Reframing and simplifying the idea of how to keep a Zettelkasten

Given many of the misconceptions I see online of how to keep a zettelkasten, particularly given the focus on the arcane addressing system used by Niklas Luhmann, perhaps it may be helpful to dramatically reframe the question of how to keep a zettelkasten? One page blog posts from people who’ve only recently seen the idea and are synopsizing it without a year or more practice themselves are highly confusing at best. Can I write something we don’t see enough of in spaces relating to zettelkasten? Perhaps we should briefly consider the intellectual predecessor of the slip box?

(Editor’s note: I’m using content within my own “slip box” to write this.)

Start out by forgetting zettelkasten exist. Instead read about what a commonplace book is and how that (simpler) form of note taking works. This short article outlined as a class assignment is a fascinating way to start and has some illustrative examples: https://www.academia.edu/35101285/Creating_a_Commonplace_Book_CPB_. If you’re a writer, researcher, or journalist, perhaps Steven Johnson’s perspective may be interesting to you instead: https://stevenberlinjohnson.com/the-glass-box-and-the-commonplace-book-639b16c4f3bb

The general idea is to collect interesting passages, quotes, and ideas as you read. Keep them in a notebook and call it your commonplace book. If you like call these your “fleeting notes” as some do.

As you do this, start building an index of subject headings for your ideas, perhaps using John Locke’s method (see this for some history and a synopsis: https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/john-lockes-method-for-common-place-books-1685).

Once you’ve got this, you’ve really mastered the majority of what a zettelkasten is and have a powerful tool at your disposal. If you feel it’s useful to you, you can add a few more tools and variations to your set up.

Next instead of keeping the ideas in a notebook, put them on index cards so that they’re easier to sort through, move around, and re-arrange. This particularly useful if you want to use them to create an outline of your ideas for writing something with them. Once you’ve got index cards (slips) with ideas on them in a box, you now literally meet the minimum requirements of a zettelkasten (German for “slip box”, though in practice many will have their ideas in a metaphorical slip box using a digital note taking tool.

Next, maybe keep some index cards that have the references and bibliographies from which your excerpting and note taking comes from. Link these bibliographical cards to the cards with your content.

As you go through your notes, ideas, and excerpts, maybe you want to further refine them? Write them out in your own words. Improve their clarity, so that when you go to re-use them, you can simply “excerpt” material you’ve already written for yourself and you’re not plagiarizing others. You can call these improved notes, as some do either “permanent notes” or “evergreen notes”.

Perhaps you’re looking for more creativity, serendipity, and organic surprise in your system? Next you can link individual notes together. In a paper system you can do this by following one note with another or writing addresses on each card and using that addressing system to link them, but in a digital environment you can link one note to many multiple others that are related. If you’re not sure where to start here, look back to your subject headings and pull out cards related to broad categories. Some things will obviously fit more closely than others, so be more selective and only link ideas that are more intimately connected than just the subject heading you’ve used.

Now when you want to write or create something new on a particular topic, ask your slip box a question and attempt to answer it by consulting your index. Find cards related to the topic, pull out those and place them in a useful order to create an outline perhaps using the cross links that already exist. (You’ve done that linking work as you went, so why not use it to make things easier now?) Copy the contents into a document and begin editing.

Beyond the first few steps, you’re really just creating additional complexity to a system to increase the combinatorial complexity of juxtaposed ideas that you could potentially pull back out of your system for writing more interesting text and generating new ideas. Some people may neither want nor need this sort of complexity in their working lives. If you don’t need it, then just keep a simple commonplace book (or commonplace card file) to remind you of the interesting ideas and inspirations you’ve seen and could potentially reuse throughout your life.

The benefit of this method is that beyond creating your index, you’ll always have something useful even if you abandon things later on and quit refining it. If you do go all the way, concentrate on writing out just two short solid ideas every day (Luhmann averaged about 6 per day and Roland Barthes averaged 1 and change). Do it until you have between 500 and 1000 cards (based on some surveys and anecdotal evidence), and you should begin seeing some serendipitous and intriguing results as you use your system for your writing.

We should acknowledge that that (visual) artists and musicians might also keep commonplaces and zettelkasten. As an example, Eminem keeps a zettelkasten, though he calls his “stacking ammo”, but it is so minimal that it is literally just a box and slips of paper with no apparent organization beyond this. If this fits your style and you don’t get any value out of having cards with locators like 3a4b/65m1, then don’t do that (for you) useless make-work. Make sure your system is working for you and you’re not working for your system.

Sadly, it’s generally difficult to find a single blog post that can accurately define what a zettelkasten is, how it’s structured, how it works, and why one would want one much less what one should expect from it. Sönke Ahrens does a reasonably good job, but his explanation is an entire book. Hopefully this distillation will get you moving in a positive direction for having a useful daily practice, but without an excessive amount of work and perhaps a bit less cognitive dissonance. Once you’ve been at it a while, then start looking at Ahrens and others to refine things for your personal preferences and creative needs.

Differentiating online variations of the Commonplace Book: Digital Gardens, Wikis, Zettlekasten, Waste Books, Florilegia, and Second Brains

A fluorescence of note taking tools

Over the past three or so years there has been a fluorescence of digital note taking tools and platforms.

Some of these include:

Open source projects like Org Mode, Logseq, Foam, Jupyter, Trilium, Databyss, Athens, Dendron, Anagora, and Hypothes.is.

