An imageboard split into three columns of [conversation], [pictures], and [meta discussion] with scanned postcards. Two links at the top are labeled [post] and [compost].
Screenshot of (Cambridge Cyber Gardening Club)
“Perhaps this imageboard is a little different from some of the others you've visited - there is no reply button, after all. Instead, please mail your posts to our address, and we will scan and upload them when we receive them.”

trying to maintain a garden is tough work. while a farm or a garden can exist in many sizes or different concentrations, or even many structures of ownership, a garden is definitely a humbler enterprise. gardens are definitely also a much tighter coupling of the functional and ornamental that you won’t find expressed in farms squeezed by multiple generations of agriculture, like the kitchen gardens that victorian cooks would retreat to for ingredients, or the tea gardens that hosted noon brunches of cucumber sandwiches. pleasure gardens existed as ticketed greenery spaces for middle class londoners to soak in the dazzling wealth of nobles. other gardens are instead amazing showpieces of our ability to bend nature, like the baroque gardens or botanical gardens split by winding walkways, or even the well groomed lawns and flower beds of suburbia. some gardens instead demonstrate an obvious moral agency, like the victory gardens that were encouraged during the world wars to ease the strain from rationing, which were envisioned not only as good for sustenance but as an effective booster for civil morale. every garden may not be grown for such a noble purpose, but every garden does demonstrate a commitment to some allotment of space that says something just as valuable about the person that grew it.

if we’re to say gardens are limited to creative arrangements, then cottage personal sites are probably no better a reflection of that idea in the digital world. knowing how broadly a garden can be classified, though, I find it far more useful to liken digital gardens to BBSes. unlike personal sites that might offer at best a guestbook or a shoutbox, BBSes have always existed as true meeting places and destinations by people for a variety of purposes, from their days as long-distance dial-ins to more contemporary offshoots as textboards and imageboards. they are almost always administered by individuals or small teams, and that wisdom certainly holds today, which makes them look very different to most other platforms that exist to invite participation online. while historically they were used to play games, to download cracked software, to exchange pornography, or to fling casual banter, in reality, each BBS developed an identity around whatever its owner cultivated it as. just as a community garden might only be something to observe or stroll through for most people, a BBS extends the same flexibility as one where neighbors can go to collaborate, where a lone devotee can tirelessly keep it alive, or where its surroundings can become overgrown with weeds or flame wars. small textboards, imageboards, and forums carry this same homegrown heritage today, right down to their ramshackled software, that makes them exist as oddities on a monolithic web where discussion is funneled to happen in either a feed or a chatroom — your choice. they are the surviving communal gardens of a web where all surrounding sites have grown into or aspire to be content farms.

the cambridge cyber gardening club (CCGC), as the name makes obvious, is subsequently a digital garden at its most direct. here, there is only one flow of discussions in reverse chronological order, not unlike the flat discussion hierarchy pioneered by ayashii world that inspired 2ch and the developments that followed it. while you are free to take a look at past posts, you can only participate by sending a post card in the mail with whatever you want to say written on it to an address in boston. there, someone will scan your card and post it to the site for everyone else to see. if you’re a bigot or a nuisance, someone will sort your post to the compost pile, where that shitpost will hopefully fertilize a better one in the future. it fashions itself as an imageboard, but that’s obviously mostly in name given how deliberately at odds it exists with the concept. with each post going as far as obfuscating its post number and timestamp with roman numerals, it’s clear that each entry is an attempt to slow your gaze, to appreciate each post as a whole. posters dedicated enough to get something into the mail have no trouble translating those numbers so they can backlink to replies in their own personal chicken scratch, but you’ll have to diligently follow along and read each post after yours to see if anyone might have had anything to say back to you. a watched garden never sprouts, but it’s especially fulfilling when it does on a timeline like this.

functionally, this concept could have existed without the web if anyone ever thought to publish reader conversations like letters to the editor. existing on the web as it does among other imageboards and textboards that launched alongside it is probably the only way it could have been imagined, however. before 4chan converged on near-real time posting made possible by browser extensions that delivered new posts inline and alerted you to replies, its core users were seeded from forums where hammering on F5 to follow conversations was the expected default. while it’s barely thought about today, real time posting was an innovation introduced years after 4chan’s launch that saw users begin to favor threads that acted more like small chatrooms — the emergence of “generals” — rather than independent threads that attracted unique audiences each time. 4chan may have once defined itself as the web’s counterculture, but it could not defy an audience that demanded more posts, more quickly from consumption patterns they had become accustomed to experiencing on the mainstream web. no one that had tasted the firehose wanted to go back to a slower method of engaging with posts.

the CCGC garden is just one example that emerged after this shift, as did many other unique imageboard concepts that followed in the wake of 4chan’s success (much as 4chan itself set out to imitate the successes of 2ch and futaba). one of them retains posts only for a day, envisioned as fleeting conversations with strangers at a bus stop. another lets you post only during a set window of tea time each day. the CCGC garden is one of my favorites, as it feels almost like a sneering step around any users that would ever demand more posts from a digital medium effectively having slow mode applied to it by snail mail. certainly, these sites can never hope to replace other platforms, and they’re deliberately obtuse and a little strange by design, but that makes them far more charming to steep yourself in and appreciate. rather than welcome an unflinchingly fast churn of content, these examples have taken a deliberate approach that slows posting to a meditation rather than a sprint. in much the same ilk, a post to a site like cohost might present more friction to publish, but each post holds more weight to it as a result. the CCGC garden is considerably less healthy at only a few posts each year, yet it persists because there is at least one person to steward what it stands for, to exist as a counterweight to the prevailing modes of communication that happen online even if only as an artistic curiosity. there is no chance that the CCGC garden ever supplants anything, or probably even develops a serious audience, and that’s okay. tending a garden doesn’t have to put your garden in competition to become the best, or the biggest, or the most profitable garden. letting it grow a community, or fall back to the earth, or inspire someone else, should be enough.