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.

Just days before the 10th anniversary of the Smallest Federated Wiki, Ward Cunningham will be talking about the future of note taking tomorrow morning.

Free registration for the event at I Annotate 2021 should still be open.

There are also expected appearances by Daniel Doyon, Co-Founder of Readwise; Tienson Qin, Creator/Founder of LogSeq; Oliver Sauter, Founder of WorldBrain/Memex, and Flancian of the Anagora.

With any luck, it may help mark a resurgence of digital versions of the commonplace book on the order of magnitude represented by the works of Rudolphus Agricola, Desiderius Erasmus, and Philip Melanchthon during the Renaissance.

Promo card for I Annotate 2021 with the subtitle Reading Together and featuring a drawing of a book with two hands writing on each other in an ouroboros-like style

Bookmarked Social Learnig Across Content (slac-coalition.org)
A coalition of content creators, technology platforms, service providers and stakeholder groups in education coming together to achieve the first steps for cross-platform social learning.
Saw the announcement for this at IAnnotate21. Hypothes.is is participating.

The list of participants could definitely use some more diversity.

Creating Internal Backlinks for MediaWiki for Digital Gardeners

I’d spit-balled the general idea of showing backlinks or bidirectional links on a MediaWiki instance last year when thinking about and adding Webmention to one. Tonight I tinkered around and actually set it up on an instance. Within a MediaWiki, one can transclude all the backlinks from other pages to a particular page by adding a line for transcluding content like the following when editing a page:

{{Special:WhatLinksHere/PageName|limit=1000}}

You can see a live example of the practice on my user page on the IndieWeb wiki at https://indieweb.org/User:Boffosocko.com#Backlinks along with the code I used by clicking on the edit tab. The effect is rather nice, particularly when put into columns when there are lots of entries. I’ll have to look into automatically coding something like this into every page now, but being able to do it manually is most of the battle, right?

Doing this along with adding display for external webmentions quickly vaults MediaWiki to a solidly first class web-enabled digital commonplace book/digital garden/Memex/zettelkasten tool that can communicate with other similarly enabled tools. (Now if only Webmention were supported natively on MediaWiki… but there are definitely ways around this in the meanwhile.)

To go the extra mile, I know there’s the ability to interlink wikis with some custom syntax or even to show hovercards within a wiki. Both MediaWiki and Wikipedia already allow this after enabling page previews using hovercards in 2018. (I’ll have to check out if one could do hovercards across wikis as well!?!)

I’ve slowed down some of my experiments with my personal MediaWiki in preference to using Obsidian lately. Perhaps, for working in public, I’m going to have to resume some of my experiments and/or figure out a way to mirror the content?

Sister Heather Kristine in knowledge-management discord for Obsidian () for re-sparking idea.

A Twitter of Our Own at OERxDomains 2021 Conference

The Association of Learning Technology and Reclaim Hosting hosted the OERxDomains 2021 Conference last week.

They’ve just opened up the entire conference program with links to all of the sessions and videos for those who’d like to watch them.

You’ll see my presentation video embedded above. If you’d like you can also watch it in the custom player made for the conference, though I notice that it doesn’t replay the live chat.

Due to scheduling issues beyond my control just before the conference, I had to shorten my hour-long workshop down to a 20 minute talk. I intend to do a couple of separate hands-on workshops at upcoming Domain of Our Own meetups so that people can implement the moving pieces I demonstrate into their own websites. Let me know if you’re interested, and I’ll let you know when they’re scheduled.

I’m hoping that when the next conference rolls around at least some of us can participate using our own domains and not need to rely on Twitter’s infrastructure.

I posted a link to the slides last week if you’d like to follow along that way and have links to some of the resources. (You should also have access to some of my notes/rough transcript as well as alt-text for some of the images included.) The slides still have some context and links to portions of the original version that got cut out.

For those unaware of the conference or topics, it was two days of great presentations about the topics of Open Education Resources (OER) and A Domain of One’s Own which is focused on giving teachers and students to websites and underlying technology of their own for daily personal and professional use. Those interested in the IndieWeb may particularly find the Domains track enlightening. Others interested in teaching, pedagogy, and publishing will get a lot out of the OER tracks.

Slides for A Twitter of Our Own from OERxDomains 2021

As promised at the conference, you can find the slides with convenient links and other resources for my talk A Twitter of Our Own at OERxDomains21 on Google Slides.

They are also embedded below:

A reflection on annotations and context at OLC Innovate & Liquid Margins

It’s fascinating to look back on the Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B” that a group of us annotated this morning in the context of exploring Hypothes.is as part of OLC Innovate and Liquid Margins.