Closed sourced projects like: Roam Research, Notion, Knovigator, Amplenote, RemNote, Memex, Nototo, nvUltra, and Are.na.

Some are based on earlier incarnations of note taking and writing tools like OneNote, Evernote, Simple Note, TiddlyWiki, DEVONthink, Scrivener, etc.

This brief list doesn’t take into account a sea of other mobile apps and platforms in addition to a broad array of social media platforms that people use for similar note taking or annotations.

My particular interest in some of this note taking field comes in the growing number of people who are working in public and sharing their notes in online settings with others. This has been happening organically since the rise of the internet and has happened on blogs within the blogosphere and on personal and communal wikis.

As was highlighted (pun intended) at the recent I Annotate 2021 conference, the note taking space seems to have been coming to a new boil. With the expansion of the ideas of keeping a zettelkasten or a digital garden, these versions of notebooks seem to be a significant part of this new note taking craze.

One thing I have noticed, however, is a dramatic lack of continuity in the history of note taking within the longue durée of Western civilization. (Other cultures including oral cultures have similar traditions, but for our purposes here, I won’t go into them except to say that they’re highly valuable, spectacularly rich, and something of which we should all be aware.)

Many of these products are selling themselves based on ideas or philosophies which sound and even feel solid, but they’re completely ignoring their predecessors to the tune of feeling like they’re trying to reinvent the wheel. As a result, some of the pitches for these products sound like they’re selling snake oil rather than tried and true methods that go back over 2,000 years of intellectual history. I can only presume that modern education is failing us all dramatically. People are “taught” (maybe told is the better verb) to take notes in school, but they’re never told why, what to do with them, or how to leverage them for maximum efficiency. Perhaps the idea has been so heavily imbued into our culture we’ve honestly forgotten the basic parts and reasoning behind it?

Even Vannevar Bush’s dream of the Memex as stated in his article As We May Think (The Atlantic, 1945), which many of these note taking applications might point to as an inspiration, ignores this same tradition and background, so perhaps these app creators and users aren’t all to blame?

Delineating Online Forms

I’ve been doing some serious reading and research into these traditions to help uncover our missing shared history. I’ll write something longer and more specific about them at a later date.

In the meanwhile, I want to outline just a bit about the various flavors as they relate to some of the more public online versions that I see in the related internet spaces. I hope to help better delineate what they have in common, how they differ, and what they may still add to the mix to get us to a more robust version of Bush’s dream.

Other’s thoughts and comments about these various incarnations and their forms and functions are both encouraged and appreciated.

Commonplace books

Historically commonplace books are one of the oldest and most influential structures in the note taking, writing, and thinking space. They have generally been physical books written by hand that contain notes which are categorized by headings (or in a modern context categories or tags. Often they’re created with an index to help their creators find and organize their notes.

They originated in ancient Greece and Rome out of the thought of Aristotle and Cicero as a tool for thinking and writing and have generally enjoyed a solid place in history since. A huge variety of commonplaces have been either copied by hand or published in print book form over the centuries.

Most significant thinkers, writers, and creators throughout history have kept something resembling a commonplace book. While many may want to attribute the output of historical figures like Erasmus, Newton, Darwin, Leibnitz, Locke, or Emerson to sheer genius (and many often do), I might suggest that their works were the result of sustained work of creating personal commonplace books—somewhat like a portable Google search engine for their day, but honed to their particular interests. (One naturally can’t ignore their other many privileges like wealth, education, and time to do this work, which were also certainly a significant factor in their success.)

Many people over the past quarter of a century have used a variety of digital forms to keep digital commonplace books including public versions on blogs, wikis, and other software for either public or private consumption.

Florilegium

Florilegia are a subcategory of commonplace book starting around 900 CE but flourishing in the 12th and 13th centuries and primarily kept by theologians and preachers. The first were a series of short excerpted passages often arranged in order of their appearance in a single text, but eventually were arranged systematically under discrete headings. Medieval florilegia where overwhelmingly, and often exclusively, concerned with religious topics from the works of scriptures, the moral dicta of the Doctors of the Church, and—less frequently—the teachings of approved, classical moral philosophers. The idea and form of florilegium generally merged back into the idea of the commonplace book which had renewed interest and wide popularity during the Renaissance.

These didn’t add any new or innovative features over what had come before. Perhaps, if anything, they were a regression because they so heavily focused only on religion as a topic.

Few (if any) examples of florilegia can be found in modern digital contexts. Though I have seen some people talk about using digital note taking tools for religious study, I have yet to see public versions online.

Zettelkästen

Born out of the commonplace tradition with modifications by Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) and descriptions by Johann Jacob Moser (1701–1785), the Zettelkasten, a German word translated as “slip box”, is generally a collection of highly curated atomic notes collected on slips of paper or index cards. Zettelkasten were made simpler to create and maintain with the introduction of the mass manufacture of index cards (and card boxes and furniture) in the early 20th century. Slips of paper which were moveable within books or files and later on index cards were a significant innovation in terms of storing and organizing a commonplace book.

Generally zettels (or cards) are organized by topics and often contain dates and other taxonomies or serialized numbers as a means of linking them to other cards within the system. The cross linking of these cards (and thus ideas) were certainly a historical physical precursor of the internet we have today, simply in digital form.

Almost all the current references I’ve seen online to Zettelkasten mention Niklas Luhmann as their inspiration, but none of them reference any other well-known historical examples despite the fact the idea has been around and evolving for several centuries now.

