Folgezettel is More than Mechanism
With this essay, I intend to show that folgezettel provides a number of rarely-discussed experiences for the note maker; that these experiences have a unique and direct effect on how a note maker maintains a zettelkasten; and that omitting these experiences leads to incomplete conclusions about where folgezettel stands in relation to other kinds of notes. To that end, I will be referring to conclusions made in "Understanding Hierarchy by Translating Folgezettel and Structure Zettel" as a framework to discuss these issues, as I feel this essay is one that explicitly speaks to what I call the "mechanistic view."1 In doing so, I hope to demonstrate that rather than being a "meaningless" alphanumeric system for note identification, the practice of employing folgezettel has a unique effect on how a note maker engages, appreciates, and produces work.
My ultimate goal, however, is to broaden the folgezettel discussion beyond the parameters set by those who do not currently have a folgezettel practice, so as to lead us toward a better appreciation of why people regularly employ the technique. My hope is that diversifying the discussion will help us to see "false dichotomies"2 such as "folgezettel / structure notes" and "folgezettel / timestamps" not as replacements for one another, but as distinct practices that, while overlapping in some areas, diverge in others. In this way, the various practices of folgezettel, using timestamps, creating structure notes, etc. can behave more as siblings rather than substitutions.
Our Current Mechanistic State
A mechanistic view is one that privileges the mechanics of a process over the experiential. It ignores the emotional. It tries to establish cohesion often through reductive arguments, determining value (more or less of it) by how parts function together as a system divorced from the subjective experience of the user. As it stands, the folgezettel debate is mired in this mechanistic systems thinking as evidenced by the following:
"Folgezettel do not establish meaningful connections because their position and therefore their relationship to parents or children of the one single hierarchy is meaningless – even by design." (emphasis added)
At its best, the idea that folgezettel "doesn't establish meaningful connections," is an unfortunate misrepresentation of what takes place when a thoughtful user directly engages with the alphanumeric system of identification. The above understanding mistakenly concludes that the meaninglessness of the letters and numbers themselves, and the places where notes fall based on these letters and numbers, eradicates any meaningful connections that can be garnered from engaging with a list of notes whose top-level connections are represented visually.
Meaning is of course established through the initial placement of the note, if for no other reason than the fact that meaning is created in relationship, here between note maker and note, between note maker and note title. The numbers themselves may appear meaningless to the untrained eye, but over time they, and the note titles that follow, speak not only to their placement in a physical or digital enumerated list, but to their content, as well as the way that content relates to the content of other notes. As will be shown, top-level relationships are both significant, as well as unique to the folgezettel method.
Getting Beyond the Mechanistic View
Conclusions are based on established truths that precede them. To conclude that an apple tastes good, a person must first have a sense of what "good" is, either intrinsically or through having been taught. One conclusion that repeatedly surfaces states that folgezettel and structure notes are virtually interchangeable, the conclusion itself based, in part, on the following assumed truth:
"By implementing Luhmann’s Folgezettel technique, you create an enumerated, nested list. Nothing more and nothing less." (emphasis added)
The statement above is, of course, false. In step with mechanistic thinking, it reduces folgezettel to a specific set of functions. It's the same argument which says that by building a car you have created nothing more or less than a vehicle which can take a person from point A to point B. And yet, I fear many car owners (and marketing departments) would disagree. A car is, for many, much more than a convenient mode of transportation.
Similarly, there is more to be had both through the practice of physically implementing folgezettel and through the experience of it having been implemented. But, understanding these benefits requires us to break free from the mechanistic view and lean into the experiential, which is, by its nature, broader, more inclusive, and more likely to affirm difference.
So, while folgezettel's mechanical effects may be replicated through other methods, the experiences had, and the way these experiences influence the note maker, can not be so easily mirrored.
The Bird's Eye View
Folgezettel gives the note maker a bird's eye view of the initial connections that have been made between notes as they were imported into the zettelkasten. Whereas timestamps provide a record of when notes were created, folgezettel provides a window into how an idea was first contextualized at the time it was imported. Folgezettel establishes a "paper trail" of meaning, showing how an idea was interpreted in its infancy, establishing a historical record, none of which is mentioned in the article (or highlighted in subsequent debates). Read simply as an enumerated list, the article concludes that such a list could be replicated elsewhere, namely through the creation of a "master Structure Zettel," which, if I understand it correctly, would be a single note or file listing every note in one's zettelkasten as they relate to one another.
Let's state the obvious: To recreate one's entire list of notes with their connections is an undertaking few if any would be willing to take on. And yet, with folgezettel, you don't need to. You can create all this and more while you create your note. The appending of alphanumeric codes to the beginning of note titles behaves, in part, as a master Structure Zettel, but one where you don't have to do extra work. Each note adds to the next, where, over time, the "list" grows longer and longer.
