March 8, 2022

Building a Digital Homestead, Bit by Brick

On the architecture of blogging

A personal site, or a blog, is more than just a collection of writing. It’s a kind of place - something that feels like home among the streams. Home is a very strong mental model.

I’ve talked before about streams, campfires and gardens. But what about digital homes?

“Home” has a certain kind of emotion. I love Winnie Lim’s meditation on a website feeling like home:

I would like this to be a space where I primarily – other people too if they want to – can retreat to, sip a cup of tea, immerse in the content or browse lightly for a bit, an online space where people can slow down and breathe. There is almost no one else here, no social signalling or noise, no sense of competition or completion, almost nothing and yet everything.

And homes are built - Frank Chimero’s piece on building a digital homestead always resonates with me:

Have you ever visited an architect’s house, one they designed themselves? It’s fun to walk through it with them. They have so many things, arranged so thoughtfully, and share the space with such pride because of the personal reflection the house required to design (not to mention the effort it took to build). It’s really quite special. I think there’s a pleasure to having everything under one roof. You feel together, all of you at once. In a way, building your own house is the ultimate project for a creative person: you’re making a home for what you think is important, done in the way you think is best.

This notion that building something allows you to embed your own style, taste and ideas into not just the content but the layout, structure. The walls are alive with your intentions.

And, much like a homestead, personal sites are never finished. They can be extended, re-built, maintained, polished, fixed. Brian Lovin has this wonderful meditaiton on incrementally correct personal sites:

Incremental correctness is the process of iterating towards something more truthful, accurate, usable, or interesting. The faster we can iterate, the faster we can discover good ideas. Things aren't perfect today, but tomorrow things can be slightly closer to perfect.

Incremental correctness changes everything about the way you work. It's anti-perfectionism. It's pro-generation. It's about discovery and proof, research and prototyping, and having a framework to reliably test your instincts. It discourages major redesigns, preferring isolated improvements to a small subset of nodes in any kind of working tree.

I've always struggled to have this mindset when working on my personal website. I get stuck in these loops where I redesign the thing once every few years, and am left so thoroughly exhausted and frustrated by the process that I don't want to touch the thing ever again. If you've ever dreaded the notion of having to redesign your portfolio, you probably know what I mean.

So there’s something brewing here - something about building a digital homestead, building it in a way that reflects your soul.

And the idea of building is interesting. Not gardens and streams but architecture! What kind of architecture is necessary for a blog? Perhaps it’s a geometry of irregular shapes, of bricolage. As Alan Jacobs writes in architectural blogging:

I think a lot about blogging, about why I like it, what I think I can accomplish through blogging that I can’t accomplish, or not easily anyway, through other kinds of writing … and that leads me to metaphors. For instance, I have appropriated from Brian Eno and others the distinction between architecture and gardening, and have described my blog as a kind of garden. But lately I’ve been revisiting the architecture/gardening distinction and I have come to think that there is something architectural about writing a blog, or can be – but not in the sense of a typical architectural project, which is designed in advanced and built to specifications. Rather, writing a blog over a period of years is something like building the Watts Towers:

From these meditations on the architecture of blogging three questions emerge:

  1. How do you create pathways (and desire paths?) through your site? How do people start, journey, get lost and ultimately find their way through your site? I recently added a “start here” section to my writing page but I’ve been tinkering with blogchains and series of writing. What other structures emerge?
  2. How to archive, index and search? I recently re-architected how search works on my site. It’s not finished yet but I hope to use search as a way to search not only my site but all kinds of other stuff: my bookmarks, my wiki, my notes, my tweets even. Search can be a way to go down rabbitholes. Inspiration: Building Monocle, a universal personal search engine for life.
  3. Using a combination of static site and tachyons.css I find it extremely easy to iterate my way forward. Tinkering with my blog is possible piecemeal, there are no databases, no monolithic CSS files, very few dependencies.. It’s clunky at times but I have this sense that every time I build I don’t accumulate tech debt and that’s actually remarkably powerful for a site that’s been running for a decade or so…

Questions as Scaffolding

Questions are unreasonably powerful. And maybe, just maybe, questions can be the scaffolding for the architecture of blogging. Reframing interest areas or topics into questions is a powerful enabler. This paper shows how “specific curiosity” is a driver of creativity:

The present research examines the causal relationship between specific curiosity and creativity. To explicate this relationship, we introduce the concept of idea linking, a cognitive process that entails using aspects of early ideas as input for subsequent ideas in a sequential manner, such that one idea is a stepping stone to the next.

Study 1 demonstrated the causal effect of specific curiosity on creativity.

Study 2, a field study of artisans selling handmade goods online, found that experiencing specific curiosity predicts greater next-day creativity.

Study 3 demonstrated idea linking as a mechanism for the effect of specific curiosity on creativity.

Study 4 further established the impact of idea linking on creativity, finding that it boosted creativity beyond the well-established intervention of brainstorming.

We discuss specific curiosity as a state that fuels creativity through idea linking and idea linking as a novel technique for creative idea generation.

I’ve dabbled with this recently by trying to make sense of what I’m to through the lens of lines of inquiry.

And finally - I found this beautiful personal site from Emmanuel Quartey where he has structured his writing and site around central questions:

What a magnificent execution. Questions as scaffolding and curiosity engine for building your own digital homestead, bit by brick.

This blog is written by Tom Critchlow, an independent strategy consultant living and working in Brooklyn, NY. If you like what you read please leave a comment below in disqus or sign up for my Tinyletter.