Zettelkasten Forum


What are the Implications of the new note-taking app wave?

Hi Fellows Zettelkasteners,
I am looking for new prompts to fuel my research, writing, and publishing. I am a bit tired of improvising every day so I am looking for strong themes to follow through.
What follows is a sample of questions I would like to explore.
I am posting them here to make them bounce through your brains and harvest useful interactions.
Ideally, I am looking for better questions but anything useful to go deeper is appreciated.
Thanks for playing.
Max


Everybody is jumping on the note-taking app wagon.

  1. What does it mean for thinkers, writers, publishers?

  2. Graphs as thinking tools: usability issues, serendipity, visual thinking. Do we think better or worse with a graph?

  3. A huge catalog of connected ideas: was it already existing on the web? What's different? Why should it work? Why didn't the web work, or did it?

  4. How did great thinkers in the past think great things without modern digital tools? What's the added value of thinking digitally?

  5. Rebranding the obvious: "Tomato/tometo" and Note/Node. Why searching for new names for millennia-old concepts?

  6. Isn't a note-taking app just a database management system? Isn't every software application just data management? What's the novelty of a note-taking tool?

  7. Tool-agnostic frameworks, what's the role of the method in being effective in note-taking and its creative outcome? Is the framework driving the choice of the tool or vice-versa? How is the tool allowing the full expression of workflows?

Comments

  • I think this is a really interesting category of topics, something akin to a writing or discussion prompt. Thanks for posting it :smile:

    I try will to contribute a bit :smile: Not dealing directly with your questions, but just musing a bit on the many apps being distributed.

    There is indeed a massive proliferation of note taking tools. Just look at this thread over at Hacker News and see all the posts of "there is also XYZ tool". Several effects are coming into play here. Partly, there is level of commoditization and abstraction in modern software development, which makes it easy to deliver either online note-taking services/apps or more traditional "desktop" apps. Text is such a fundamental concept to programming, markdown is widely used and definitely proven useful, application frameworks have been refined and reimagined many, many times over to support fast delivery of features.

    All in all, this means that if the problem is to search notes, edit notes and follow links, then the level of abstractions provided by contemporary tooling is perfectly adequate. Even computational limitations can be somewhat ignored, because few people have several thousands of notes. This means that even though the used algorithms and data structures are not efficient, they are still fast enough on a human perception time scale. All in all, I think this means that note taking apps are "easy" to develop (and there is interest in them.)

    It is not my intention to devalue the work people put into note taking apps. There are several issues, which don't get solved easily by raw computing power and abstractions. The workflow presented by the app and its integrations are particularly tricky. For example, the Archives notion of link-as-search is an example of a subtle design choice which is both elegant and powerful.

  • Max said:
    I am posting them here to make them bounce through your brains and harvest useful interactions.
    Ideally, I am looking for better questions but anything useful to go deeper is appreciated.
    Thanks for playing.
    Max

    ... everybody is jumping on the note-taking app wagon.

    If you do what everyone else is doing, you shouldn’t be surprised to get the same results everyone else is getting.

    Note maintenance must be kept near zero! Don't get distracted by the latest cool and shiny meme. There is a subtle difference between distracting note overhead maintenance and refactoring a note, so it's better formulated, integrated, and connected into the archive. This subtle difference is the magic of zettelkasten. When the focus is on the care and feeding of your archive instead of the tools, the outcomes are smoother and more frequent. And your day to day felt experience of your life is fuller.

    Focusing on note-taking tools makes you a tool junkie and misdirects your limited cognitive bandwidth towards the superficial and away from deep work.

    I'm most attracted to writing that helps me think more deeply and less about the newest, shiniest note-taking app. This is also rarer because it is harder.

    Examples
    On the Gradual Creation of Thoughts While Speaking
    Chasing the Rainbow: The Non-conscious Nature of Being
    Attention Is the Beginning of Devotion
    On Intellectual Craftsmanship
    Lecture on Nothing
    Judgment Under Uncertainty

    Will Simpson
    I'm a Zettelnant.
    Research: Attention Horizon, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • Part of me want to say not much is going to happen because it will just be a few people on the margins who get a lot of productivity out of the apps. Where this might change is if institutions get involved and you see something like a school requiring someone to keep a digital notebook which they can than build upon and use when they go off to say college. Or say a University departments uses it to create public/private wikis for their students.

