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.

Planning for Gardens and Streams II: An IndieWebCamp pop-up session on Wikis, Digital Gardens, online Commonplace Books, and note taking

Following this past week’s I Annorate 2021 note taking sessions and the original Gardens and Steams IndieWeb pop up event last year, I thought it wold be a good idea to have a structured and open follow up.

I’ve sketched out some ideas on the IndieWeb wiki at https://indieweb.com/2021/Pop-ups/Sessions#Gardens_and_Streams_II. Feel free to share your ideas there or indicate your interest and preferred dates. If you have ideas for discussion sessions within the pop up, feel free to start sharing those as well. These should be discussion oriented. Depending on interest/demand we can add additional tracks, days, and times as necessary.

You can also use the IndieWeb chat as well. See their chat page for other methods for joining the chat using your favorite platform.

This will be a volunteer-led BarCamp style online event, so help in organizing and executing is greatly appreciated. The more help we get, the easier it is to do and the more we can potentially accomplish. Participants must agree to abiding by their Code of Conduct.

Thinking about how annotations in my books are really conversations with the text which also spur thinking about them in a way that’s similar to rubber duck debugging.

An awful lot of my thinking happens in the margins.

Quoted by Jeremy KeithJeremy Keith (adactio.com)

I love my website. Even though it isn’t a physical thing, I think it might be my most prized possession.

It’s a place for me to think and a place for me to link.

A stark statement to make about one’s website. I feel exactly the same way.
 
 

Thoughts on Jeet Heer’s Can We Bring Back Blogging?

Jeet Heer recently wrote a piece (on Substack) entitled Can We Bring Back Blogging? where he waxed a bit nostalgic for the old blogosphere.

This makes me wonder: did blogging die off because the tools changed?

Everyone had their own space on the internet and the internet itself was the medium which opened up the conversation. I could use WordPress while someone else might have been on Blogger, Moveable Type, Live Journal, TypePad, or something they made in HTML themselves.

Now it’s all siloed off into tinier spaces where content is trapped for eyeballs and engagement and there’s not nearly as much space for expression. Some of the conversation is broken up into 280 character expressions on Twitter, some on Instagram, and now people are aggregating content inside Substack. Substack at least has a feed I can subscribe to and a free form box to add a reply.

I appreciate Jeff’s comment about the “flywheel of social media”. We’re definitely going to need something like that to help power any resurgence of the blogosphere. I also like to think of it in the framing of “thought spaces” where the idea of a blog is to give yourself enough space to form a coherent idea and make an actual argument. Doing that is much harder to do on a microblog where the responses are also similarly limited. It just feels so rude to post 250 words in reply to a sentence or two that probably needed more space to express itself too.

I suspect that if we want a real resurgence of thought and discourse online, we’re going to need some new tools to do it. As Friedrich Nietzsche famously conceded to his friend Heinrich Köselitz “You are right — our writing tools take part in the forming of our thoughts.”

It would help if we could get back to the bare metal of the internet in which to freely operate again. Substack at least feels close to that, though it could be much better.

Can we have a conversational medium that isn’t constrained by a handful of corporate silos that don’t allow conversation across boundaries? Can we improve the problems of context collapse we’re seeing in social media?

I’d like to think that some of the building blocks the IndieWeb movement has built might help guide the way. I love their idea of Webmention notifications that allow one site to mention another regardless of the platforms on which they’re built. Their Micropub posting tools abstract away the writing and posting experience to allow you to pick and choose your favorite editor. They’ve got multiple social reader tools to let you follow the people and content you’re interested in and reply to things directly in the reader. I presented a small proof of concept at a recent education conference, for those who’d like to see what that experience looks like today.

Perhaps if more platforms opened up to these ideas and tools, we might be able to return, but with a lot more freedom and flexibility than we had in the nostalgic blogosphere?

Yet, we’ll still be facing the human work of interacting and working together. There are now several magnitudes of order more people online than there were in the privileged days of the blogosphere. We’re still going to need to solve for that. Perhaps if everyone reads and writes from their own home on the web, they’re less likely to desecrate their neighbor’s blog because it sticks to their own identity?

There’s lots of work to be done certainly, but perhaps we’ll get there by expanding things, opening them up, and giving ourselves some more space to communicate?

