Noting well

Scribble, scribble, scribble (Eh! Mr Gibbon?)

Last week I read an article that made me very uncomfortable. I had been diagnosed by the author and was found to be diseased.

The Twittering Machine is powered by an insight at once obvious and underexplored: we have, in the world of the social industry, become “scripturient—possessed by a violent desire to write, incessantly.” Our addiction to social media is, at its core, a compulsion to write. Through our comments, updates, DMs, and searches, we are volunteers in a great “collective writing experiment.” Those of us who don’t peck out status updates on our keyboards are not exempt. We participate too, “behind our backs as it were,” creating hidden (written) records of where we clicked, where we hovered, how far we scrolled, so that even reading, within the framework of the Twittering Machine, becomes a kind of writing.

Going Postal: A psychoanalytic reading of social media and the death drive, Max Read for Bookforum

The scripturient among us cannot stop writing even though social media brings no joy. Some of us opted for a lesser evil and have Waldenponded to the cozyweb

Unlike the main public internet, which runs on the (human) protocol of “users” clicking on links on public pages/apps maintained by “publishers”, the cozyweb works on the (human) protocol of everybody cutting-and-pasting bits of text, images, URLs, and screenshots across live streams. Much of this content is poorly addressable, poorly searchable, and very vulnerable to bitrot. It lives in a high-gatekeeping slum-like space comprising slacks, messaging apps, private groups, storage services like dropbox, and of course, email.

from Cozyweb by Venkatesh Rao

In other words, some of us have opted to keep writing compulsively but mostly to ourselves.

I’ve found Notion to be welcome respite from the public square of Twitter or even the water-cooler of Slack. While I used to plan trips on Pinterest, I now find myself saving inspirational images to Notion. Instead of relying on Facebook or Linkedin to catalog my connections, I’ve been building my own relationship tracker in Notion.

Like the living room, Notion appeals to both the introverted and extroverted sides of my personality. It’s a place where I can create and test things out in private. Then, when I’m craving some external validation, I can show off a part of my workspace to as many or as few people as I want. It’s a place where I can think out loud without worrying about the judgement of strangers or the tracking of ad targeting tools.

Notion is the living room of the cozyweb by by Nick deWilde

Exhausted by my own doomscrolling, I recently pledged to myself to spend less time on social media. But I still had a scribbling habit that needed to be maintained. I found myself researching why so many of the few remaining bloggers that I knew were so obsessed with Notion and other tools that were unfamiliar to me.

It’s the worldwideweb. Let’s share what we know.

The tools of the notearazzi

Notion describes itself as ‘the all-in-one workspace’ for all of “your notes, tasks, and wikis”. That sounds more compelling than the the way that I would describe it: Notion allows you to build workflows from documents using linked, invisible databases.

For example, here is a set of pages that can be arranged as a task board, a kaban board, a calendar, or a list, just by changing your view of the information at hand.

(In this way Notion reminds me of Drupal except all of the database scaffolding is invisible to the user.)

There are other note taking tools that promise to revolutionize the work and the workflow of the user: Roam Research (that turns your “graph connected” notes into a ‘second brain’), RemNote (that turns your study notes into spaced repetition-flashcards), and Obsidian (that turns your markdown notes into a personal wiki / second brain on your computer).

And there is still Evernote.

Personal Knowledge Management

These types of note-taking systems are also known as personal knowledge management or PKM.

The Digital Garden

From the above diagram, you can see that PKM systems are also called Digital Gardens. Patrick Tanguay wrote a short backgrounder on this concept with a great set of links to explore.

In short: brief notes from your own thinking, heavily linked back and forth, continually added to and edited.

The goal is to have a library of notes of your own thinking so you can build upon what you read and write, creating your own ideas, advancing your knowledge.

Digital Gardens, Patrick Tanguay

The word garden was chosen carefully to describe this concept. We find ourselves in a world in which almost all of our social media systems are algorithm-influenced streams. To find the contemplative space we need to think, we need to find a slower landscape.

Remember a couple months ago when I wrote about Matt Caulfield’s alternative to CRAAP called SIFT? Well, I’m invoking him again for his 2015 post called The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral.