    But who knows, I also could be completely wrong. If you want a good book to help you think about this topic, look at The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. He talks about how different mediums of information management have shaped our thinking.

  • Excellent questions. Two thoughts:

    First, the piece that @Will linked, "On Intellectual Craftsmanship," is something I have often given to students pursuing research and thinking. I highly recommend it, and I reread it every academic year at some point. A good follow-up to that piece is Eco's How to Write a Thesis.

    Second, regarding the app proliferation, I am committed to a method, not a tool, and I think someone writing for the curious public (maybe @Massimo_Curatella?) should really hammer this home.

    I recently met with a student I'm advising. He was lamenting that he could "never read everything" because even if he could he "won't remember it all." I asked him, "Do you take notes?" He admitted he didn't. I showed him my ZK, jumping between notes via linking and all that. But then he asks, "What app is this?" I instead pointed him to look into the method.

    My point is that when I asked him, "Do you take notes?", he assumed the answer was the tool, the app, not the habit, the process, or the skills. So I think that's why we see so many apps being built. People want to learn the habit/process/skills and assume that an app is the answer. Moreover, people want to feel successful at this, so they establish odd terms as features (i.e., "node"). The reality is, we should find whatever tools meet our needs based on having a system of thinking and writing that works.

    For me, this was an almost-entirely analogue system before the pandemic. In Christian's thread on making the method stick, the digital advantage is in having the notes nearby, open, editable, etc. when many of us are already at a keyboard all day. I still use a notebook for my fleeting notes (though I am habituated to say "jottings" instead) and for many other functions.

    As I've posted elsewhere, I know I am getting results from my work and this method. Any tool I adopt will support better versions of these habits.

    Observations logged here: write.as/via-poetica

  • @Nick said:
    Part of me want to say not much is going to happen because it will just be a few people on the margins who get a lot of productivity out of the apps.

    This is a situation where I hope I can be one of the "people at the margins." I don't know if I can be "marginal" and I'm the worst person to tell if I'm successful.

    Where this might change is if institutions get involved and you see something like a school requiring someone to keep a digital notebook which they can than build upon and use when they go off to say college. Or say a University departments uses it to create public/private wikis for their students.

    In a current class on literary criticism, the instructor is grading partly on keeping a notebook. This seems like my ZK will fit perfectly and the habit is already established.

    Scott said:
    ...keeping your eyes open for interesting or problematic passages, for stylistic and/or thematic patterns or variations, and for subtle connections between form and content. If something about an essay/story/poem especially pleases or disturbs you, try to analyze it and put your ideas into words—perhaps this would make an illuminating essay topic. As you read, take note of useful passages related to any essay topics that occur to you—underline, fold pages, insert page markers, write down quotations and comments on separate sheets of paper…do anything that will help you keep track of textual examples you might want to use in a later paper.

    Scott describes baby steps. But we'll see.

    Will Simpson
    I'm a Zettelnant.
    Research: Attention Horizon, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

    1. What does it mean for thinkers, writers, publishers?

    Not everybody has the same approach or workflow, so I think every new tool is welcome, as long as it solves the need for some people. However I agree with others that it does bring the danger of people not sticking with their Zettelkasten long enough to get the most out of it, and attributing too much to the tool. Things like, maybe if I use Y, I somehow stick to actively writing new notes compared to the software X I have been using until now. Or maybe with the new features of Y, I get a massive boost in insights. While most of this is likely your own bad approach or bad habits, rather than the software that is to blame.

    Personally I do fall into these traps, as I am a developer and am working on own tool. Still stubbornly thinking that once I finish my tool, it will solve most my troubles. To counteract it a bit, I do try to develop it incrementally, so I am using it as early as possible, only not with all features there. This prevents me from blaming it all on not finishing the tool, rather the more likely reality of me not putting the time in to develop my notes properly.

