In my previous post, I explained the concept of data economy serfdom. Which is happening, “any time a person is either required or manipulated into virtually existing on someone else’s platform and they are not given a fair stake in the value generated from their data.” And I said I’d be taking steps to try and avoid that as much as possible.
This meant taking a long break from social media and re-thinking how exactly I could use the platform of my website to start reclaiming the value of my own data. What I came up with is called Data Gardening.
What is Data Gardening?
Data Gardening is the ongoing cultivation of your data’s value. Monetary value, yes, but also its accuracy, accessibility, and usefulness (both to you and others). Of course this is not a new idea. Google, for example, does this on a scale I can barely comprehend. You might call what they do the global industrial farming and processing of data.
Data Gardening, as I imagine it, is much more personal. Like a home garden, it’s intentionally not the maximization of all available resources with the goal of never-ending growth. It’s just the cultivation of the few things you personally need and enjoy on a scale you can manage.
Importantly however, in the realm of data (unlike a home garden) a small scale operation should generate more than enough value to support an individual or household financially.
Data Gardening in Action
Core Principle: The value of information can be increased and extracted by refining its quality and choosing (or creating) the ideal container for it.
Let’s say you have an amazing technique for preparing chicken that only you know. A secret recipe. With the number of people who eat and prepare chicken in the world, a novel way to make it taste amazing has the potential to be extremely popular. To be valuable to a large number of people. But how can you convert that potential value into real-world value?
One way would be to publish it on your blog. In that case, the idea would be formatted into a recipe (refined) and put into a blog post (container). By making your idea easily consumable and sharable you’ve just greatly increased its value, especially for others. But what about you?
While it may feel great to bask in the prestige of having a novel and popular recipe, prestige doesn’t pay the hosting bill. The type of value we’re after in this case is money. That’s where content monetization comes in.
Display ads alone, placed on a single popular blog post, can generate hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars a year. Now that does pay the hosting bill. And it’s only one of many ways to monetize content, applied to a single piece of content. Clearly, there’s a lot of potential value to be had in the careful organization and distribution of what we might consider relatively mundane information.
It’s exactly that well of potential that I hope to dip into in creative and personally fufilling ways, here on my website. By carefully choosing the information I share and deliberately designing my content containers, I’m hoping to generate enough money to make a comfortable living simply managing the information I’ve found most valuable in my own life, across a wide range of topics.
The Rebirth of a Personal Blog
I grew up in the 90s. The internet and the web existed, sure, but it wasn’t a universal content and social hub like it is now; accessed every few minutes from a smartphone in your pocket. Everything operated on a much smaller, slower, and more personal scale.
My friends and I used analog and low tech methods to share our thoughts, feelings, art, and life updates. Things like phone calls on the family landline, journal swapping, sketch books, physical photo albums, lots and lots of folded notes on paper (it was a whole thing), mixtapes on actual cassets, and of course a ton of in-person hangout time.
When I first started blogging (on Blogger) back in 2004 or 2005, it blew my mind. Suddenly I saw the potential of the web as a place where I could express myself in a variety of ways, from a single place, and in a style that was authentic to me. In theory, a blog post could contain anything I’d put in a note, a letter, a journal entry, a sketchbook, and even more content/media types. Plus, I could share it instantly instead of needing to wait until the next time I saw someone in person. As an added bonus, there was always the outside chance that my personal blog would become popular and I’d get invited on a morning talk show. One can dream, right?
I dreamed. And when I needed a job a handful of years later, I desperately wanted the newly minted job title, professional blogger. Unfortunatley, despite its popularity, only a miniscule minority of bloggers actually made money blogging. Fortunately for me, the old goldrush addage held true, “If you want to go broke, dig for gold. If you want to get rich, sell shovels.” Or in my case, “If you want to go broke, write a personal blog. If you want a steady paycheck, sell tools to bloggers.”
By pure luck, some of my earliest clients as a freelance blogger were blogs about WordPress and companies selling WordPress products. WordPress being the hottest new blog and website creation platform in the world. Over the next 10+ years I grew up as a blogger with the WordPress platform. For seven of those years I was fortunate enough to be on staff with the creator of the world’s most popular premium WordPress theme, Divi. I was initially a blogger, then blog editor, and eventually content manager; responsible for an internal team of 13 and most of the company’s internal and external content–including a massive blog, documentation knowledgebase, YouTube channel, social channels, and more.
During that time, blogging as a medium matured into a standard mode of publishing, marketing, and communication. The black box of monetization was opened and blogging is now an essential tool in the content marketer’s toolkit.
Since leaving the workforce in the spring of 2023, due primarily to a prolonged and severe bout of depression (a story for another post), I began to re-examine the concept of a personal blog. I wondered, could I take everything I’ve learned as a professional blogger and content creator/marketer and scale it down to a personal level? Could I adapt sophisticated techniques developed for large scale publishers to the humble personal blog? And most importantly could I do it in a way that is personally fulfilling, a good experience for my community, and financially sustainable for my family? I think so!
In the weeks, months, and years to come I plan on publishing a steady stream of blog posts with that aim. I’ll be tracking my progress in regular monthly “data garden updates.” Sharing my tactics, techniques, and results.
Data Gardening Beyond My Blog
When you reframe content as the combination of information and containers, you realize that certain types of information are more valuable when placed in the right container and presented in the right context.
The classic example I like to use is a bottle of water at a concert or amusement park. At home, water is extremely cheap. A glass of water costs a tiny fraction of a single cent. But in an amusement park, where you’re not allowed to bring in outside food and drink and everyone is hot and thirsty, a single bottle of water can go for $10 or more! Same resource (water), different container (bottle instead of glass), different context (amusement park instead of at home). Likewise, a blog post may not be the ideal container–or my blog the ideal context–for all of the information I’d like to share.
To that end, my long term plans also include webinars, courses, virtual training, consulting, digital products, and more.
Data Gardening Beyond My Website
I’ve learned over time that WordPress (which my site is built on) is a great public-facing content management system. But when it comes to capturing new data, recording and organizing my existing data, and refining the value of my data–WordPress is not the ideal software.
For me, the ideal tool is Notion. It’s part of a newish wave of SaaS applications and platforms that allow non-developers to create advanced, personalized applications with absolutely no code required. I use Notion as an all-in-one Work OS and second brain. It’s where my planning, research, and writing all take place. Only some of which is eventually migrated to WordPress as public-facing content.
Can Anyone be a Data Gardener?
In theory, yes. In practice, its probably not for everyone. Folks will inevitably be limited by their interest, skill, and capacity. Not everyone will “get” this concept or enjoy the process of practicing it. Which kind of defeats the purpose. But anyone who enjoys data management and content creation could potentially thrive as a data gardener. For those people, and anyone else who’s interested, I’ve decided to publish monthly updates about my ongoing data gardening project.
Stay Tuned for Monthly Updates
As the title of this post suggests, I plan to be at this whole data gardening thing for a while. If you’d like to come along for the journey and learn from what will likely be my many mistakes, then please join my newsletter below for monthly updates. These updates will include the explanation of data gardening’s foundational ideas and concepts, specific strategies I’m using, experiments, and of course performance reports.
Next Update: Understanding Content in Terms of Information and Containers
This update will lay the theoretical framework that data gardening is based on. I’d love your feedback when it goes live!