This productivity system and sets of digital tools around it came to greater attention in Germany in 2013 with the exhibition “Zettelkästen: Machines of Fantasy” at the Museum of Modern Literature, Marbach am Neckar and in 2014 with the launch of the zettelkasten.de website. A subsequent boost in the English speaking world occurred following the publication of Sönke Ahrens’s book How to Take Smart Notes – One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers in February 2017. The recent ability to use platforms like Roam Research, Obsidian, Notion, et al. has helped to fan the flames of their popularization.

More often than not, most of these digital tools (like their card-based predecessors) are geared toward private personal use rather than an open public model. Roam Research and Obsidian Publish have features which allow public publishing. TiddlyWiki is also an excellent tool for this as its so-called Tiddlers have a card-based appearance and can be placed in custom orders as well as transcluded, but again not many are available to the online public.

Waste books/Sudelbücher

This sub-genre of notebooks comes out of the tradition of double-entry book keeping where accountants often kept a daily diary of all transactions in chronological order. These temporary notes were then later moved into a more permanent accounting ledger and the remaining book was considered “waste”.

In the commonplace book tradition, these books for temporary notes or (fleeting notes in a Zettelkasten framing), might eventually be copied over, expanded, and indexed into one’s permanent commonplace collection.

In modern digital settings, one might consider some of the ephemeral social media stream platforms like Twitter to be a digital version of a waste book, though to my knowledge I may be the first person to suggest this connection. (To be clear, others have certainly mentioned Twitter as being a waste and even a wasteland.)

Wikis

Inspired, in part, by Apple’s HyperCard, Ward Cunningham created the first public wiki on his website on March 25, 1995. Apple had designed a system allowing users to create virtual “card stacks” supporting links among the various cards (sound familiar?). HyperCard was designed as a single user system.

Wikis allowed multiple users to author and edit pages on the web with a basic web browser. They were also able to create meaningful links and associations between pages, whether they existed or not using [[WikiLinks]]. They were meant to allow the average visitor to participate in an ongoing process of creation and collaboration.

Here there is some innovative user interface as well as the ability to collaborate with others in keeping a commonplace book. Transclusion of one page into another is a useful feature here.

Personal wikis have been used (as have many blogs) for information aggregation and dissemination over the years in a manner similar to their historical predecessors.

Second brain

Second brain is a marketing term which stands in for the idea of the original commonplace book. It popped up in the note taking context in early 2017 for promoting the use of commonplace books techniques using Tiago Forte’s expensive online course Building a Second Brain which focused on capturing, organizing, and sharing your knowledge using (digital) notes. It is a platform agnostic method for improving productivity wholly using the commonplace underpinning.

Google searches for this term will be heavily mixed in with results about the gastrointestinal system being the body’s “second brain”, the enteric nervous system, second brain tumors, a debunked theory that dinosaurs had two brains, and other general health-related topics.

Some websites, personal wikis and other online versions will use the phrase second brain, but they generally have no innovative features that are missing from prior efforts. Again, I view the phrase simply as marketing with no additional substance.

Digital Gardens

Informed heavily by their cultural predecessors in commonplace books, zettelkasten, and wikis, digital gardens are digital first note collections which are primarily public by default and encourage the idea of working in public.

Digital Gardens arose more formally in 2019 and 2020 out of the work and influence of Mark Bernstein’s 1998 essay Hypertext Gardens: Delightful Vistas, Ward Cunningham’s Smallest Federated Wiki (which just celebrated it’s 10th anniversary), Mike Caulfield’s essays including The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral as well as some influence from the broader IndieWeb Community and their focus on design and user interface.

Digital garden design can often use the gardening metaphor to focus attention on an active tending and care of one’s personal knowledge base and building toward new knowledge or creations. The idea of planting a knowledge “seed” (a note), tending it gradually over time with regular watering and feeding in a progression of 🌱 Seedlings → 🌿 Budding → 🌳 Evergreen is a common feature.

There are a growing number of people with personal digital gardens in public. Many are built on pre-existing wiki software like WikiMedia, the Smallest Federated Wiki, or TiddlyWiki, static site generators like Jekyll, note taking platforms like Obsidian Publish and Roam Research, or even out of common blogging software like WordPress. A growing common feature of these platforms is that they not only link out to resources on the open web, but contain bidirectional links within themselves using either custom code (in a wiki-like manner) or using the W3C Webmention specification.

The Future?

With luck, application and platform designers and users will come to know more about the traditions, uses, and workflows of our rich cultural note taking history. Beyond this there are a few innovations, particularly in the public-facing arena which could be useful, but which aren’t broadly seen or available yet.

Still missing from the overall personal knowledge and note taking space is a more tightly integrated version of both a garden and a stream (in Mike Caulfield’s excellent framing) that easily allows interaction between the two arenas. Some of the more blog-based sites with notes, bookmarks, articles and IndieWeb friendly building blocks like Webmention, feeds (RSS, JSON Feed, h-feed), Micropub, and Microsub integrations may come the closest to this ideal.

One of the most fascinating recent entrants on the scene is Flancian’s Anagora which he uses as a personal commonplace book in a wiki-esque style. Over other incarnations it also has the ability to pull in and aggregate the notes of other digital commonplace books to create a larger marketplace of ideas. It also includes collaborative note taking space using Etherpad, which I’ve seen as a standalone tool, but never integrated into a digital commonplace book.