    1. Graphs as thinking tools: usability issues, serendipity, visual thinking. Do we think better or worse with a graph?

    They are tools, clutches, nothing more, but they can be a boon to some. And to a select few, maybe even be the turning point of being productive in their workflow. As I can imagine that some of the more encoded/abstract/invisible relations being visualized can be a great help to some. Same as spatial organization might be a powerful thing to some (Notion's cards come to mind). My experiments with graphs mostly found them to be pretty visually, unfortunately not pretty useful.

    1. A huge catalog of connected ideas: was it already existing on the web? What's different? Why should it work? Why didn't the web work, or did it?

    I think a key difference is this is a personal web rather than the world wide web, so the content is addressed to different audiences: your future self rather than other people. Most note taking tools I have seen use web technologies (actual websites or Electron), so it is not its capabilities. Also most of the web is rather dynamic and is not long lasting. Most bookmarks will die sooner than later.

    1. How did great thinkers in the past think great things without modern digital tools? What's the added value of thinking digitally?

    I think tools of today are necessary to deal with handling the amount of data and information we are exposed to these days. And in the past they have different needs and constraints. The added value of digitally is ease of access, the ability to search much easier, but it also comes as costs, attention problems, exposure to too much, etc.

    1. Rebranding the obvious: "Tomato/tometo" and Note/Node. Why searching for new names for millennia-old concepts?

    Because naming things is really important and probably hardwired in being human, wanting to be properly understood. So this will probably continue for millennia to come.

    1. Isn't a note-taking app just a database management system? Isn't every software application just data management? What's the novelty of a note-taking tool?

    I have heard similar questions before in different contexts. I feel like there should be a general term for this, or some book I should be able to link to. I think it is great new software is developed all the time, even if it might be reinventions of much the same as came before, as long as you are not forced to switch all the time. It allows people to experiment to find new subtle ways to leverage what already exists and prevent stagnation.

    1. Tool-agnostic frameworks, what's the role of the method in being effective in note-taking and its creative outcome? Is the framework driving the choice of the tool or vice-versa? How is the tool allowing the full expression of workflows?

    I think the danger of methodologies is people hearing terms and thinking they need to use it all, while it rather should be, people working on their notes and having troubles with certain aspects of their workflow and then looking how ideas within the methodology can alleviate those pains.

    Tools can definitely influence the way you work. For example, some tools require you to always write a title, but you might just want to write a paragraph and that's it. Roam's bullet style, might make you more prone to write shorter sentences, or its use of links might make you want to link everything. I implemented wiki links in my own tool, and noticed I too started to link everything possible, only to later realize that almost all those links should be implicit, any search for them would do just fine.

    In the case of Zettelkasten, linking support is likely to influence the tools you might consider using.

  • @Massimo_Curatella A brief comment on question 2 about using graphs for thinking. I'm an engineer - I use graphs to convey ideas all the time and I use graphs to enhance thinking about relationships between data. On occasion, that is the only way to understand or even realize a new connection or relationship in a mass of data.

    However, graphs aren't for everyone or for every occasion. They have their place and their uses. Sometimes it's easier to grasp a concept just by reading words rather than trying to figure out what someone is trying to convey using a graph (or a graphic element, which is different).

    Once I was reviewing a Powerpoint presentation that we were putting together for a client. There were 4 engineers in the room and one "communications" person. The communications person, most annoyingly, kept stopping on each slide and asking: "What is the purpose of this slide? What message do we want the client to receive? Can we simplify the slide (usually a graph)? Are all elements labelled and clear?" I was only annoyed until about slide 3, when we had made so many changes for the better that I realized she had a point and a process, both of which were valuable.

    I also remember reading a (hard cover) book way back in the dark ages about how to design engineering graphs. It was one of those great, serendipitous discoveries.

  • Folks, this is absolutely fantastic.
    I just want to say thanks for your synapses.
    Keep them connecting!

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