Read “Domain of One’s Own” für alle Learning Professionals? by Karlheinz Pape (Corporate Learning Community)
Wir sind inzwischen alle auch zu Bewohnern dieses “Neulands” Internet geworden. Die meisten von uns sind dort als Mieter unterwegs und posten bei anderen Eigentümern. Wer im Internet eine Domain be…

What does this have to do with learning?
We have always made notes while studying. In the past only for ourselves. Today it is becoming more and more common to share these notes with others, which becomes easy when you take the notes digitally. If many share their thoughts, then I get a lot of suggestions. My development goes faster, see also this blog post about it .
“If I want to work on a new topic, I write a blog post about it.” I’ve heard it from quite a few. This public writing forces me to confidently verify what I have said. After all, I don’t want to embarrass myself. That means I need three times as much time for the blog post as if I just wrote it down for myself. This extra time spent working on the topic is learning time. And when I publish the post, I give others the chance to benefit from it as well – and the chance to receive feedback that will help me advance on the topic.
My contributions can be text contributions, videos, podcasts or slides. I can link to sources. And I can find it again in my domain – even after years. And when I’ve shared it, others can search for it and use it too. 

Rough translation via Google Translate ^^

This is a good description about how working in public can be beneficial to oneself, even if no one else is looking.
Annotated on April 11, 2021 at 05:37PM

Annotated The Glass Box And The Commonplace Book by Steven Berlin JohnsonSteven Berlin Johnson (stevenberlinjohnson.com)
...the frozen nature of the text seem more like a feature than a bug, something they’ve deliberated chosen, rather than a flaw that they didn’t have time to correct. 
The thoughtfulness and design of of Hypothes.is is incredibly valuable to me specifically because it dramatically increases my textual productivity in combination with my digital commonplace book.

How can I also connect this to the Jeremy Dean‘s idea of it helping to facilitate a conversation with texts. Nate Angell had a specific quote/annotation of it somewhere, but it might also reside in this document: Web Annotation as Conversation and Interruption.

Read Talking out loud to yourself is a technology for thinking by Nana Ariel (Psyche)
Talking out loud to oneself is a technology for thinking that allows us to clarify and sharpen our approach to a problem

I ran across this article this evening and some of the ideas resonate strongly with me. The article mentions some areas of psychology research and a few papers I hadn’t seen before.

I’m also particularly interested in the idea of embodied cognition within cognitive psychology. Has anyone delved into these areas in their research or memory-related work? @LynneKelly’s research and written texts encourage singing, dancing and performing (I don’t recall specifically speaking or walking in her contexts, but I’m sure they’re all closely related), but has anyone else experimented with these additional modalities in their practice?

Most of the Western-based mnemotechniques I’m aware of are focused almost solely on internalized speech/thought. Can anyone think of any which aren’t?

I’ve seen several works in which Nassim Nicholas Taleb propounds the benefits of the flaneur lifestyle for improving thought, though his mentions are purely anecdotal as I recall. I’d appreciate any additional references to research in these areas if others are aware.


Like many of us, I talk to myself out loud, though I’m a little unusual in that I often do it in public spaces. Whenever I want to figure out an issue, develop an idea or memorise a text, I turn to this odd work routine. While it’s definitely earned me a reputation in my neighbourhood, it’s also improved my thinking and speaking skills immensely. Speaking out loud is not only a medium of communication, but a technology of thinking: it encourages the formation and processing of thoughts.

I’ve noticed speaking out loud also seems to help me in practicing and acquiring a new language.
Annotated on December 28, 2020 at 09:52PM

The idea that speaking out loud and thinking are closely related isn’t new. It emerged in Ancient Greece and Rome, in the work of such great orators as Marcus Tullius Cicero. But perhaps the most intriguing modern development of the idea appeared in the essay ‘On the Gradual Formation of Thoughts During Speech’ (1805) by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist. 

Some of this is at play with the idea of “[rubber ducking](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubber_duck_debugging)” as a means of debugging programs
Annotated on December 28, 2020 at 09:55PM

In both cases – speech and writing – the materiality of language undergoes a transformation (to audible sounds or written signs) which in turn produces a mental shift. 