Ultimately, my dream—similar to that of Bush’s—is for individual commonplace books to be able to communicate not only with their users in the Luhmann-esqe sense, but also communicate with each other.

Niklas Luhmann apparently said:

Ohne zu schreiben, kann man nicht denken; jedenfalls nicht in anspruchsvoller, anschlussfähiger Weise.

(Translation) You cannot think without writing; at least not in a sophisticated, connectable way.

I think his conceptualization of “connectable” was much more limited and limiting than he might have guessed. Vannevar Bush, as the academic advisor of Claude Shannon, the godfather of the modern digital age, was more prepared to envision it.

(Luhmann’s “you” in his quote is obviously only a Western cultural referent which erases the existence of oral based cultures which have other ways to do their sophisticated thinking. His ignorant framing on the topic shouldn’t be a shared one.)


This post has grown out of my own personal commonplace book, portions of which are on housed on my blog, in a wiki, and in a private repository of which I hope to make more public soon. Further thoughts, ideas and expansions of it are more than welcome.

I’ve slowly been updating pieces of the history along with examples on shared commonplaces in both the IndieWeb Wiki and Wikipedia under the appropriate headings. Feel free to browse those or contribute to them as you would, at least until our digital commonplace books can communicate with each other.

I’d also invite those who are interested in this topic and who have or want online spaces to do this sort of thing to join us at the proposed upcoming Gardens and Streams II IndieWebCamp Pop up session which is being planned for later this Summer or early Fall. Comment below, stop by the page or chat to indicate your interest in attending.

Singer Business Furniture 20 gauge steel industrial 16 drawer index card filing cabinet

I suppose if you’re gonna goin “all-in” on having a zettelkasten (slip box) or index card-based commonplace book you may as well invest in some serious atomic-era heavy steel hardware…

So today I took the plunge and picked up a Singer Business Furniture 20 gauge steel industrial index card filing cabinet. It’s the sort of thing that Niklas Luhmann or Roland Barthes may have only dreamt of.

Angle on an open drawer with two individual card files
One of the double drawers pulled out.

The monster has 8 sliding platform chassis with 16 removable file drawers. I’ve done a little bit of clean up on it, but it has been well loved over time. Much like my prior furniture refurbishment projects, I expect I’ll bead blast off the original finish and rust and re-enamel it. I’m debating colors or potentially going brushed steel with heavy clear coat, though that’s a lot of work for the size and configuration. I’m initially thinking perhaps gunmetal grey with metallic blue flecked paint to match my desk, or perhaps a fun orange highlight color on the drawer fronts?

Specifications

Singer Business Furniture, Corry Jamestown index card filing cabinet (114 OB)

  • 8 slider chassis with 16 individually (and easily) removeable drawers
  • Exterior dimensions: 22 7/8″ wide x 52″ tall x 28 3/4″ deep
  • Interior drawer dimensions: 9 3/8″ wide x 4 3/4″ tall x 27 3/8″ deep (or 26 1/8″ deep with the card stops installed)
  • Fits cards: 3×5″, 4×6″, 7 3/8 x 3 1/4″ (Hollerinth cards)
  • Removable metal slider card stops
  • 13 removeable index card rods (3 missing)
  • Aluminum drawer pulls
  • Aluminum label frames
  • Original industrial beige color, chipped and scratched
  • 20 gauge steel

I thought about weighing it, but the thing is just too big for any of the nearby scales I’ve got access to. It’s definitely a bear to move even by sliding and required a heavy dolly and at least two people to maneuver. Three or more would be required to pick it up physically.  One drawback to the size and weight is that it isn’t easily portable if there were an emergency, but the construction is so solid that it should definitely survive the most dire earthquakes or possibly nuclear bomb blasts. I suspect it’ll be a bit before I have multiple drawers full, so I can always individually remove active drawers.

A quick calculation on the front of an index card—no more backs of envelopes for me!—indicates that packs of relatively standard Oxford index cards should put the capacity of this monster at 55,700 index cards (with the drawer stops in place).

Photos

Features

The drawers should be nice and roomy for the 4×6″ index cards I’ve been using, but can also accommodate collections of smaller 3×5″ cards I’ve got.

While the drawers come with index card rods to hold the cards physically in their files, I suspect I won’t be using them. They seem to be of a design that would require custom cards for utilizing this feature anyway. I do quite like the rod design as the thumbscrews on the outside have small nubs on them with a key-like cut out on the drawer front with a compression washer. One then inserts the rod, fits it into the moveable card stop, and pushes it into the keyhole. A quarter or half turn of the rod and thumbscrew locks the rod into the cabinet.

The index card file stops are easily removable and have a simple springloaded clamp mechanism for moving them easily within the drawer. 

While used, the entire thing is in generally excellent shape. Almost all the original hardware is still extant and the drawer mechanisms all slide smoothly, so those won’t require much, if any real work.

Because the filing cabinet is so massive and generally immovable, a fun and terrifically convenient feature is that each of the 16 file drawers are individually removable. This allows one to take a particular drawer or two to their desk and work on them before needing to return them to the cabinet when one is done. To make this drawer movement easier, in addition to the explicit handle on the front of each drawer, there’s an oval hole on the back of each drawer which functions as a handle on the other end.  This is likely how I’ll use it, at least until I’ve refinished the cabinet and the drawers and move it into my office space permanently. 