Assuming that very few people are going to make a master Structure Zettel, how does folgezettel and structure notes compliment one another? Folgezettel allows the note maker to see top-level connections between all their notes without having to pull out a single one, be it a zettel or structure note. Seeing an increasingly long alphanumeric thread in the stack of one's notes can point to areas that warrant the creation of structure notes. With folgezettel you can see both scope and connection, top-level links between notes, before ever clicking into your zettelkasten. Luhmann speaks to the value of this practice when he states:
"We should only write on one side of these papers so that in searching through them, we do not have to take out a paper in order to read it."3
For Luhmann, the ability to hover before diving in is beneficial. Maybe even preferable. Luhmann felt that having the ability to scan and see connections quickly helped people navigate slip boxes that had swelled over time, becoming too unruly to investigate "from one's chair."4
And yet, although Luhmann preferred to flip through notes without having to pull out each one, Luhmann saw the importance of the quick scan as divorced from the slip box's function, stating that "These are mere externalities, which concern only how easy the card index can be used. They do not concern its functionality." Respectfully, this is where Luhmann and I disagree, for I would argue that scanability is directly related to functionality.
I believe Luhmann may have been underselling the importance of the quick, scanable, zettelkasten. Ease of use has a direct effect on functionality, whether we define functionality as the ability to make new notes or as the ability to make connections between notes. Even amateur, front-end coders know that user interface—the way a person engages with the product—is determinate of what a person will get out of it. An impenetrable zettelkasten is a useless one. Hence, Luhmann's use of folgezettel, hub notes, indexes, bibliographies, and, for more recent users, structure notes.
For the creative writer, the one whose practice is writing daily, publishing weekly on a variety of subjects, the ability to see a vast array of top-level connections quickly across subjects is not only important, but crucial. I, being one of these writers, can attest. When ideating on writing my next piece, I need to see at least two or more notes next to one another and know, without having to open them, that they are connected in some way. I also need to be able to see how other clusters of notes of different subjects are forming from the outside without having to choose which topic to look at. In other words, I need to take stock of what's going on inside my zettelkasten from the vantage point of being outside it. This is a welcome function, unique to and made accessible by the folgezettel technique.
The Forces of Folgezettel
Aside from scanability, using folgezettel can also influence our note-making practice. This is particularly apparent when converting notes from fleeting to permanent zettels.
Creating permanent notes from fleeting notes can be a laborious task. It's one of the hallmarks of the zettelkasten workflow, and one of the gripes "anti-friction" productivity zealots often have with the zettelkasten method. If I had a dollar for every time I heard "It's too much work up front," I'd be a relatively rich note maker. And yet, maintaining a zettelkasten is work. And, the impulse to cut corners and find ways to capture and import quickly is a strong one. Folgezettel pushes back against this impulse.
Folgezettel trains the note maker to work in the opposite direction. Forced to situate new notes thematically and visually among others, folgezettel pushes the note maker toward making at least one connection at the time of import. This initial connection begins the crucial process of linking notes, connecting ideas, and expanding what the note maker may have previously thought about a subject.
But, the article takes issue with establishing this first-level connection through folgezettel, first by questioning whether a true connection was even made:
"The Folgezettel-Technique enables you to postpone the connection. There is an assumption that there is a connection, and its meaning of it can be discovered later." (emphasis added)
The statement above is, to say the least, assumptive, itself assuming that a note maker does not investigate exactly how and why a connection between a new note and those surrounding it is established. The article suggests that the connection is somehow inherently incomplete, weak, even disingenuous. In other words, it assumes the worst.
This, again, is a symptom of the mechanistic view, omitting other potential experiences in order to maintain cohesion. The statement does not assume that if the note maker decided that [1H2c1b] should follow [1H2c1a] that it's likely there must have been some digging around in the zettelkasten, some examination of the interior content, some triggered insight to warrant following the folgezettel's branches to their final and somewhat distant destination.
The statement also assumes that the path from capture to import is not bridged by the actual constructing of the note. There is no mention of the templates note makers use to build their notes. There is no mention of how note makers are taught to flesh out their notes with contextual links, references, citations, atomic thoughts, tags, etc. There is no mention of what people do to make permanent notes. Instead, the article smears the initial-connections made through folgezettel with that most dirtiest of terms: "the collector's fallacy." (cue spooky music)
"Didn’t we hear the same argument quite some time ago? Yes. It is basically: First collect, process later. You have what you have and it is better to have and not need than to need and not have. This is Collector’s Fallacy, which roots in a false sense of accomplishment."
The concept of the collector's fallacy is thrown around a lot these days, often acting as a display of bravado rather than an actual examination of another person's note-taking practice. To be clear, the collector's fallacy is real, and is a genuine issue for note makers both new and old. But, without working one-on-one with the hypothetical note maker in question, using it here is presumptuous, to say the least.
