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The man who invented the web with just slip of papers.

We do not need to add notes at the end, but we can connect them anywhere—even to a particular word in the middle of a continuous text. On the page itself I use red letters or numbers in order to mark the place of connection.
Niklas Luhmann

Linking ideas

Much before the hypertext links existed in our texts, a German sociologist, Niklas Luhmann, had invented them with slips of paper and wooden boxes.

Luhmann felt the need to store and link each idea, book references and ultimately his own stream of thoughts, recreating a system that worked in a similar fashion as the human brain.

The Zettlekasten

Without the use of a computer, Luhmann used physical slips of paper to write down notes dividing them in three categories:

  1. Fleeting notes (sudden ideas)
  2. Literatures notes (notes while reading)
  3. Permanent notes (the result of reflection on the previous)

Luhmann believed that writing is thinking and his three notes categories reflects the way we think and how to connect sudden ideas, what we read and impress us, with our reformulation, reprocessing of source and thinking.

It is important to create notes that are:

  • Simple
  • Original, not just copied.
  • Connected

Not linear structure

In his article "Communicating with Zettlekasten", the author describes the steps to set the system from the physical wooden boxes to the slip of papers, how to store them in branches and how to use red colors for links and so on.

While he shares his long experience in doing so, he stresses that the goal is not to create a predefined structure, like using topic or sub-topics but rather to set in place a fixed filing place, as he calls it, using unique identifiers to create connections between notes.

Since every note has its own ID, the user can add as many references as he wishes creating webs of knowledge.

A partner in communication

Luhmann is famous for having written more than 70 books and many more papers. When he was asked how he could be so proficient, he answered that he was not alone while writing, he had his companion the zettlekasten.

It is important not to expect that your zettlekasten will begin suggesting you ideas or connections between ideas after few months of activity. Luhmann stated in many cases that it will take years of dedicated work with your zettlekasten before reaching a critical point where the system becomes as having its own life.

Where to begin?

First of all it is important to prepare the tools for working with your zettlekasten. For obvious reason I won't consider setting a paper slips as Luhmann did, but only considering the digital version.

However before choosing any apps for the task, it is important to have the idea clear what to do with the app.

Luhmann describes the process of taking notes as consistent of three steps:

  1. Writing down any ideas that suddenly arise on "fleeting notes"
  2. Writing down passage from books that are worth noting down, with your own words and adding reference to it
  3. Taking both the fleeting notes and the literature notes and creating "permanent notes", which are the backbones of the zettlekasten

Permanent note is not to be confuse with the idea of something fixed, because in thinking you need to leave options opened. The concept is related to how structured your note is, after being developed from random ideas, with the use of other related source and your own thinking.

Which digital tools are available?

The market offer for taking-note apps is vast and keeps growing. The market is expected to reach $1.35B by 2026.

Among the long list of apps these are the most notorious:

  • Obsidian
  • Notion
  • Roam Research
  • The Archive
  • Zettlr
  • Evernote

These apps do a great job and some have different features, however I prefer Obsidian for being not in the cloud.

I think it gives a good feeling of ownership, knowing that your data is always in your computer.

Be careful not to fall for the "shiny toy syndrome", or the wish to have the latest shining tool.

To succeed with your zettlekasten you need to stick with your tool and make it yours.

Tips

The day I learnt about Zettlekasten, I spent the next hours and days to read, watch and research about it.

At the end, I went to the source and I read the Luhmann article "Communicating with Zettlekasten", and that was the moment I felt I got it.

I suggest you to do the same, reading from its creator might help a lot.

If you are using Obsidian, I recommend also to do the following:

  • Activate the zettlekasten prefix plugin
  • Create 4 folders for:Fleeting notesLiteratures notesPermanent notesA template folder where you will add the meta data for creating your note.
  • Fleeting notes
  • Literatures notes
  • Permanent notes
  • A template folder where you will add the meta data for creating your note.
# {{title}} Created: {{date}} {{time}}Reference
Creating a template in Obsidian for smart note


Add some space between the date and references so that you can add the content of your note.

Conclusion

Luhmann was clearly a genius who ahead of his time, felt the need to organize information while living our chaotic lives.

More then ever we empathize with Luhmann since we are bombarded on a daily base from information coming from countless new channels.

Just like sailors in the open sea need wind to travel, we need information indeed, only we need to tame it, we need to turn a killer information storm into a gentle breeze of knowledge.

Curation is the key and the digital tools we can use to navigate the web can help immensely to create more sense from the information we are immerse everyday.

I would not be surprised if AI will find useful to create its own zettlekasten one day. We better hurry up!

References

  1. https://nesslabs.com/how-to-choose-the-right-note-taking-app#more-9889
  2. https://www.aquiles.me/the_luhmann_method/#fn:1
  3. https://www.aquiles.me/the_luhmann_method/
  4. http://luhmann.surge.sh/communicating-with-slip-boxes
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niklas_Luhmann
  6. https://www.aquiles.me/how_can_links_replace_the_ordering_of_notes_in_a_box/
  7. http://luhmann.surge.sh/communicating-with-slip-boxes
  8. https://academictechnologies.it.miami.edu/explore-technologies/technology-summaries/note-taking-applications/index.html
  9. https://nesslabs.com/shiny-toy-syndrome
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pete tipped:
0.02 USD
1 year ago
Interesting! 👍 Have you considered posting also to Bitpost.app? https://www.bitpost.app
framore replied:
Hi Pete! My site is framore.net I use Powpress to sign on the blockchain my content. I will take a look now at Bitpost.app as well! Thanks~
framore replied:
The site looks good, really many options, nice UI. Glad that there is something this level. The only thing I don't get is, Powping is free, this you suggest you need to pay a bit. Why not keeping Powping way?
pete replied:
^ I'm not the creator of Bitpost, but I think it's good to publish content on many different platforms to reach as many users as possible. E ora visiterò Framore.net per vedere di cosa si tratta. 😉