This is a great essay by Chris Aldrich for several reasons. Because it aims to address the absence in the current hypelet around recent personal knowledge management tools and note systems like Zettelkasten of the realisation that everything in this space has a deep rooted lineage. In response he writes about the history of commonplacing, using card collection for creative, academic or professional output. Because the essay itself is the result of the very practice it describes. In the past months I’ve been reading along with Chris’ annotations (the value of which led me to share more of my own annotations too), and reading his essay I can readily recognise things from that stream of raw material. The notes Chris made from those annotations in turn resulted in this essay. Seven thousands words in a half-day effort.
Note to self: I should create an overview for myself and here about my note taking practice through the years and their inspiration. Just to further illustrate the history Chris writes about.
Hopefully those in the space will look more closely at the well-worn cow paths of analog history in deciding how to pave our (digital) futures. [….] The hiding value proposition of the older methods can be contrasted with the incessant drumbeat of the value and productivity inherently “promised” by those describing [only] Niklas Luhmann’s system.
I’ve now added over 100 annotations using Hypothes.is (h.), almost all within the last month. This includes a few non-public ones. Two weeks ago I wrote down some early impressions, to which I’m now adding some additional observations.
100 annotations (in a month) don’t seem like a lot to me, if h. is a regular tool in one’s browsing habit. H. says they have 1 million users, that have made 40 million annotations to over 2 million articles (their API returns 2.187.262 results as I write this). H. has been in existence for a decade. These numbers average out to 20 annotations to 2 articles per user. This to me suggests that the mode is 1 annotation to 1 article by a user and then silence. My 100 annotations spread out over 30 articles, accumulated over a handful of weeks is then already well above average, even though I am a new and beginning user. My introduction to h. was through Chris Aldrich, whose stream of annotations I follow daily with interest. He recently passed 10.000 annotations! That’s 100 times as many as mine, and apparently also an outlier to the h. team itself: they sent him a congratulatory package. H.’s marketing director has 1348 public annotations over almost 6 years, its founder 1200 in a decade. Remi Kalir, co-author of the (readworthy!) Annotation book, has 800 in six years. That does not seem that much from what I would expect to be power users. My blogging friend Heinz has some 750 annotations in three years. Fellow IndieWeb netizen Maya some 1800 in a year and a half. Those last two numbers, even if they differ by a factor 5 or so in average annotations/month, feel like what I’d expect as a regular range for routine users.
The book Annotation I mentioned makes a lot of social annotation, where distributed conversations result beyond the core interaction of an annotator with an author through an original text. Such social annotation requires sharing. H. provides that sharing functionality and positions itself explicitly as a social tool ("Annotate the web, with anyone, anywhere" "Engage your students with social annotation"). The numbers above show that such social interaction around an annotated text within h. will be very rare in the public facing part of h., in the closed (safer) surroundings of classroom use interaction might be much more prominent. Users like me, or Heinz, Maya and Chris whom I named/linked above, will then be motivated by something else than the social aspects of h. If and when such interaction does happen (as it tends to do if you mutually follow eachothers annotations) it is a pleasant addition, not h.’s central benefit.
What is odd to me is that when you do indeed engage into social interaction on h., that interaction cannot be found through the web interface of my annotations. Once I comment, it disappears out of sight, unless I remember what I reacted to and go back to that annotation by another user directly, to find my comment underneath. It does show up in the RSS feed of my annotations, and my Hypothes.is-to-Obsidian plugin also captures them through the API. Just not in the web interface.
Despite the social nature of h., discovery is very difficult. Purposefully ‘finding the others’ is mostly impossible. This is both an effect of the web-interface functionality, as well as I suspect because of the relatively sparse network of users (see observation 1). There’s no direct way of connecting or searching for users. The social object is the annotation, and you need to find others only through annotations you encounter. I’ve searched for tags and terms I am interested in, but those do not surface regular users easily. I’ve collated a list of a dozen currently active or somewhat active annotators, and half a dozen who used to be or are sporadically active. I also added annotations of my own blogposts to my blog, and I actively follow (through an RSS feed) any new annotation of my blogposts. If you use h., I’d be interested to hear about it.
Annotations are the first step of getting useful insights into my notes. This makes it a prerequisite to be able to capture annotations in my note making tool Obsidian, otherwise Hypothes.is is just another silo you’re wasting time on. Luckily h. isn’t meant as a silo and has an API. Using the API and the Hypothes.is-to-Obsidian plugin all my annotations are available to me locally. However, what I do locally with those notes does not get reflected back to h., meaning that you can’t really work through annotations locally until you’ve annotated an entire article or paper in the browser, otherwise sync issues may occur. I also find that having the individual annotations (including the annotated text, in one file), not the full text (the stuff I didn’t annotate), feels impractical at times as it cuts away a lot of context. It’s easily retrievable by visiting the url now, but maybe not over time (so I save web archive links too as an annotation). I also grab a local markdown copy of full articles if they are of higher interest to me. Using h. in the browser creates another inbox in this regard (having to return to a thing to finish annotation or for context), and I obviously don’t need more inboxes to keep track of.
