Digital Garden Terms of Service

This is my attempt to explicitly define a not-legally-binding "terms of service" for people who peruse Digital Gardens, and the people who Learn in Public with them.

writing learninpublic Posted:
  • Canonical URL: https://www.swyx.io/writing/digital-garden-tos/
  • Epistemic status: Interested in this as an experiment for myself, but happy to change, add, or prune over time.
  • Epistemic effort: Have had this in my head a while, but mostly wrote this on a flight.

This is my attempt to explicitly define a not-legally-binding "terms of service" for people who peruse Digital Gardens, and the people who Learn in Public with them.

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Table of Contents

Why We Need a Terms of Service

The Learn In Public movement has encouraged thousands of people to write, speak, draw, or otherwise pick up what mentors put down, with the end goal of lifelong L(N*P) growth in personal knowledge and network. A key part of this strategy is maintaining your own Digital Garden.

A Digital Garden is your very own place (often a blog, or twitter account) to plant incomplete thoughts and disorganized notes in public - the idea being that these are evergreen things that grow as your learning does, warmed by constant attention and fueled by the unambiguous daylight of peer review.

It is in part a trick for creators to play on themselves: For perfectionists who stress over shipping anything less-than-polished and therefore never ship anything, it is a license to trade off self review for peer review and increased velocity. Many report both improved quality and quantity of output after giving themselves the permission to do this.

Potential Problems with Digital Gardens

However, the social contract is not explicit, which causes understandable conflict because this is such a fringe movement.

  • We have been conditioned for decades to believe in the finality and authority of the printed word. The widely accepted Rules of Good Writing exhort writers to use active voice and drop weasel words.
  • Words can take on extra weight with context. Serif fonts and professional design can imply the journalistic standards of the New York Times, yet nobody assigns authority to words on a 4chan or Reddit anonymous discussion forum.
  • Readership also matters - it is common for people who Learn In Public to gain a large following, and there is often an expectation that "With Great Subscriber Count Comes Great Responsibility".

Quite simply, nobody wants the Learn In Public movement to encourage a flood of overnight experts and blogspam in a content race to the bottom. However, we also don't want to discourage learners from learning.

Safe Space for Gardeners

People with audiences do of course have some obligation to not do them a disservice, else they don't deserve that audience. However this doesn't mean that they must do exhaustive due diligence and be authoritative in every context - there needs to be space to experiment, grow, and quite frankly, be ignorant and wrong.

This need also extends to people who don't have a large audience. Even here, the social contract also needs to be more explicit. Often, people just getting started don't get the feedback they need. Experts can be very polite - they might see someone making a mistake, but not comment, because they don't want to embarrass the beginner or because unsolicited criticism can be rude.

If you keep your ego small, you can learn more by explicitly inviting people to criticise your work. You can even encourage feedback by proving that you are coachable - having a track record of acting upon feedback, correcting our notes and then following up by more clearly articulating what you got wrong for benefit of fellow beginners. This incentivises feedback by amplifying the expert's time invested in you, aided by the one thing you have that they don't: the beginner's mind.


Here's the Digital Garden Terms of Service in a GitHub Repo. Please feel free to suggest changes or fork to your liking.

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For Visitors

Welcome! You are now browsing a Digital Garden. This is my personal space for Learning In Public. I am a lifelong learner so everything is a Work-In-Progress like me, but I do not let perfectionism get in the way. That means that what you read here is not authoritative or complete, and is not representative of my best work.

However, it is representative of my interests and current state of knowledge, and if you have the same interests, then this space is also yours to use as a reference. Feedback and social sharing is welcome - that is the whole point of being public!

1. Right to Be Wrong

I have a right to be wrong or incomplete in my Digital Garden, either due to paucity of time or knowledge. You will not hold this, or my readership, against me because I will keep learning, with your help. Everything in the Digital Garden is a living document and I will retract or rephrase things I no longer agree with.

2. Constructive Criticism

You are expressly welcome to comment on, tear apart, counter-argue, or outright disagree on anything here. No compliment sandwich needed - I learn most from critics. I will listen to you but I don't promise to agree with you. Please also suggest what else I should include, read, watch, or listen to, or tell me what you would have written instead.

Better yet, write a better version of what I did and publish it on your own Garden. I'd love to read it.

3. Attribute, don't Plagiarize

Don't plagiarize. You're welcome to quote, with attribution and a link back here. I don't waive copyright for commercial purposes. But feel free to share ideas and riff off of them.


For Gardeners

Congratulations! You are now the proud owner of your own corner of the Internet. This is a second brain that exists outside your natural one - it is very good at remembering everything, searching and organizing facts and links, and saving you keystrokes. Your second brain is fertile ground: If you tend to it well, your Digital Garden will help you be a lifelong learner, catch you friends while you sleep, and bear fruits in unexpected ways.

However there are some ground rules to being a responsible Digital Gardener, and some things you can do to increase the yield on your work.

1. Consideration of Others

  • I will not publish private conversations or confidential information.
  • I will consider the feelings of others if I ever write negatively about something people have worked on or said.
  • I will do my best to cover my bases and check that I have not assumed incompetence or malice due to my ignorance of the full body of work.
  • I will err on the side of treating others as THEY want to be treated.
  • I will "steelman" arguments - the opposite of "strawman arguments" - instead of picking on the weakest piece of their argument, I will confront head on their best argument by seeking first to understand before trying to be understood.

2. Epistemic Disclosure

  • I will report how strongly I hold my beliefs, always reserving the right to be wrong and change my mind.
  • I will report how much experience I have in the topic, by disclosing how much work I have done so far on it and linking to others who will know more.
  • I will link to further resources so that readers can discover influencing and contrasting opinions from the original source.

In the spirit of this, the practice of disclosing epistemic status and effort originates from Devon Zuegel. I don't think this always needs be disclosed, for example if it is obvious from context. But it never hurts.

3. Response to Feedback

  • I will not get discouraged if I don't receive feedback. I plant ideas in my Digital Garden for my own use, not solely to get visitors.
  • I will reward feedback by listening and immediately correcting things I got wrong.
  • I do not promise to agree with or respond to all feedback.

Call to Action

Let us all adopt more explicit Digital Garden terms of service, and wear them proudly on our garden gates, and in so doing help a thousand Digital Gardens bloom all around the world by encouraging bold, curious, prolific gardeners, while responsibly inviting visitors to co-create and cross pollinate ideas.

With clearer boundaries there will hopefully be less infighting, more personal growth, and more great ideas - the oxygen on which our whole world relies for Progress.


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