Zettelkasten Forum

Finally, Folgezettel

Back then, I thought Folgezettel records the sequence by which ideas unfold, and that Structure Notes only organize the invisibly unfolding ideas created from the interlinking done outside of the sequence. Folgezettel sure made some connections glanceable, thus, I deemed it promising...up to a certain point.

While working with my Folgezettel, I found that without structure notes, these sequences would lose their implicit meaning in time.

Alright, I'm not making sense. Let me elaborate to give you a bit of context.

I'll start with what I've developed: the Folgezettel 2.0. (F2) when you try to link to a note in F2, the ID itself "activates" the previous notes. This is a feature of the notation itself. In the F2 technique:

  • The addition of another character means a continuation of a thought. 0001-a continues 0001, and concurrently so between numbers and letters. (0001-a, 0001-a1, 0001-a1a, etc.) That made branching multiary rather than binary, as compared to Luhmann's Folgezettel that's only able to branch twice.
  • The notation contains information about the conspicuous thought trails. In other words, the ID has an identity attached to it. The ID works like a Family Name, because you can say that 0005-a2f5h4 came all the way from 0005.

In contrast, I've started to realize Structure Notes "activate" ideas better than note sequences, albeit that only happens at the structure note level rather than at the note level. To put it in a concrete way, when you link a new zettel to an old one inside a structure note, you'll be able to see other potentially relevant links in that structure zettel — not to mention they're already presented in a logical sequence. (Which F2 will lack when you read syntopically)

A linking workflow using Structure Notes is like entering a bar, seeing one friend at a table, and then meeting his friends you'll eventually get connect with; you're not going to be friends with all of them, but potentially, yeah. It's still consistent to how I've designed F2.

The way I see it, linking to a note in F2 is more like getting married, rather than meeting a friend at a bar table; when you become connected to someone in a family, the whole lineage becomes connected to you, too. (and you have no other choice, man) Here's what it looks like graphically:

So far, so good. So what's the problem? The problem is that in the first place, I've created this technique to lessen the dependence on structure notes in "activating" potential relations. The common argument against this is the topic of "meaning".

You see, I've always thought of a Zettelkasten as a miniature Internet. (except without dogs that have social media accounts) Because of that, I looked up a couple of articles by Tim Berners-Lee, where he discusses about links and all. Here's what I found out, and what @sfast has been saying all along.

Links themselves don't carry meaning unless you give them. In F2, note sequences don't have "meaning" by themselves, but the way they're sequenced allows you, the creator of the sequence, to give meaning to them — in other words, that's called implicit meaning.

On the other hand, when you link to another note and describe how they're connected, you give explicit meaning. That's exactly what happens in the Structure Zettel or when you link directly using a wiki-style link and explain how a note is connected to each other. (Not to mention you can arrange their sequence to follow a logical flow) To quote Berners-Lee:

So the existence of the link itself does not carry meaning. Of course the contents of the linking document can carry meaning, and often does. So, if one writes "See Fred's web pages (link) which are way cool" that is clearly some kind of endorsement. If one writes "We go into this in more detail on our sales brochure (link)" there is an implication of common authorship. If one writes "Fred's message (link) was written out of malice and is a downright lie" one is denigrating (possibly libellously) the linked document. So the content of hypertext documents carry meaning often about the linked document, and one should be responsible about this. In fact, clarifying the relative status of the linked document is often helpful to the reader.

While F2 depends on implicit meaning at first, the trouble is that implicit meaning gets lost over time and you'll eventually have to create a structure note nevertheless.

Also, the inevitable fact is that the direct links from/to one note accumulate over time; they would eventually outnumber the note sequence branching, and so it would still depend on structure Zettel. (or hubs, as Luhmann called it)

Lastly, structure notes allow a Zettel to have multiple roles (what Sascha calls taking part in multiple hierarchies) and order them in a more logical, argumentative sequence. In contrast, F2 allows a note to be part of only one sequence — just like its predecessor, Luhmann's Folgezettel. Meaning, there could only be one incoming link (also called in-degree in network theory) and multiple outcoming links.

I'm always saying that the ZK should work like a damn brain, but while the lacking network properties can be resolved by conjoining Folgezettel and the Structure Zettel, the structure zettel still becomes a requirement because of the aforementioned issues.

Therefore, the original purpose of the Folgezettel is defeated. Thus, I believe now that Folgezettel is a redundant technique.

If Folgezettel were my friend, you'd say that he's experiencing existential crisis right now — preparing for his revenge against me and my clan… (Sorry, man.)

In summary:

  1. Folgezettel does spreading activation, but Structure Notes do it better.
  2. Without Structure Notes, it's difficult to develop ideas in Folgezettel in a logical order. With Structure Notes, you can arrange them indefinitely.
  3. Folgezettel relies on implicit meaning that gets lost over time. If you don't make it explicit (read: Structure Notes) you'll have to keep the implicit meaning of the sequences inside your head. It defeats the purpose of the Zettelkasten itself.
  4. Incoming links from Folgezettel is limited to one. That means the links toward a note will easily outnumber that of the Folgezettel. (That's perhaps what Sascha means about "single hierarchy") So, how do you maintain them? Structure Notes.