Reviewing over some notes, I’m glad I took a moment to annotate the context in which I made my annotations, which are very meta with respect to that context. Others’ annotations were obviously from the context of educators looking at Hughes’ work from the perspective of teachers looking back at an earlier time.

I’ve just gone back and not only re-read the poem, but read through and responded to some of the other annotations asynchronously. The majority of today’s annotations were made synchronously during the session. Others reading and interpreting them may be helped to know which were synchronous or asynchronous and from which contexts people were meeting the text. There were many annotations from prior dates that weren’t in the cohort of those found today. It would be interesting if the Hypothes.is UI had some better means of indicating time periods of annotation.

Is anyone studying these contextual aspects of digital annotation? I’ve come across some scholarship of commonplace books that attempt to contextualize notes within their historic time periods, but most of those attempts don’t have the fidelity of date and timestamps that Hypothes.is does. In fact, many of those attempts have no dates at all other than that they may have been made +/- a decade or two, which tends to cause some context collapse.

Crowdlaaers may provide some structure for studying these sorts of phenomenon: https://crowdlaaers.org?url=https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47880/theme-for-english-b. It provides some time-based tools for viewing annotations to help provide context. Looking at it’s data, I’m particularly struck by how few people today took advantage of the ability to use taxonomies.

As always, it was fun to see and hear about some uses of annotation using Hypothes.is in the wild. Thanks again to Nate Angell, Remi Kalir, Jeremy Dean, and all of the other panelists and participants who spoke so well about how they’re using this tool.

Replied to a tweet by @mrled (Twitter)
Discord. Ha!

What we really need is a planet of posts tagged with RSS that has its own RSS feed! I’ll start by offering my feed about RSS: https://boffosocko.com/tag/RSS/feed/

Or maybe if you’re daring, we need a shareable OPML file of feeds? Send me your feed about RSS, and I’ll add it to my list.

But seriously what is really new in RSS land?

RSS 2.0 will celebrate it’s 12th birthday at the end of the month on March 30th. It hasn’t changed or evolved since that time.

While many say it’s dead, it’s still thriving all around the web as a serious form of glue that’s supported by almost every major platform out there.

People are still adding these sidefiles to their sites all these years later. In fact, I just read a colleague’s article about moving from ATOM to RSS the other day. And it wasn’t that long ago that the Knight First Amendment Institute fixed their RSS feed.

But who is still iterating on doing new and interesting things with RSS?

One of the more interesting things I’ve seen is Julien Genestoux‘s work with SubToMe, which iterates significantly on making RSS easier to use and subscribe to sites.

There’s also Dave Winer‘s work with OPML and FeedBase which are intriguing.

Last year I saw some ideas out of Matt Webb who also made https://aboutfeeds.com/.

Ryan Barrett has some great RSS translation tools in Granary.

I’m using RSS and OPML to power a blogroll on steroids.

What are your favorite RSS tools and experiments?

Read Standing up for developers: youtube-dl is back (The GitHub Blog)
Today we reinstated youtube-dl, a popular project on GitHub, after we received additional information about the project that enabled us to reverse a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown. 
Good to seem them taking a positive stance on this.
Read - Want to Read: Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society by Ronald J. Deibert (House of Anansi Press)

In the 2020 CBC Massey Lectures, bestselling author and renowned technology and security expert Ronald J. Deibert exposes the disturbing influence and impact of the internet on politics, the economy, the environment, and humanity.

Digital technologies have given rise to a new machine-based civilization that is increasingly linked to a growing number of social and political maladies. Accountability is weak and insecurity is endemic, creating disturbing opportunities for exploitation. 

Drawing from the cutting-edge research of the Citizen Lab, the world-renowned digital security research group which he founded and directs, Ronald J. Deibert exposes the impacts of this communications ecosystem on civil society. He tracks a mostly unregulated surveillance industry, innovations in technologies of remote control, superpower policing practices, dark PR firms, and highly profitable hack-for-hire services feeding off rivers of poorly secured personal data. Deibert also unearths how dependence on social media and its expanding universe of consumer electronics creates immense pressure on the natural environment. In order to combat authoritarian practices, environmental degradation, and rampant electronic consumerism, he urges restraints on tech platforms and governments to reclaim the internet for civil society.

hat tip:

Just musing a bit: I can create an IFTTT recipe to create a webhook to target a Micropub endpoint on my website, but it would be cooler if I could directly add a recipe to target the Micropub endpoint directly. I want IFTTT: the micropub client.

cc: Zapier, Integromat, n8n