There’s surely a link between this and the idea of thought spaces in the blogosphere or the idea of a commonplace book/digital garden/wiki.
Annotated on December 28, 2020 at 10:06PM

Mute inner speech can appear as an inner dialogue as well, but its truncated form encourages us to create a ‘secret’ abbreviated language and deploy mental shortcuts. By forcing us to articulate ourselves more fully, self-talk summons up the image of an imagined listener or interrogator more vividly. In this way, it allows us to question ourselves more critically by adopting an external perspective on our ideas, and so to consider shortcomings in our arguments – all while using our own speech. 

I’m also reading this and wondering about memory techniques and methods and how these may interact beneficially.
Annotated on December 28, 2020 at 10:07PM

It’s no coincidence that we walk when we need to think: evidence shows that movement enhances thinking and learning, and both are activated in the same centre of motor control in the brain. In the influential subfield of cognitive science concerned with ‘embodied’ cognition, one prominent claim is that actions themselves are constitutive of cognitive processes. That is, activities such as playing a musical instrument, writing, speaking or dancing don’t start in the brain and then emanate out to the body as actions; rather, they entail the mind and body working in concert as a creative, integrated whole, unfolding and influencing each other in turn. It’s therefore a significant problem that many of us are trapped in work and study environments that don’t allow us to activate these intuitive cognitive muscles, and indeed often even encourage us to avoid them. 

I’m curious if Lynne Kelly or others have looked into these areas of research with their Memory work? She’s definitely posited that singing and dancing as well as creating art helps indigenous cultures in their memory work.
Annotated on December 28, 2020 at 10:10PM

Non-technical IndieWeb: Fun, Creativity, Community, and “Content”

I resemble that remark.

rakhim
–Credit: Rakhim

Um…

Er… I mean…

I resent that remark. 😉 

The point of having a website is putting something interesting on it right?

The IndieWeb wiki does tend toward the technical, but many of us are working toward remedying that. For those who haven’t found them yet, there are some pages around a variety of topics like poetry, crafts, hobbies, music, writing, journalism, education, and a variety of other businesses and use cases. How we don’t have one on art (yet) is beyond me… Hopefully these might help us begin to use our sites instead of incessantly building them, though this can be a happy hobby if you enjoy it.

If you’ve got an IndieWeb friendly site, why not use it to interact with others? Help aggregate people around other things in which you’re interested. One might interact with the micro.blog community around any of their tagmoji. (I’m personally hoping there will be one for the stationery, pen, and typewriter crowd.) One might also find some community on any of the various stubs (or by creating new stubs) on IndieWeb.xyz

For more practical advice and to borrow a proverbial page from the movie Finding Forrester, perhaps reading others’ words and borrowing or replying to them may also help you along. I find that starting and ending everything from my own website means that I’m never at a loss for content to consume or create. Just start a conversation, even if it’s just with yourself. This started out as a short reply, but grew into a longer post aggregating various ideas I’ve had banging around my head this month.

Rachel Syme recently made me think about “old school blogs”, and as interesting as her question was, I would recommend against getting stuck in that framing which can be a trap that limits your creativity. It’s your site, do what you want with it. Don’t make it a single topic. That will make it feel like work to use it.

The ever-wise Charlie Owen reminds of this and suggests a solution for others reading our content. 

Of course if building websites is your passion and you want to make a new one on a new platform every week, that’s cool too. Perhaps you could document the continuing refreshing of the process each time and that could be your content?

Of course if this isn’t enough, I’ll also recommend Matthias Ott‘s advice to Make it Personal. And for those with a more technical bent, Simon Collison has a recent and interesting take on how we might be a bit more creative with our technical skills in This Used to be Our Playground.

In any case, good luck and remember to have some fun!

User Interfaces for Networked Thought

Tantek Çelik (), in IndieWeb Chat
Kevin Marks (), in IndieWeb Chat


These two quotes provide an interesting framing for comparing and contrasting the UI and functionality for the way that feed readers, email, and blogging (or more broadly networked thinking and communication) work.

Modern social readers provide a reply button and functionality along with the broadcast capabilities. Throw in the idea of person-tagging, and one has the ability to generally broadcast a message to anyone who cares to read (either by search or subscription), as well as to send notifications to specific people (or perhaps groups) that might be interested in the specific message.

