How To Grow Your Digital Garden With Sub-Domains

May - 2022

A New Idea

I first heard about digital gardens on the wonderful Party Corgi Network. That lead me to these posts by Maggie Appleton and Joel Hooks which explain the concept nicely. Here's a brief snippet from Maggie Appleton's piece:

Rather than presenting a set of polished articles, displayed in reverse chronological order, these sites act more like free form, work-in-progress wikis.

That idea stuck a chord.

I haven't been so excited about playing on the web since the '90s. I switched my site over from software designed to make a blog to a some that provides more freedom to move and experiment. I've been playing with the layout, design, and content ever since.

But, I was feeling resistance.

Friction

Whenever I wanted to play with an idea, I'd have to take the existing setup and structure into account. For example, consider the width of the page layouts. Every page on my site has the same width. It's defined in a single configuration template. To make something a different width, I'd have to rewire the site for multiple templates.

I've got enough experience that that wouldn't be particularly hard. But, it would be work. And that work is friction. And that friction stops me.

Or, it's better to say that it keeps me from getting started.

When I have an idea, I want to play with it. Not work on the infrastructure that supports it.

Enter Dusty Domains

Dusty Domains was a charity project (and genius marketing play) from Netlify at the end of 2021. The pitch was to dip into the developer community's vast collection of unused domains and actually publish something on them by the end of the year. Each completed site added $500 to a pool for coding related charities.

That sounded great to me. So, I built JackTorrance.blog

I turned it around in three days and had an absolute blast doing it. I started with nothing more than the domain, an idea, and a deadline and turned into something I'm really proud of.

Something also clicked during the build. I realized I hadn't experienced any of that "getting started" friction I'd been running into with ideas for my site. The empty domain was a clean slate. No worrying about the width of pages. I could make them whatever size I wanted without hassle.

And, it went way beyond that. The software for my main site had no bearing on what I used for the new domain. I could use the same framework, a completely different one, or roll back to vanilla HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

If you had said the words "domains are independent" to me, I would have responded, "umm, yes. and?" But, the implications never fully registered. I didn't grok it.

Now, I do.

I have one domain

When you buy a domain name, the basic setup ends up giving you two. One that starts with "www" (e.g. "www.alanwsmith.com") and one that doesn't have any preface (e.g. "alanwsmith.com"). You can serve a site off either of them. I've gone back and forth over the years, but, they can pretty much be considered the same thing.

I've also split things out when I needed to use another service for my site. For example, serving my site pages off "www.alanwsmith.com" and then using "images.alanwsmith.com" pointed to a CDN to serve images.

Again, that was really just powering the same site with a few different root URLs.

That's been my mental model for two decades. A cohesive site that sometimes spans sub-domains for functionality.

Then, something happened

It was getting towards the end of the Dusty Domains and they hadn't hit their goal. I'd seen one of their inspiration domains called Hawk Dance. It's a single page site with throw-back animation. I figured I could pull off something like that, but I didn't have another unused domain that fit the bill. So, I decided to throw something up on a sub-domain of my site and made hacking.alanwsmith.com.

Boom. $500 for charity.

They were still short. So, I made AreYouCurrentlyAlive.alanwsmith.com

$500 more.

Both sites took about fifteen minutes to build and launch. I was plotting to do twenty more if they needed. And, that's when the bit flipped.

I don't have one domain. I have infinite domains.

Each one, a clean slate.

Infinite Space

Not gonna lie. I feel punch drunk thinking of the implications.

The ability to spin up a new domain on a whim feels like a super-power. Firing one up to play with a new framework? No problem. Spinning one up for every framework out there? I mean, they're infinite, so... why not?

How about playing around with site designs using a full copy of the content? Just throw some notes to the search engines telling them to ignore the sandbox and away we go.

Need a playground to test out a CSS library? You got it. What to practice your vanilla JavaScript? Just flip the switch and get going.

That's all well and good, but what about something less practical?

Like, say, a domain for each letter of the alphabet with nothing but the corresponding letter on it...

Fuck it. Let's go:

a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, z.

Easy as 1, 2, 3.

An Infinite Garden

The idea of the digital garden resonated with me the instant I heard it. I made moves towards it with the energy of the initial excitement, but that burned out. The subtle friction and resistance that comes from working within an existing site worn down the enthusiasm until it was gone.

A fitting analogy is the trees of the black forest. They're so dense they prevent anything else from growing beneath them. Trying to do new work on an existing site is like that. It means fighting against the environment. Being bound by its constraints.

But, we're not bound to a single domain. Doomed to fight against its pressures until we give up, exhausted.

We have space.

We can grow.

Our gardens are infinite.

Let's see what we can do with them.