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Note hierarchies: Why do so few tools support them?

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  • edited August 2021


    I believe you are talking about the use of "structure notes" - on them, you can set up all the structure / hierarchies that you want. Some people use them a lot; others (like me) use them infrequently. It all depends on how you are using your ZK.

    One addition to using structure notes is to also have "hub notes" - you can consider these to be the highest level of your hierarchy and have them refer almost exclusively to structure notes. But you can also have several layers of hierarchy on a structure note, just by the way that you organize the information on it. But the structure notes are still, almost exclusively, just a list of links to various zettels.

    To illustrate by an example from my own field of practise, you could have a hub note on "Engineering", which refers to structure notes on "Civil / Structural", "Geological" and "Mining" (amongst others; these are ones of interest to me). Then one structure note, say on "Civil / Structural" could refer to further sub-areas (dams, canals, buildings, etc.), under each of which is a list of links to related zettels, or it could refer to specific projects on which you are working. Totally flexible and totally up to you.

    Viewed in this manner, structure notes are almost an "add-on", for those who want to impose a formal, external structure on their ZK. But the holy grail for the ZK, it seems, is the rather organic network of connections between zettels, which eschews hierarchy in favour of inter-connectedness.

  • edited August 2021

    As to 'why so few tools' support promoting/demoting, hierarchical folding, etc, I could speculate but I don't really know. Honestly, in my opinion, it doesn't really matter.

    Fortunately, achieving such functionality is straightforward with capable editor. For example, if you use The Archive, an excellent piece of software, you could add an external text editor under Preferences -> Advanced -> External Editors.

    When I was primarily using the The Archive, I used SublimeText with the MarkdownEditing and SmartMarkdown packages. Then just add note links per your desired hierarchy and fold them when you don't want to see them. For example:

    # Continents
    ## Asia
    ### [[202011181103]] Note about Awesome Country in Asia
    ## Africa
    ### [[201814181503]] Note about Awesome Country in Africa

    You can do something similar with any number of external editors, such as VSCode or even FoldingText - both of which are free.

    If you're willing to take the deep dive into the mighty org-roam, as well as emacs and org-mode, this functionality is baked into the cake. Org-roam rides on top of org-mode. Org-mode is essentially just an outliner (with hidden super powers :smile:).

    Getting up to speed with emacs was a non-trivial task for me. A well-maintained framework such as doom emacs made the process easier... but not easy >:) !

    I wish you well with your zettelkasten journey. My own has proven informative and valuable in ways I could not have foreseen.

  • I don't really understand the original problem. Let's say that the ZK tools in the wild all lack this capability -- what would it look like if you had to do it the cumbersome, manual way?>

    @metaswirl said:

    Hierarchy: You have an idea for a product. Then, you add some ideas for its parts. Or, you have an argument and you have some points supporting that argument. These hierarchies evolve as you get a better understanding of a subject.

    This sounds like self-made overviews to me, too, in the form of structure notes, i.e. notes that are about the structure (here: the argument itself, linking to its premises etc.). Assembling these means making either a new note and adding links to the foundational parts, or editing/refashioning an existing note that's the de-facto entry point into the topic already to have the structural properties.

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

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  • As I am just starting with the Zettelkasten, I am worried that a non-hiearchical note list will become very confusing quickly. So, how are more experienced people handling this?

    I started with the same worry. Breaking changes are scary.

    In Luhmann's paper, this aspect seemed really important to him. And I can see how adding lower-level notes helps to keep notes simple and atomic. (Example: notes on cities are listed under notes for countries.)

    AFAICS, the best Software tool that mimics Luhmann's hierarchy is Zkn3. It provides a tree view for the entire structure of the Zettelkasten. Note that Luhmann's Folgezettel is not a hierarchy of classification, so cities are not necessarily listed under notes for countries. He was working with a paper based Zettelkasten, meaning that editing the structure is very hard. The approach is to basically not edit the structure.

    If you're looking into a purely software based solution I would also recommend using structure notes instead of Folgezettel (i.e., Luhmann's structure) based on personal preference. I don't think that a tree view is any bit less confusing, they are cumbersome to navigate (i.e. find, open and read). For comparison, have a look at Structure Notes

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

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  • Was Luhmann really trying to create hierarchies? My impression was that he was really doing something else, but others will know better than I do.

    For myself, over the years I have come to see hierarchical organisation of notes as a bad way to go. Any note in my archive might easily belong in several different places in any hierarchy I might devise. I much prefer to use smart searches, which constantly update as new material is added, and allow any note to appear in multiple contexts according to need. This is much more flexible and complete than manually assigning notes to positions in a hierarchy, which imposes a single predetermined structure on the material.

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  • @metaswirl As far as Luhmann is concerned, he devalued the "emerging structures" in his note sequences because this approach doesn't scale.

    Take your own screenshot: if you start with notes on deadlocks, and then later think that a "concurrency" overview is warranted, with Luhmann's Folgezettel you'd be screwed because the "concurrency" note comes later than "deadlock" and so their position cannot reflect the hierarchy within the topic. Luhmann-Folgezettel-imitators have to live with this. You cannot impose hierarchy into the spontaneously growing mess of 90k notes that e.g. Luhmann had. (A lot of Folgezettel-aficionados on the web bring up examples consisting of a couple of notes to demonstrate how nice everything fits together, but totally ignore problems of scale.)

    On a computer you can reorder things no problem. But note that this already has nothing to do with what Luhmann did. You want to impose order and hierarchy as you figure out which hierarchies you need.

    Structure notes act like OneNote's sidebar, but they allow recombination.

    You can write about "Concurrency in Go" and group the atomic notes under that heading, but also create another strucutre note about "Mutex implementations" that groups Go's mutex and others.

    In programmer parlay, you can have multiple views into the same web of notes by re-ifying these views as structures. And these structures could be tables of contents :)

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

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