A note taking problem and a proposed solution

tl;dr

It’s too painful to quickly get frequent notes into note taking and related platforms. Hypothes.is has an open API and a great UI that can be leveraged to simplify note taking processes.

Note taking tools

I’ve been keeping notes in systems like OneNote and Evernote for ages, but for my memory-related research and work in combination with my commonplace book for the last year, I’ve been alternately using TiddlyWiki (with TiddlyBlink) and WordPress (it’s way more than a blog.)

I’ve also dabbled significantly enough with related systems like Roam Research, Obsidian, Org mode/Org Roam, MediaWiki, DocuWiki, and many others to know what I’m looking for.

Many of these, particularly those that can be used alternately as commonplace books and zettelkasten appeal to me greatly when they include the idea of backlinks. (I’ve been using Webmention to leverage that functionality in WordPress settings, and MediaWiki gives it grudgingly with the “what links to this page” basic functionality that can be leveraged into better transclusion if necessary.)

The major problem with most note taking tools

The final remaining problem I’ve found with almost all of these platforms is being able to quickly and easily get data into them so that I can work with or manipulate it. For me the worst part of note taking is the actual taking of notes. Once I’ve got them, I can do some generally useful things with them—it’s literally the physical method of getting data from a web page, book, or other platform into the actual digital notebook that is the most painful, mindless, and useless thing for me.

Evernote and OneNote

Older note taking services like Evernote and OneNote come with browser bookmarklets or mobile share functionality that make taking notes and extracting data from web sources simple and straightforward. Then once the data is in your notebook you can actually do some work with it. Sadly neither of these services has the backlinking functionality that I find has become de rigueur for my note taking or knowledge wrangling needs.

WordPress

My WordPress solutions are pretty well set since that workflow is entirely web-based and because WordPress has both bookmarklet and Micropub support. There I’m primarily using a variety of feeds and services to format data into a usable form that I can use to ping my Micropub endpoint. The Micropub plugin handles the post and most of the meta data I care about.

It would be great if other web services had support for Micropub this way too, as I could see some massive benefits to MediaWiki, Roam Research, and TiddlyWiki if they had this sort of support. The idea of Micropub has such great potential for great user interfaces. I could also see many of these services modifying projects like Omnibear to extend themselves to create highlighting (quoting) and annotating functionality with a browser extension.

With this said, I’m finding that the user interface piece that I’m missing for almost all of these note taking tools is raw data collection.

I’m not the sort of person whose learning style (or memory) is benefited by writing or typing out notes into my notebooks. I’d far rather just have it magically happen. Even copying and pasting data from a web browser into my digital notebook is a painful and annoying process, especially when you’re reading and collecting/curating as many notes as I tend to. I’d rather be able to highlight, type some thoughts and have it appear in my notebook. This would prevent the flow of my reading, thinking, and short annotations from being subverted by the note collection process.

Different modalities for content consumption and note taking 

Based on my general experience there are only a handful of different spaces where I’m typically making notes.

Reading online

A large portion of my reading these days is done in online settings. From newspapers, magazines, journal articles and more, I’m usually reading them online and taking notes from them there.

.pdf texts

Some texts I want to read (often books and journal articles) only live in .pdf form. While reading them in an app-specific setting has previously been my preference, I’ve taken to reading them from within browsers. I’ll explain why in just a moment, but it has to do with a tool that treats this method the same as the general online modality. I’ll note that most of the .pdf  specific apps have dreadful data export—if any.

Reading e-books (Kindle, e-readers, etc.)

If it’s not online or in .pdf format, I’m usually reading books within a Kindle or other e-reading device. These are usually fairly easy to add highlights, annotations, and notes to. While there are some paid apps that can extract these notes, I don’t find it too difficult to find the raw file and cut and paste the data into my notebook of choice. Once there, going through my notes, reformatting them (if necessary), tagging them and expanding on them is not only relatively straightforward, but it also serves as a simple method for doing a first pass of spaced repetition and review for better long term recall.

Lectures

Naturally taking notes from live lectures, audiobooks, and other spoken events occurs, but more often in these cases, I’m typically able to type them directly into my notebook of preference or I’m using something like my digital Livescribe pen for notes which get converted by OCR and are easy enough to convert in bulk into a digital notebook. I won’t belabor this part further, though if others have quick methods, I’d love to hear them.