I don’t want people to get hung up on the technology angle. I think sometimes people hear “Federated Thingamabob” and just sort of tune out thinking “Oh, he’s talking about a feature of Federated Thingamabob.” But I’m not. I’m really not. I’m talking about a different way to think your online activity, no matter what tool you use. And relevant to this conference, I’m talking about a different way of collaborating as well.

Without going to much into what my federated wiki journal is, just imagine that instead of blogging and tweeting your experience you wiki’d it. And over time the wiki became a representation of things you knew, connected to other people’s wikis about things they knew.

So when I see an article like this I think — Wow, I don’t have much in my wiki about gun control, this seems like a good start to build it out and I make a page.

The first thing I do is “de-stream” the article. The article is about Oregon, but I want to extract a reusable piece out of it in a way that it can be connected to many different things eventually. I want to make a home page for this idea or fact. My hub for thinking about this.

The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral, Mike Caulfield

I used to think of blog posts as part of a growing garden, but my framing has shifted and now I think of the blog as the headwaters of the first sluggish stream (and the beginning of the end of the web as we know it):

Whereas the garden is integrative, the Stream is self-assertive. It’s persuasion, it’s argument, it’s advocacy. It’s personal and personalized and immediate. It’s invigorating. And as we may see in a minute it’s also profoundly unsuited to some of the uses we put it to.

The stream is what I do on Twitter and blogging platforms. I take a fact and project it out as another brick in an argument or narrative or persona that I build over time, and recapitulate instead of iterate.

The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral, Mike Caulfield

Caulfield alludes to the associative power of links after he compares the original vision of Vannevar Bush’s MEMEX and the topology of the World Wide Web:

Each memex library contains your original materials and the materials of others. There’s no read-only version of the memex, because that would be silly. Anything you read you can link and annotate. Not reply to, mind you. Change. This will be important later.

Links are associative. This is a huge deal. Links are there not only as a quick way to get to source material. They aren’t a way to say, hey here’s the interesting thing of the day. They remind you of the questions you need to ask, of the connections that aren’t immediately evident.

Links are made by readers as well as writers. A stunning thing that we forget, but the link here is not part of the author’s intent, but of the reader’s analysis. The majority of links in the memex are made by readers, not writers. On the world wide web of course, only an author gets to determine links. And links inside the document say that there can only be one set of associations for the document, at least going forward.

The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral, Mike Caulfield

Mike Cauldfield’s own digital garden was a personal wiki and there some reader/writers who have opted to go this route using Tiddlywiki or a variation.

There is no one way to grow your own digital garden. Gardens are personal and they grow to suit the space and time that you are able to give them. There are digital gardens that are wild and overgrown like a verdant English garden and then there are the closely controlled and manicured gardens known as BASB.

The Second Brain

BASB stands for Building A Second Brain. Unlike our own feeble wetware, these BASB systems exist so we do not forget passing notions. They are also promoted as environments that lend themselves to creative thinking because, just like our own minds, they encourage the generation of new thoughts by the association of disparate ideas from different fields, places, or times.

To be honest, during most of the time I spent researching for this post, every time I read the phrase second brain, I immediately dismissed it as glib marketing and not as a concept worth serious considering. But then I watched a YouTube video of a medical student who had taken a $1500 course on building brain building and he could not stop singing its praises.

From that video, I learned that Second Brain building wasn’t just making links between concepts and waiting for creativity to descend or a book to emerge. The framing of the activities that it prescribes are closer to a Project Management System in which efforts are directly ultimately to outcomes and outputs. That system is also known as PARA.

Image from: Building a Second Brain: The Illustrated Notes by Maggie Appleton

Not every building a second brain (BASB) system is build on the foundations of PARA. There are those who decide to populate their new Roam Research space using the Smart Note system or the Zettelkasten approach.