In response to not saving entire articles in my notes environment, I have started marking online articles I haven’t annotated yet at least with a note that contains the motivation and first associations I normally save with a full article. This is in the same spot as where I add a web archive link, as page note. I’ve tried that in recent days and that seems to work well. That way I do have a general note in my local system that contains the motivation for looking in more detail at an article.
The API also supports sending annotations and updates to h. from e.g. my local system. Would this be potentially better for my workflow? Firefox and the h. add-on don’t always work flawlessly, not all docs can be opened, or the form stops working until I restart Firefox. This too points in the direction of annotating locally and sending annotations to h. for sharing through the API. Is there anyone already doing this? Built their own client, or using h. ‘headless’? Is there anyone who runs their own h. instance locally? If I could send things through the API, that might also include the Kindle highlights I pull in to my local system.
In the same category of integrating h. into my pkm workflows, falls the interaction between h. and Zotero, especially now that Zotero has its own storage of annotations of PDFs in my library. It might be of interest to be able to share those annotations, for a more complete overview of what I’m annotating. Either directly from Zotero, or by way of my notes in Obsidian (Zotero annotatins end up there in the end)
These first 100 annotations I made in the browser, using an add-on. Annotating in the browser takes some getting used to, as I try to get myself out of my browser more usually. I don’t always fully realise I can return to an article for later annotation. Any time the sense I have to finish annotating an article surfaces, that is friction I can do without. Apart from that, it is a pleasant experience to annotate like this. And that pleasure is key to keep annotating. Being able to better integrate my h. use with Obsidian and Zotero would likely increase the pleasure of doing it.
Another path of integration to think about is sharing annotated links from h. to my blog or the other way around. I blog links with a general annotation at times (example). These bloggable links I could grab from h. where I bookmark things in similar ways (example), usually to annotate further later on. I notice myself thinking I should do both, but unless I could do that simultaneously I won’t do such a thing twice.
Even while on hiatus I obviously cannot ignore Chris Aldrich’s call for examples of output creation systems and the actual output created with Zettelkasten style note card systems. For two reasons. One is that I fully agree with him that having such examples publicly visible is important. The other is that I recognise his observations about the singular focus on system design and tweaking often being a timesink precluding outputs (with the loudest voices often being utterly silent on output).
Here’s a first list of outputs from my system, without the receipts though as I’m writing this away from home with limited tools. After the list I’ll make a few general observations as well.
I have created 2 or 3 slide decks for client internal and conference presentations from my conceptual notes. First searching for notes on the topic, and the contextual factors of where the slide deck will be used. Then gathering the findings in what I call an ’emergent outline’ (Ahrens calls them speculative outlines). Or perhaps I already have an overview of sorts in the form of an ‘elephant path’ (a map of content, or annotated topical index) which normally help me navigate.
I have written blogposts directly from my notes. This is now easier than before, since earlier this year I created a way of publishing to this site from my internal notes. This allows me to write in a note, linking internally or including, all within the notes environment and then push the result out to the website.
I created some new personal insights from new connections within my notes. Not sure if that counts towards Chris’ definition of outputs. This results in new notes where the edge, i.e. the newly found link between two notions, gets expressed as a note in its own right. The first such connection (between my notions of Maker Households and Networked Agency) happened when I was about 35 notes ‘in’.
For a recent panel at a conference I collated my talking points from my notes
I use my notes a lot in work conversations, pulling up concepts as needed. I used to do this to pull up facts and earlier meeting notes with the same participants. Now I also use this to provide richer input into the conversations themselves, including pointing to sources and references. This emerged during the many video calls in the pandemic lockdowns, where it was easy to pull up additional material on one of my screens. Now that I have more meetings in person again, I find I still do this automatically. Whatever material I mention I also link in my own meeting notes. This has been remarked upon by conversation partners as a valuable thing.