Individual drawers of cards can be removed from the filing cabinet. Here's one that has been removed and is sitting sideways on top of the file drawer that had been pulled out.
One of the individual file drawers removed and sitting on its mate.

Because the files are wide and long enough, I might also profitably use the file for holding 8 1/2 x 11″ material stacked up in piles if necessary. 

Naming

Some have talked about naming their zettelkasten. I’ve been considering calling the whole cabinet “The Ark of Studies” (Arca studiorum) after Thomas Harrison’s invention in the 1640s as it also contains a nod to Hugh of St. Victor’s mnemonic work relating to Noah’s Ark. Perhaps I’ll hame it Stonehenge II, because I’ll rely on it as a “forgetting machine” and it’s almost as big and heavy as a bluestone from the Preseli Hills in Wales—especially if I paint it that color. Beyond this perhaps I might give each individual drawer a name. This leaves sixteen slots, so I’m thinking about naming them after famous figures in the history of note taking and related spaces of intellectual history.

Right now it’ll likely be a subset of Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, Seneca, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, Desiderius Erasmus, Rodolphus Agricola, Philip Melancthon, Konrad Gessner, John Locke, Carl Linnaeus, Thomas Harrison, Vincentius Placcius, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Niklas Luhmann, Beatrice Webb, Marcel Mauss, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mortimer J. Adler, Niklas Luhmann, Roland Barthes, Vladimir Nabokov, George Carlin (I’ve got to have a drawer dedicated to comedy right?), Twyla Tharp, and Eminem. Who else am I missing? Who should I consider?

Oddities

Being a piece of used office furniture, it naturally came with some surplus junk inside. Most of this was of the paperclip and rubber band nature with plenty of dust and lint. There were a full collection of drawer labels with someone’s handwritten numbers for the files the card index once contained. Unexpected finds included some screws, nuts and bolts, part of a hacksaw blade, a rotary saw blade, some drill bits, a socket wrench fitting, and—most puzzling—a live round of ammunition! Every zettelkasten should have one of these right? 

view of bullet from behind as it sits on filing cabinet
The oddest thing I found hiding in my new slip box.

So go ahead and bite the bullet! Get your own cabinet, and start your analog zettelkasten today.

 

Usually once a tag on my website has more than a couple hundred entries, I convert it into a category. This one was long overdue. This morning I’ve converted the “note taking” tag into a category and moved a bunch of material on commonplace book and zettelkasten traditions over to it. 

If you’ve been following this idea here, it’s time to update your feed.

Bookmarked Tools for Thinking: a Conference and a Camp by John Borthwick (https://render.betaworks.com/)
Start with a conference: On August 16th we will host a conference at betaworks, bringing together makers and thinkers in this space: Tools for thinking Render Conference. Join us if you are interested, and if you are building something in this space, tell us because we will give you an access code to join for free. The Camp or accelerator program will start in mid September, details on the program are here, and the application form is here.
You had me at “networked commonplace books”…
Read The Quest for a Memex 2022-07-31 by Kevin MarksKevin Marks (kevinmarks.com)
This week John Borthwick put out a call for Tools for Thinking: People want better tools for thinking — ones that take the mass of notes that you have and organize them, that help extend your second brain into a knowledge or interest graph and that enable open sharing and ownership of the “knowl...
I got stuck over the weekend, so I totally missed Kevin Marks’ memex demo at IndieWebCamp’s Create Day, but it is an interesting little UI experiment.

I’ll always maintain that Vannevar Bush really harmed the first few generations of web development by not mentioning the word commonplace book in his conceptualization. Marks heals some of this wound by explicitly tying the idea of memex to that of the zettelkasten however. John Borthwick even mentions the idea of “networked commonplace books”. [I suspect a little birdie may have nudged this perspective as catnip to grab my attention—a ruse which is highly effective.]

Some of Kevin’s conceptualization reminds me a bit of Jerry Michalski’s use of The Brain which provides a specific visual branching of ideas based on the links and their positions on the page: the main idea in the center, parent ideas above it, sibling ideas to the right/left and child ideas below it. I don’t think it’s got the idea of incoming or outgoing links, but having a visual location on the page for incoming links (my own site has incoming ones at the bottom as comments or responses) can be valuable.

I’m also reminded a bit of Kartik Prabhu’s experiments with marginalia and webmention on his website which plays around with these ideas as well as their visual placement on the page in different methods.

MIT MediaLab’s Fold site (details) was also an interesting sort of UI experiment in this space.

It also seems a bit reminiscent of Kevin Mark’s experiments with hovercards in the past as well, which might be an interesting way to do the outgoing links part.

Next up, I’d love to see larger branching visualizations of these sorts of things across multiple sites… Who will show us those “associative trails”?

Another potential framing for what we’re all really doing is building digital versions of Indigenous Australian’s songlines across the web. Perhaps this may help realize Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly’s dream for a “third archive”?

How to Make Notes and Write, a handbook by Dan Allosso and S.F. Allosso

A new handbook on note making and writing

I wasn’t expecting it until next week or shortly thereafter, but just in time for the new academic year, Dan Allosso has finished a major rewrite on his and S.F. Allosso’s earlier edition of A Short Handbook for writing essays in the Humanities and Social Sciences. This expanded edition has several new chapters on note making (notice that this is dramatically different than note taking) using a zettelkasten-based (or card index or fichier boîte if you prefer) approach similar to that practiced by Beatrice Webb, Marcel Mauss, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Hans Blumenberg, Mortimer J. Adler, and Walter Benjamin among many others.