When I was doing research for my 2015 Access talk about index cards and bibliographic systems, I dimly remember coming across the note taking system of sociologist Niklas Luhmann which turned into a 90,000+ card zettelkasten into over 70 books. I distinctly remember coming across the system again when I was reading about Beck Trench’s Academic Workflow:

I use the Zettelkasten method of note-taking, by which I mean that I create notes that contain a single idea or point that is significant to me. These notes are usually linked to other notes, authors, and citations, allowing me to understand that single idea in the context of the larger literature that I’m exploring. I use the knowledge management software Tinderbox to write these notes and map their associations. I’ve created a series of videos that explain exactly how I do this. I also sync my Tinderbox zettels with DEVONthink using these scripts so that I can search my own notes alongside my articles to find connections I might otherwise miss.

Academic Workflow: Reading, Beck Trench

From what I can tell, many people’s first introduction to the zettelkasten method has been through this website or the 2017 book How to Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens (2017). I haven’t read the book yet but I was so intrigued that I have ordered a copy. From a review of the work:

The book is written in an essayistic and very readable style, humorous and anecdotal, which makes both the practical advice as well as the underlying philosophy very accessible and convincing. Ahrens offers a compelling meta-reflection on the pivotal role of writing in – and as – thinking, and as such, he also formulates a timely and important advocacy of the humanities. It is therefore regrettable that in his emphasis on proliferating personal productivity and ‘boosting’ written output with Luhmann’s slip box system, Ahrens neglects to critically reflect upon the luring dangers of academic careerism for truly original scholarship… The explosion of publishing outlets is in turn tightly connected with the increasing governmentalization and commodification of academic life (Miller 2015), and while Ahrens continually emphasizes the potential of increasing written output with Luhmann’s method, he unfortunately misses the opportunity to reflect on the very conditions of academic life that create a demand for a book like his own in the first place.

Book review: How to Take Smart Notes, Reviewed by Melanie Schiller, Journal of Writing Research (2017)

How might academic libraries figure into these systems

While keeping in mind that the knowledge workers who commit strongly to a holistic note-taking system are a minority of our patrons, how can academic libraries support those students, faculty, and academic staff who use specialized note-taking software?

Personally, I think at a minimum, we must try to keep as much of our material as copy-able as possible. In other words, we should keep our investments in DRM-locked material as small possible.

But I’ll boil it down to this. It came down to who had the power to change things. It came down to the right to make copies.

On the web, if you wanted to read something you had to read it on someone else’s server where you couldn’t rewrite it, and you couldn’t annotate it, you couldn’t copy it, and you couldn’t add links to it, you couldn’t curate it.

These are the verbs of gardening, and they didn’t exist on the early web.

The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral, Mike Caulfield

What might happen if we try on the idea that a library is a type of stock that both readers and writers can draw upon for their respective knowledge flow.

Stock and flow are just different ways of expressing garden and stream. Mike Caulfield looks at OER in this context and I found this framing as very useful.

Everything else is either journal articles or blog posts making an argument about local subsidies. Replying to someone. Building rapport with their audience. Making a specific point about a specific policy. Embedded in specific conversations, specific contexts.

Everybody wants to play in the Stream, but no one wants to build the Garden.

Our traditional binary here is “open vs. closed”. But honestly that’s not the most interesting question to me anymore. I know why textbook companies are closed. They want to make money.

What is harder to understand is how in nearly 25 years of the web, when people have told us what they THINK about local subsidies approximately one kajillion times we can’t find one — ONE! — syllabus-ready treatment of the issue.

You want ethics of networked knowledge? Think about that for a minute — how much time we’ve all spent arguing, promoting our ideas, and how little time we’ve spent contributing to the general pool of knowledge.

Why? Because we’re infatuated with the stream, infatuated with our own voice, with the argument we’re in, the point we’re trying to make, the people in our circle we’re talking to.

The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral, Mike Caulfield


A scholar reads texts from the library and thoughtfully creates personal notes from their reading. Those notes grow, get connected to other notes, help generate new notes and associations, and, in time, help generate the scholar’s own text that — hopefully — will become part of that same library. “A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library” (Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained).

Once again, it makes me wonder whether our institutions should consider adopting the professional mission that Dan Chudnov made for himself in 2006: Help people build their own libraries.

Because those scholar’s notes? They are also a library.

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