I have some elephant paths I regard as output in their own right. One currently important to me is the Practices elephant path. It gives an overview of things I want to approach as a practice (which I place somewhere on the spectrum between habit/routine on one end and literacy (in the Rheingoldian sense of skill plus community) on the other end. Practices are the sweet spot to me for (groups of) knowledge workers to implement fields of theory in their own daily work
I maintain a client website directly from my notes on EU digital and data legislation. I have conceptual notes for all the regulations involved and maintain summaries alongside them. Those summary notes are automatically synced to GitHub and then published on Github pages as well as the client’s own domain. These same summaries also serve as outline and text for my frequent presentations on this subject, where the slidedeck is kept up to date from the notes that I am certain are always up to date because they are the notes I work with daily.
Some other observations:
What constitutes output? The ‘Luhmann had 90k notes and wrote 70 books’ mantra makes for a rather daunting benchmark to be compared against. I propose we count outputs that have utility to its creator. For me then there are two types of outputs from my notes. A group that is the result of better project tracking, allowing me to pick up where I previously left of, which is a valuable ratcheting effect. Me building my own micropub tools resulted from such ratcheting in 15 minute increments. This group of outputs results from notes, but not the conceptual notes of my ‘Garden of the Forking Paths’ (ie my Zettelkasten style collection). The other group results from re-using and re-arranging the material in my ‘Garden of Forking Paths’ and the example outputs listed above follow from it. In a sense all my work is an output of my notes and my experience, and my tools have always been aiding in my work. Yet there is a qualitative difference.
I have used notes based PKM for over two decades, and in hindsight it was mostly focused on reporting conversations, project stuff, conversations with myself, and many many examples of things I thought relevant. Those I would tag extensively, and I think most of those historic tags would now be their own conceptual notes, expressing the communality of the tagged examples and material, or expressing the link/edge between two or three of the tagged source notes as a notion.
Many of my conceptual notes (now 1000+) and ideas plus non-conceptual atomic notes (another 500 or so) stem from ‘atomising’ my archive of blogposts, and my presentations of the last 10-15 years. Many notes are thus created from earlier outputs themselves.
I recognise what Stephen Downes remarked, that creating the notes is the valuable part towards pattern recognition, and making output needs further gathering of new material. In part this is because adding things to my notes is aiding memory. Once it’s noted it’s no longer novel, and in that sense looses part of the surprisal (informational worth) that led to its creation in the first place. If outputs in my own mind need to be novel, then my notes are limited in value. (This goes back to earlier conversations of the 90% is crap heuristic which I see as feeding impostor syndrom. Outputs imo highly connected to impostor syndrom.
I don’t think I have actual established processes for outputs yet, I’d like to, and I don’t yet feel outputs created suggest as-effective-as-can-be processes yet. Maybe that is because I have not been really tracking such outputs and how I created them. I have become better at starting anything with interrogating my notes first, and putting them together, before starting exploration further afield. Often I find I already have some useful things, which gives a headstart in exploring anything new: there’s something to connect new findings to.
I do not think my current notes could yield something along the lines of a book, other than the nonsense kind of a single idea padded out with anecdotes. I also feel the method of information collection isn’t good enough to base any work on academically. This goes back to the earlier remark as to what qualifies as output of good enough quality.
I wonder how I could connect the convictions my company has about our work with open badges, and how such badges can play a role in promoting the skills connected to those convictions to our team and new hires, as well as our wider network. Meet-ups, unconferences, that we already organise may turn into a bit more, by acknowledging the knowledge and skills transfer taking place with a badge perhaps, by issuing them from our company. As recognition for things we deem important. I also associate it with my train of thought on framing our convictions and principles in terms of SDGs. Lots to chew on, besides badges, like co-ops, as well.
Thank you for writing that! I too find it highly interesting to see how other people arrange their workflows, choose their tools and what they do with them. Often there are things that spark an idea or suggest a useful tweak to my own workflows. So thank you for making a comparison between how you work and what I wrote about how I work.
A few reactions to some of the things you mention.
My perspective on (personal) knowledge management is centered around the notion that I should have everything under my fingertips, and should be able to fully determine my own choice of tools. Tools one can preferably tweak, reshape or replace easily. I started taking notes in the early 1990’s and local text files were the most basic choice I made (and one of the few I then could make). Later convenience lured me into other things like Evernote, and Things for tasks, but I’ve returned to that basic starting point of using text files more recently.
At the core are these notions I hold:
Local first. I’m from an era that connectivity can’t be taken for granted, and regularly work in settings where that is still true. It is also a dependency that even when it is usually reliable, probably carries a high cost if it does fail, as that most likely is in key moments (basically a version of the demo effect).
Agency over tools. Tools must provide actual agency. A key part of it is being able to fully control it’s deployment and use, being able to tweak it etc. Tools must be smaller than us in that sense (not in a literal sense). Convenience may make me ignore this factor up to a certain point, but in the end having control over my tools always comes back up as an issue. Not having such control ultimately always turns a tool into a single point of failure. (Gmail and Evernote are prime examples to me) That drives me to simpler tools within my own scope of control and power to manipulate, and only allowing more complexity if it increases my personal agency significantly. It also means to me that tools need to be useful on their own, and more useful when networked.