Ironically, I've learned how to use structure notes properly by experimenting on the Folgezettel technique. Perhaps it's because of the need to solve the gaps in the Folgezettel, like what happened to Luhmann.

I leave it to Sascha and Christian to end this war -- it's something the whole community needs. The most usual entry point to the Zettelkasten is Ahrens' book, which discusses Folgezettel, so I think that creates a lot of confusion for people.

The other one is Roam Research. Frankly, I don't really think how most people use Roam resembles a Zettelkasten at all, but if they can improve their productivity using interlinked notes, then more power to them.

Anyway, my efforts now lean toward streamlining the workflow, leaving some questions:

  • Do you keep a list of structure notes inside an overview note?
  • I know nothing can be ensured, so how do you approach maintaining the links you made outside of a structure zettel? ("maintaining" kinda defeats the purpose of ZK, maybe "organizing" is a better word)
  • What does Ü1, Ü2, and Ü3 mean? Isn't the qq1, qq2, qq3 trick enough?

P.S. @sfast, @ctietze Thanks for your guidance on this topic, it made my experiments quicker. And I have around 300-400 real notes, I think. I deliberately didn't abandon it right away to discover what happens and hopefully gain the same understanding of Folgezettel and Structure Notes. Whether it worked or not is a win, anyway.


  • edited May 2020

    Update: This was republished from the original article here.

  • I had a similar process coming to that conclusion. I was adamant about making Folgezettel work because I felt like they captured well the sequential associations of thoughts, so that I could later trace their development. But then I found myself in situations where, for example, I was dealing with a book, or ideas, which were parts of different thoughts processes, but essentially about the same things. The difficulty in trying to negotiate these things together eventually made me realise it's simply easier to dehierarchise notes completely and relegate structuring to a separate process.

    The only problem that remains is that this structuring work is often too much work. Folgezettel kind of lets you make some semblance of meaning on the fly without putting too much work into it. Additionally, it encodes some of the structure into the file-names themselves, so you can get a rough idea of the connections at a glance. I think the solution is, ultimately, something like what Roam does, with robust backlinking and automatic indices that "emerge" from a collection of notes without me having to invoke these superstructures. Manually searching for things is too much work, I think, to be truly inspirational. Part of the charm of a secondary brain, or a Zettelkasten is, that it can surprise you. If you have to be the engineer of all the "surprises", there's no real surprise left.

  • @Privid I feel you, man. I thought creating structure notes were too much work, and that finding a place in a sequence would somehow alleviate some of the work. But it turns out that there's more mental work in keeping the implicit meanings intact rather than in creating new structures.

    The automatic backlinking of Roam is pretty neat, but then you can always create an AutoHotKey/Keyboard Maestro script to search for backlinks of the current note.

    I found that automatic backlinking becomes less of a problem if you link existing notes to new ones instead of the other way around. As an analogy, linking existing notes to new ones is like linking to a new blog when your page is already ranked #1 in Google -- it makes the new note easier to find. Whereas if you do the opposite, it's like creating a new blog that no one knows exists, and linking to hundreds of existing sites. No matter how much you Google (the entry point), you won't be able to find that new note unless you search for the real name.

  • Perhaps I should've named this one "The Case Against a Digital Folgezettel", but oh well.

  • edited May 2020

    I don't see why you can't just combine all the methods, for my Zettelkasten I have my version of hubs which is

    Democracy Model (set of rules):

    • Concept - Democracy (definition) - web of associations format
    • Note Sequence(folgzettel) - yadda yadda - chain/sequential format
    • Note Sequence
    • Note Sequence
    • Note Sequence
    • Note Sequence

    My understanding is the whole reason behind Folgzettel is because we communicate in a linear fashion, so it helps to build up the notes in a way to make "the communication" part easier.

    Because in reality it isn't linear, you also allow for webs to form through linking of ideas. The whole Folgzettel vs. Non Folgzettel debate seems weird to me because I can't see why you just have both.

    Like Sascha said (I think), Luhmann was hamstrung by the limitations involved in a physical zettelkasten, which we don't face digitally.

    I think at the heart of this is people just mistaking branching off as a method of hierarchy when in reality it is just a matter of convenience.

    Post edited by Nick on
  • @Nick I tried to do the same, because it's easier to cite these note sequences by doing:

    Concept of Individuality

    • From 0005-a to 0005-a5c2cf8
    • Tim Berners-Lee

    • From 0006-c to 0006-c1a5

    • From 0006-d to 0006-d2c2

    But then, the meaning is at best implicit. As you work with plenty more sequences like this, you'll lose some of the trails' implicit meaning over time. Therefore, a better approach is to make them explicit by reordering the sequence in a logical manner inside the structure note.

    But if I'm going to reorder anyway, why arrange them in a sequence in the first place? That's when I thought it's causing more inconvenience to: (1) find place in a sequence rather than in a structure note; and (2) keep the implicit meaning of trails inside your head rather than outsource it to the structure note by making it explicit.

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