural runoff to slow down and meander.

So... what if I could metaphorically divert my raging (downhill) torrent of online conversation into a shallower meandering Swale? Maybe in that effort the Stream becomes the natural sustenance of the Garden?

So naturally, what I am proposing to try in the near term with my blog is to build a place where the content pools together. Essentially, for every post across all media, I will break it down into it's component parts, match it to other content that I have already created and link them together in a more garden-esque manner.

Manually curating that would take a bit of work, which I am honestly not willing to do. So instead, (like a permaculturist or a lazy engineer) I aim to build an ecosystem that naturally converts my soil eroding stream into a sustaining water supply.

Design spec

OK, I'm done beating this metaphor to death now. Time to sketch how it's going to work. I haven't planned too deeply yet, since I'm sure that 10 minutes into the process I'll need to reconfigure everything anyway. But for now, my product design is the following:

1. Break down each discrete post into linked subcontent

For posts, I typically use headings subheadings and paragraphs, these present a natural breakdown of the stream into droplets.

2. Link using hyperlinks

I often cite my own prior work, or I cite the same work repeatedly. These will form natural, bidirectional links between droplets.

3. Link with content

Do I repeat myself? Hopefully, I get away with just a little cosine tf-idf similarity to detect when I say the same thing and form more links.

4. Visualize

This is where some magic will happen that allows us to see connections without it just being a big hairball. Wish me luck.

5. Observe

This exercise won't do much good unless I look at it to see patterns.

6. Modify

If I see a pattern, the next step is to annotate it coherently.

7. Stream the changes

If I have a profound realization I would probably restreamify the result.

Conclusion: Go make the thing

Now all that's left is to spend a weekend slapping a prototype together if you wnat to help, drop me a line. Thanks for listening. Like any good slide-ware I've already made a corny logo too.

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