Physical books

While I love a physical book 10x more than the next 100 people, I’ve been trying to stay away from them because I find that though they’re easy to highlight, underline, and annotate the margins, it takes too much time and effort (generally useless for memory purposes for me) to transfer these notes into a digital notebook setting. And after all, it’s the time saving piece I’m after here, so my preference is to read in some digital format if at all possible.

A potential solution for most of these modalities

For several years now, I’ve been enamored of the online Hypothes.is annotation tool. It’s open source, allows me reasonable access to my data from the (free) hosted version, and has a simple, beautiful, and fast process for bookmarking, highlighting, and annotating online texts on desktop and mobile. It works exceptionally well for both web pages and when reading .pdf texts within a browser window.

I’ve used it daily to make several thousand annotations on 800+ online web pages and documents. I’m not sure how I managed without it before. It’s the note taking tool I wished I’d always had. It’s a fun and welcome part of my daily life. It does exactly what I want it to and generally stays out of the way otherwise. I love it and recommend it unreservedly. It’s helped me to think more deeply and interact more directly with countless texts.

When reading on desktop or mobile platforms, it’s very simple to tap a browser extension and have all their functionality immediately available. I can quickly highlight a section of a text and their UI pops open to allow me to annotate, tag it, and publish. I feel like it’s even faster than posting something to Twitter. It is fantastically elegant.

The one problem I have with it is that while it’s great for collecting and aggregating my note data into my Hypothes.is account, there’s not much I can do with it once it’s there. It’s missing the notebook functionality some of these other services provide. I wish I could plug all my annotation and highlight content into spaced repetition systems or move it around and modify it within a notebook where it might be more interactive and cross linked for the long term. Sadly I don’t think that any of this sort of functionality is on Hypothes.is’ roadmap any time soon.

There is some great news however! Hypothes.is is open source and has a reasonable API. This portends some exciting things! This means that any of these wiki, zettelkasten, note taking, or spaced repetition services could leverage the UI for collecting data and pipe it into their interfaces for direct use.

As an example, what if I could quickly tell Obsidian to import all my pre-existing and future Hypothes.is data directly into my Obsidian vault for manipulating as notes? (And wouldn’t you know, the small atomic notes I get by highlighting and annotating are just the sort that one would like in a zettelkasten!) What if I could pick and choose specific course-related data from my reading and note taking in Hypothes.is (perhaps by tag or group) for import into Anki to quickly create some flash cards for spaced repetition review? For me, this combination would be my dream application!

These small pieces, loosely joined can provide some awesome opportunities for knowledge workers, students, researchers, and others. The education focused direction that Hypothes.is, many of these note taking platforms, and spaced repetition systems are all facing positions them to make a super-product that we all want and need.

An experiment

So today, as a somewhat limited experiment, I played around with my Hypothes.is atom feed (https://hypothes.is/stream.atom?user=chrisaldrich, because you know you want to subscribe to this) and piped it into IFTTT. Each post creates a new document in a OneDrive file which I can convert to a markdown .md file that can be picked up by my Obsidian client. While I can’t easily get the tags the way I’d like (because they’re not included in the feed) and the formatting is incredibly close, but not quite there, the result is actually quite nice.

Since I can “drop” all my new notes into a particular folder, I can easily process them all at a later date/time if necessary. In fact, I find that the fact that I might want to revisit all my notes to do quick tweaks or adding links or additional thoughts provides the added benefit of a first round of spaced repetition for the notes I took.

Some notes may end up being deleted or reshuffled, but one thing is clear: I’ve never been able to so simply highlight, annotate, and take notes on documents online and get them into my notebook so quickly. And when I want to do something with them, there they are, already sitting in my notebook for manipulation, cross-linking, spaced repetition, and review.

So if the developers of any of these platforms are paying attention, I (and I’m sure others) really can’t wait for plugin integrations using the full power of the Hypothes.is API that allow us to all leverage Hypothes.is’ user interface to make our workflows seamlessly simple.