Personal tools. Tools need to be adaptable to the person using it. That makes it easier to make those tools smarter. As personal preferences can be assumed as the defaults, and personal routines are predictable to the person itself. Predictable routines plus preferences equal functions and parameters, i.e. code.
Personal agency is always in the context of networked agency. In most settings the unit of agency is not the individual but a small group of connected people trying to solve something that is important to the group itself. Whatever tools the group uses should be within the scope of control of that same group. As a group’s notion of local is usually a networked notion, my local stuff needs to be able to connect (yet not depend on it). Distribution is important here. Centralisation is mostly to be avoided as it carries a cost in overhead, control and resilience.
Put that all together, and indeed POSSE basically becomes the prime directive for everything.
On WordPress: I used to handcode my sites, until I started using Movable Type shortly after I initiated my blog (hosted on a webserver at home). That was written in Perl which I was comfortable with having written my then employer’s first intranet in it. A decade later I switched to WordPress when my Movable Type install suddenly stopped working completely. I see you use Ghost, which ran a kickstarter I supported shortly after I switched to WordPress (self hosted on an external hosting package). By the time Ghost saw its first release I didn’t act on my earlier idea of running that on a home server. I’m not particularly attached to WP (also used Drupal heavily for other sites), and use it pretty bare bones, but it has served me well for the last 10 years. The switch to Gutenberg and blocks though has me thinking I might maybe go for something simpler.
On Obsidian / Joplin: I also use Joplin, but haven’t tweaked it like you have, I use it out of the box. It’s where my Evernote exports live, which from there I export to md files as needed. I treat Obsidian as a viewer, and Joplin too. Because of that I dislike that Joplin stores stuff locally in an sqlite database, obscuring the contents from my filesystem that way. From a viewer it then becomes an obscurer. Currently Obsidian has my sympathy, that may change, no tool is forever. So in my choices of e.g. plugins for Obsidian I avoid things that provide functionality that comes with a type of lock-in, where if you stop using a plugin part of your information disappears or is hard to get at because it was in a database not in the notes. I dislike YAML frontmatter too. For the Dataview plugin I use inline datafields (key:: value) which makes them a regular part of the note itself. Only when for some automation I need to know where to easily find a data field, I will put it at the top (but still not as YAML frontmatter).
In het past weeks I struggled to get to action. I didn’t have the sense that I was in the pilot seat. Too many little things budding in, not being able to get started on bigger things, and no sense of overview. Or rather, a too overwhelming overview, and no easy way for myself to bring the scope of that view down to something manageable for the day.
I have about 35 areas of activity, this includes projects, general tasks, both business, volunteer work and personal. For each of those 35 or so activities I keep a running list of things to do. Some lists have a few items, others have a few dozen. If on average they hold 10 tasks each, it means a tasklist of 300 to 400 items to choose from. That makes for an overwhelming overview. It gets better if I dive into the scope of a specific project or activity area, but then I don’t see the small things I can do to keep the other activities rolling. When I was still using Things I had the same effect, so this isn’t something particular to my current use of Obsidian for tasks.
The result has been that, because the overall list is too overwhelming, I haven’t been using it much. Which means I have even less sense of overview or being on top of my stuff.
In an attempt to regain that sense, I’m now trying to each morning go through the entire list and pick a handful of things for the day. That small curated list has a more manageable scope, without being limited to a single activity.
I don’t want to copy tasks from one place to another. I want them to stay on their respective project or activity list, but marked and summarised on my daily list. I’m aware there are various task oriented plugins for Obsidian, but they will prescribe me a certain mode of working, and it isn’t certain that in their absence the same information will be as usable / findable (a type of functional lock-in or dependency I always want to avoid)
What I came up with is I mark every task I choose for the day with ‘t::’, in whichever line of whichever file I want. This can be an existing tasklist, but I can do the same while making meeting notes, to quickly mark something as a task resulting from the meeting. The Dataview plugin I already use sees ‘t::’ as an inline datafield and is able to extract them into a list using the following brief piece of code:
TABLE t as Vandaag
SORT File asc
I display that at the top of my daily note. It allows me to quickly jump into a task list or other note to delete it when done, and to copy it over into my daily note in the ‘done’ list.
In the coming days I will test if this improves my days and activities.
A brief list of selected tasks from other files. Also note that at the top t:: is mentioned inline twice, and both show up as task items in the list.