The focus of the book is on note making for actively producing tangible outputs (essays, papers, theses, monographs, books, etc.), something on which a few recent texts in a the related productivity space haven’t delivered. While ostensibly focused on the humanities and social sciences in terms of examples, the methods broadly apply to all fields. In fact, some of the methods draw historically on some of the practices fruitfully used by Bacon, Newton, Leibnitz, Linnaeus, and many others in the sciences since.

This isn’t your father’s note making system…

While many students (especially undergraduates and graduate students) may eschew this sort of handbook as something they think they “already know”, I can assure you that they do not and will benefit from the advice contained therein, particularly the first half. I’ve often heartily recommended Sönke Ahrens’ book How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking to many in the past, but I think Allosso’s version, while similar in many respects, is clearer, shorter, and likely more easily realized by new practitioners.

There’s more detail in Dr. Allosso’s announcement video:

Availability

How to Make Notes and Write is available at Minnesota State’s Pressbooks site for reading online, or download as a .pdf or .epub. If you’d like a physical copy, they’re also available for purchase on Amazon.

For those in the educational spaces, Dr. Allosso has given the book a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0), so that people can use it as an Open Educational Resource (OER) in their classes and work.

For teachers who are using social annotation with tools like Hypothes.is in their classrooms, Allosso’s book is an excellent resource for what students can actively do with all those annotations once they’ve made them. (Here’s a link to my annotated copy of a recent working draft if you care to “play along”.)

† Unless of course your father happens to be Salvatore Allosso, but even then…

Is anyone practicing sketchnotes like patterns in their notes?

I’ve noticed that u/khimtan has a more visual stye of note taking with respect to their cards, but is anyone else doing this sort of visualization-based type of note taking in the vein of sketchnotes or r/sketchnoting? I’ve read books by Mike Rohde and Emily Mills and tinkered around in the space, but haven’t actively added it to my practice tacitly. For those who do, do you have any suggestions/tips? I suspect that even simple drollery-esque images on cards would help with the memory/recall aspects. This may go even further for those with more visual-based modes of thinking and memory.

For those interested in more, as well as some intro videos, here are some of my digital notes: https://hypothes.is/users/chrisaldrich?q=sketchnotes

Hypothes.is, a web annotation tool, as an off-label zettelkasten?!

It wasn’t built specifically to be used as one, but is anyone actively using Hypothes.is as an off-label zettelkasten just by itself?

The platform has most of the basic functionalities one would want for a digital ZK:

  1. Simple note taking,
  2. Notes are editable and update-able,
  3. There’s a tag functionality for indexing notes,
  4. One can add links to other notes to cross link them if they liked,
  5. There’s a reasonably good search functionality,
  6. Data export is available if you want to move

The interesting piece is that if many are doing this in public, then folks can reply to others’ notes and even cross-link their public notes. (They’ve got the ability to have public and private notes, as well as groups for collaboration, which are functionalities most ZK don’t have as well.)

I was reminded of this potential off-label use case when someone replied to an older note with a quote/comment and it nudged me to add a note to link the two together. Who’s up for a public, social zettelkasten practice?

For those who need an example to look at, try my “digital ZK”: https://hypothes.is/users/chrisaldrich or their public timeline: https://hypothes.is/search.

I know some have mentioned Hypothes.is as an annotation tool for their note taking before. There are a few who use it as an online platform for notes and then they leverage the platform’s API or feeds to export their data to their tool of choice. (I’ve used Hypothes.idian for Obsidian to do just this.)

I’m curious if anyone has tried building a digital public zettelkasten on WordPress in general or using using the Slippy plugin in particular?

I’m thinking it may be an interesting experiment, particularly using it in combination with the Webmention plugin to get replies/responses for crosslinking with others’ ideas on the web. This could allow one not only to communicate with other their own slip box, but slip boxes to communicate with each other.

Call for Model Examples of Zettelkasten Output Processes

Perhaps too much of the resurgence of the zettelkasten idea and the online space about it is focused on what a zettelkasten is or how it should be done. After this, descriptions of the process of collecting material for one’s zettelkasten is followed by using it to generate new ideas and thought, though this last part is relatively sparce in comparison. Very little of the discussion or examples I’ve seen in online fora, social media, websites, and the blogosphere is focused on actively using them for creating actual long form output.

As Luhmann’s (all-too-frequently used) example is so powerful, I think it would be massively helpful if users had stronger examples of what these explicit creation workflows looked like, particularly at the longer end of creation of chapters or even book length spaces. Are there any detailed posts, videos, other media about how one approached this problem? What worked well? What didn’t? What would you do differently next time? Have you done this multiple times and now settled into something you feel is most efficient? Is your process manual/digital? What tools helped along the way for laying out and doing the actual stitching together and editing? Would you use them again or try something else? Have you experimented with different methods or practices?

Here, I’m looking for direct and actual experience; I’m explicitly not looking for “this is how I would do it” responses.

Because it’s much easier and far more successful for humans to imitate the practice of others than to innovate it for themselves, I’m ultimately looking not for outlines of what people recommend, but public examples of the practices in progress. Who can show their actual “receipts” and in a reasonably linear and practical way for others to follow? We suffer from a lack of these practices being visible online as most aren’t. Further even the digital ones aren’t public, or if they are, they aren’t well known.