Read On Digital Gardens, Blogs, Personal Spaces, and the Future by Justin Tadlock (WordPress Tavern)
I have been thinking a lot about digital gardens this week. A blog post by Tom McFarlin re-introduced me to the term, which led me down a rabbit hole of interesting ideas on creating a digital space…

My blog posts were merely random thoughts — bits and pieces of my life. 

Annotated on August 12, 2020 at 09:52AM

Despite having something that worked sort of like a blog, I maintained various resources and links of other neat ideas I found around the web. It was a digital garden that I tended, occasionally plucking weeds and planting new ideas that may someday blossom into something more. 

The idea of a thought space hiding in here….
Annotated on August 12, 2020 at 09:53AM

“The idea of a ‘blog’ needs to get over itself,” wrote Joel Hooks in a post titled Stop Giving af and Start Writing More. “Everybody is treating writing as a ‘content marketing strategy’ and using it to ‘build a personal brand’ which leads to the fundamental flawed idea that everything you post has to be polished to perfection and ready to be consumed.”
It is almost as if he had reached down into my soul and figured out why I no longer had the vigor I once had for sharing on my personal blog. For far too long, I was trying to brand myself. Posts became few and far between. I still shared a short note, aside, once in a while, but much of what I shared was for others rather than myself. 

For many, social media took over their “streams” of thoughts and ideas to the point that they forgot to sit, reflect, and write something longer (polished or not).

Personal websites used for yourself first is a powerful idea for collecting, thinking, and creating.

Getting away from “branding” is a great idea. Too many personal sites are used for this dreadful thing. I’d much rather see the edge ideas and what they flower into.
Annotated on August 12, 2020 at 09:56AM

Personal websites can be so much more than a progression of posts over time, newer posts showing up while everything from the past is neatly tucked on “page 2” and beyond. 

This is an interesting idea and too many CMSes are missing this sort of UI baked into them as a core idea. CMSes could do a better job of doing both: the garden AND the stream
Annotated on August 12, 2020 at 09:57AM

While I lament the loss of some of the artistry of the early web and lay much of the blame at the feet of blogging platforms like WordPress, such platforms also opened the web to far more people who would not have otherwise been able to create a website. Democratizing publishing is a far loftier goal than dropping animated GIFs across personal spaces. 

WordPress has done a lot to democratize publishing and make portions of it easier, but has it gone too far in crystalizing the form of things by not having more wiki-like or curation-based features?
Annotated on August 12, 2020 at 10:01AM

Throughout the platform’s history, end-users have remained at the mercy of their WordPress theme. Most themes are built around what WordPress allows out of the box. They follow a similar formula. Some may have a fancy homepage or other custom page templates. But, on the whole, themes have been primarily built around the idea of a blog. Such themes do not give the user true control over where to place things on their website. While some developers have attempted solutions to this, most have never met the towering goal of putting the power of HTML and CSS into the hands of users through a visual interface. This lack of tools has given rise to page builders and the block editor. 

an apropos criticsm
Annotated on August 12, 2020 at 10:02AM

I also want them to be able to easily build something like Tom Critchlow’s wikifolder, a digital collection of links, random thoughts, and other resources.
More than anything, I want personal websites to be more personal. 

Those in the IndieWeb want this too!! I definitely do.
Annotated on August 12, 2020 at 10:03AM

Replied to Why I Started Microblogging by Bryan Bryan (Bryan Sebesta)
So, I’ve started to microblog. I was inspired by Alan Jacobs’ recent article, getting back to the open web via micro.blog. One of the big reasons he supports starting a microblog this way is is because he owns the content; it’s part of his own domain, his turf. And that’s appealing to me. Ad...
Welcome to the game Bryan! Curious why you’re hosting your microblog separate from your main site instead of running them both from WordPress (not that you need to/have to)?

I’ve enjoyed linkblogging. When I read something, I can share the link along with a quote or reflection on how it affected me. It’s a great space to think out loud. 

Annotated on August 05, 2020 at 01:51PM

As Austin Kleon notes, blogging is a great way to discover what you have to say. My microblog has given me a chance to have thoughts, and this longer blog has given me a space to figure out what it means–to discover what it is I have to say. In other words, my microblog is where I collect the raw materials; my blog is where I assemble them into questions and, perhaps, answers. It’s a place where I figure out what I really think. 

Annotated on August 05, 2020 at 01:54PM