In its parodying of "first collect, process later" the statement is clearly privileging knowledge made in the immediate over knowledge made at a later date. And yet, if we agree that knowledge is born most acutely through the act of writing, then it is during the time of writing where the most knowledge is gained, be it now or later. (Luhmann states that "It is impossible to think without writing; at least it is impossible in any sophisticated or networked (anschlußfähig) fashion.")5
Whether or not a note maker increases their knowledge "sufficiently" at the time of import or at the time of writing longer works, is a moot point. So long as it happens. A person exhibits the collector's fallacy only if they lack engagement with what they have collected over time. Whether their notes be in a Zettelkasten, siloed away in folders, or deep in a lifeless cavern on Mars, if the note maker is engaging with their collected ideas, and these ideas are enhancing their knowledge base and/or life, then that person should not fear being a fallacious collector. In fact, they're doing just fine.
Not, however, according to the article:
"Using the Folgezettel to capture some connections and hope that their nature will reveal themselves later on is just another form of Collector’s Fallacy."
I can tell you for a fact that, in my experience, the above quote is fundamentally false. I often find myself doing exactly what's expressed here—using the folgezettel to capture "some connections" in order to get the note-making process started—and am consistently rewarded having done so. I find that first-level connections are almost always relevant and useful as time passes, giving me something to go on, even if I end up later disagreeing with them. Even those connections which were more tenuous, possible stretches of the imagination, will often be the very "loose connections" that trigger a creative impulse in me months down the road.
And yet, the author seems to think that these initial connections should not be trusted. I would argue, however, that because folgezettel contains friction at the time of import, initial connection are actually more trustworthy than not.
Eufriction is Good Friction
"[T]he time-based ID is not just good enough, it even is an improvement because it doesn’t need to introduce (meaningless) hierarchy and can be easily automated."
Here, the article ventures into the timestamp vs folgezettel debate, clearly privileging automation, a hallmark of the idealized "friction-free world." But, is automation really what we want when introducing a new note into our zettelkasten?
Speed and efficiency are, in my opinion, arbitrary gauges of success. The shear number of productivity czars prophesying about a "future without friction" are innumerable to be almost comical. In contrast to these efficiency futurists, when it comes to zettelkasten, I am pro-friction. But, not just any friction. Eufriction.
Eufriction is good friction. Just as weight training, writing a book, and giving birth can all be considered a form of eustress6, so too is folgezettel a form of eufriction. It slows the note maker down just enough to force them to think about what they're doing. It builds good habits. It strengthens mental connections. It's the kind of friction needed to help note takers who tend to drown in capture bloat—always onboarding, never offloading.
Here, once again, we see the benefits of the visual aspects of folgezettel. For note makers who find themselves creating an unwieldy amount of so-called "orphan notes," the folgezettel sounds the alarm. When faced with a sea of parents without children (9A 9B 9C 9D 9E, etc) it makes these "empty nesters" all the more apparent as the note gets added to the stack. Timestamps, which organize notes according to the time the note was created, can not show this. And, unless you plan on manually updating your "master Structure Zettel" with the names of every outlier as they arise, nor can this hypothetical note.
But, the eufriction that folgezettel provides goes beyond visual reminders. Folgezettel has the added benefit of keeping the note maker in touch with the note long enough to situate the note among its peers. In my experience, having to consider a note's initial placement based on the alphanumeric coding, and finding myself in my stack day after day, has given me an intimate understanding of my notes as a whole. How does a timestamp improve on this? The short answer: It doesn't.
In its automation, a timestamps cut the brakes. By design, it provides zero friction. All things being the same, the note maker whose UID is automated is much more likely to fall victim to the collector's fallacy than the one whose naming convention forces them to situate notes among those in kind.
Where Shall We Take This Discussion?
The mechanistic view reads folgezettel in terms of letters and numbers and how those letters and numbers organize notes. This view does not speak to the "bird's eye view," the forces pressed on the note maker, the way folgezettel influences how a note maker engages with their notes, nor the positive friction folgezettel instills by forcing a note maker to consider a note's placement. These recognitions arise from the human in the machine, a perspective which can only be had by those appending alphanumeric IDs to their notes day after day.
The article I have been referencing is just one of a handful that have been authored by non-folgezettel practitioners who take a top-down, mechanistic view of folgezettel. These articles remain above, because they are not within. Which is not to say that these articles have no place. On the contrary, they are highly relevant! Understanding the mechanics of folgezettel is necessary. A note maker can have the most elucidating, psychedelic visions while connecting notes via folgezettel, but without an appreciation of how the alphanumeric system works, what its potential limits and blind spots might be, those visions run the risk of being short lived. The mechanistic view aids in this regard. But, this view should not be the basis off of which conclusions about the folgezettel's relevancy should be made, for the conclusions provided by the mechanistic view are incomplete.
There is clearly more to folgezettel than mechanism. In short, there is the human. The human is the missing piece of the puzzle. And, note makers who work with folgezettel day to day, who wrestle with, bump up against, and work within the limits of these mechanisms are in a unique position to complete this unfinished work. 🌴
All referred quotes from https://zettelkasten.de/posts/understanding-hierarchy-translating-folgezettel/↩︎↩
I owe the description of folgezettel/structure note as a false dichotomy to Zetteldistraction↩︎↩
Stern, Eddie. (2019). One Simple Thing: A New Look at the Science of Yoga and How It Can Transform Your Life. North Point Press.↩︎↩