As an example of the broader problem, I’ve yet to see a week go by that someone doesn’t read Ahrens’ generally excellent book, but in posting online they still seem lost in attempting to put the lowest level ideas into active practice.

Personally, I use Hypothes.is as a digital tool for the majority of my note taking. One could follow my feed and see it in real time if they choose. There are benefits for this public practice and I’m aware that many people follow this feed of notes out of curiosity. I’ve even gotten emails from folks indicating that they’ve learned some interesting things for use in their own practices. Sadly, the follow up of revision, cross linking, active indexing, and subsequent growth isn’t public (yet), though the platform I’m using is open to active public conversation and commentary, which is a useful side benefit. I have seen a few other public examples of others’ practices, some in video form, though this can be dull as the time and effort is work and doesn’t make for powerful entertainment because it isn’t. Still these public examples can be far more powerful than some of the explanations I’ve seen, especially for beginners who don’t comprehend the long term benefits (surprise, serendipity, insight, emergent creativity) and who generally focus on the minutiae for lack of direct experience.

On the creation portion, I’m currently experimenting with carrying out the original  instructions of Konrad Gessner, an early zettelmacher, as laid out in his book Pandectarum sive Partitionum Universalium. (1548. Zurich: Christoph Froschauer) and hope to report back shortly about the experience. 

Call for explicit examples

So where are the examples? Show us your receipts. Who’s doing this in public that people can follow? Who can be imitated until people have the experience(s) to do this more easily on their own? Let’s collect some of the best (or at least extant) examples for sharing with others. 

Once we’ve got some concrete examples then we can study them and iterate on them.

Too many people seem intent on potentially wasting their time by innovating on a practice they haven’t even tried because someone in the productivity space (who usually hasn’t tried it either) wrote a page long post saying it would be a good idea. I know we can do far better.

Replied to a thread by Bill Seitz & Tom Critchlow (Twitter)
@BillSeitz @UseCrowdWise @peterhagen_

I get @TomCritchlow’s sentiment, but… the extra “work” it currently entails for the social part dramatically ups the signal to noise ratio for me compared to Twitter.

You’d definitely want the ability to filter by your social circle, especially on popular sites. In fact this sort of discovery mechanism would be cool if it could be more broadly built into either the web or perhaps into IndieWeb social readers which would know your social graph and could surface related details.

Perhaps expanding a browser extension like Crowdwise to include Twitter support might be a potential solution? I would worry that portions wouldn’t add much other than a lot of likes and bookmark-like data. While some[1], [2] might consider Twitter as an annotation layer (not always directly linked) on the web, the overall quality isn’t necessarily going to be built in there.

It would be cool if Crowdwise also added Hypothes.is’ API to their list of sources.

I’m also reminded of Peter Hagen’s experiments with Hypothes.is seem very similar but with a different UI. His version flips the discovery question on its head.

Acquired Card Catalog: 30 Notecards from The Library of Congress (Chronicle Books (via Amazon))
  • SET OF 30 NOTECARDS – Evoking memories of book-filled libraries, the Card Catalog: 30 Notecards from The Library of Congress reproduces the original cards used to keep track of literary classics.
  • HISTORIC DESIGNS – Enclosed in a keepsake cardboard replica card catalog box with tabbed dividers, each card features a different beloved work from the storied collection of the Library of Congress.
  • INCLUDED – This vintage notecard set includes a box tray with slipcase, 30 color cards (30 different designs), 30 envelopes, and 5 tabbed dividers.
  • MAKES AN EXCELLENT GIFT – This gorgeously designed notecard set makes an inspired gift for any writer or fan of The Library of Congress.
You know you might be in deep with the area of tools for thought, note taking, zettelkasten, intellectual history et al., when your loved ones are gifting you card catalog boxes with replica author index cards from the Library of Congress for stationery use for your birthday.

This small box is made of heavy cardboard and is incredibly well done to look like actual dovetailed oak. The replica cards are quite a joy to browse through. I almost don’t want to use them as the stationery they were intended to be.

Replied to 7 steps I take to get value from what I read: Notes on note taking & review by Marshall Kirkpatrick (marshallk.com)
A friend asked me recently what some of the core principles are in my note taking and review system. I get a whole lot of value out of my note system and I love talking to notes nerds. But not notes for notes’ sake! For making an impact on the world, for the better.
Marshall, in looking at your cards, I’m curious how easy/hard you feel it is to remember longer portions of full quotes like your H.L. Menken example using only spaced repetition? I usually find it far more taxing and not as long lasting as using other more classical mnemonic methods (method of loci/songlines).

Piotr Wozniak has some material on creating/designing more concrete cards for spaced repetition that I’ve found generally helpful. I know that Andy Matuschak and Soren Bjornstad have some ideas, experience, and research in the space but I’ve yet to see more deep research on the effectiveness of these more specific practices at scale or beyond the anecdotal.

Economic Models in Social Media and a Better Way Forward

Matt Ridley indicates in The Rational Optimist that markets for goods and services “work so well that it is hard to design them so they fail to deliver efficiency and innovation” while assets markets are nearly doomed to failure and require close and careful regulation.

If we view the social media landscape from this perspective, an IndieWeb world in which people are purchasing services like the ability to move their domain name and URL permalinks from one web host to another; easy import/export of their data; and CMS (content management system) services/platforms/functionalities, represents the successful market mode for our personal data and online identities. Here competition for these sorts of services will not only improve the landscape, but generally increased competition will tend to drive the costs to consumers down. The internet landscape is developed and sophisticated enough and broadly based on shared standards that this mode of service market should easily be able to not only thrive, but innovate.

At the other end of the spectrum, if our data are viewed as assets in an asset market between Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, et al., it is easy to see that the market has already failed so miserably that one cannot even easily move ones’ assets from one silo to another or really protect them in any meaningful way. Social media services don’t compete to export or import data because the goal is to trap you and your data and attention there, otherwise they lose. The market corporate social media is really operating in is one for eyeballs and attention to sell advertising, so one will notice a very health, thriving, and innovating market for advertisers. Social media users will easily notice that there is absolutely no regulation in the service portion of the space at all. This only allows the system to continue failing to provide improved or even innovative service to people on their “service”. The only real competition in the corporate silo social media space is for eyeballs and participation because the people and their attention are the real product.

As a result, new players whose goal is to improve the health of the social media space, like the recent entrant Cohost, are far better off creating a standards based service that allows users to register their own domain names and provide a content management service that has easy import and export of their data. This will play into the services market mode which improves outcomes for people. Aligning in any other competition mode that silos off these functions will force them into competition with the existing corporate social services and we already know where those roads lead.

Those looking for ethical and healthy models of this sort of social media service might look at Manton Reece‘s Micro.blog platform which provides a wide variety of these sorts of data services including data export and taking your domain name with you. If you’re unhappy with his service, then it’s relatively easy to export your data and move it to another host using WordPress or some other CMS. On the flip side, if you’re unhappy with your host and CMS, then it’s also easy to move over to Micro.blog and continue along just as you had before. Best of all, Micro.blog is offering lots of the newest and most innovative web standards including webmention notifications which enable website-to-website conversations, micropub, and even portions of microsub not to mention some great customer service.

I like to analogize the internet and social media to competition in the telecom/cellular phone space In America, you have a phone number (domain name) and can then have your choice of service provider (hosting), and a choice of telephone (CMS) for interacting with the network. Somehow instead of adopting a social media common carrier model, we have trapped ourselves inside of a model that doesn’t provide the users any sort of real service or options. It’s easy to imagine what it would be like to need your own AT&T account to talk to family on AT&T and a separate T-Mobile account to talk to your friends on T-Mobile because that’s exactly what you’re doing with social media despite the fact that you’re all still using the same internet. Part of the draw was that services like Facebook appeared to be “free”. It’s only years later that we’re seeing the all too real costs emerge.

This sort of competition and service provision also goes down to subsidiary layers of the ecosystem. New service providers don’t necessarily need to take the soup to nuts approach that Micro.Blog does. Take for example the idea of writing interface and text editing. There are (paid) services like iA Writer, Ulysses, and Typora which people use to compose their writing. Many people use these specifically for writing blog posts. Companies can charge for these products because of their beauty, simplicity, and excellent user interfaces. Some of them either already do or ostensibly could support the micropub and IndieAuth web standards which allow their users the ability to log into their websites and directly post their saved content from these editors directly to their website. Sure there are also a dozen or so other free micropub clients that also allow this, but why not have and allow competition for beauty and ease of use? Let’s say you like WordPress enough, but aren’t a fan of the Gutenberg editor. Should you need to change to Drupal or some unfamiliar static site generator to exchange a better composing experience for a dramatically different and unfamiliar back end experience? No, you could simply change your editor client and continue on without missing a beat. Of course the opposite also applies—WordPress could split out Gutenberg as a standalone (possibly paid) micropub client and users could then easily use it to post to Drupal, Micro.blog, or other CMSs that support the micropub spec, and many already do.

Social media should be a service to and for people all the way down to its core. The more companies there are that provide these sorts of services means more competition which will also tend to lure people away from silos where they’re trapped for lack of options. Further, if your friends are on services that interoperate and can cross communicate with standards like Webmention from site to site, you no longer need to be on Facebook because “that’s where your friends and family all are.” The more competition there is for cleaner, nicer user interfaces and simple solutions, the less lock in effects will be felt from existing and predatory social services.

I have no doubt that we can all get to a healthier place online, but it’s going to take companies and startups like Cohost to make better choices in how they frame their business models. Co-ops and non-profits can help here too. I can easily see a co-op adding webmention to their Mastodon site to allow users to see and moderate their own interactions instead of forcing local or global timelines on their constituencies. Perhaps Garon didn’t think Webmention was a fit for Mastodon, but this doesn’t mean that others couldn’t support it. I personally think that Darius Kazemi‘s Hometown fork of Mastodon which allows “local only” posting a fabulous little innovation while still allowing interaction with a wider readership, including me who reads his content from there in a microsub enabled social reader. Perhaps someone forks Mastodon to use as a social feed reader, but builds in micropub so that instead of posting the reply to a Mastodon account, it’s posted to one’s IndieWeb capable website which sends a webmention notification to the original post? Opening up competition this way makes lots of new avenues for every day social tools. One might posit that it was this lack of diverse solutions and common standards in the early 2000s  that allowed corporations like Facebook, Twitter, et al. to entirely consume the market and fragment our online identities this way.

Continuing the same old siloing of our data and online connections is not the way forward. We’ll see who stands by their ethics and morals by serving people’s interests and not the advertising industry.

Primarily composed on July 03, 2022 at 02:36PM in support of and partially in response to A Silo Can Never Provide Digital Autonomy to its Users by Ariadne Conill.