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The Rise of Digital Gardeners
Some thoughts on the Zettlekasten boom
When I wrote the article on how my various newsletter subscriptions became my most significant online time suck, I was unaware that it was an issue for many people.
But the overwhelm is real, and there are even apps that will help you manage all your various subscriptions.
I recently read an article advising us on how to find out how many subscriptions we are paying for and how to manage that. Just imagine paying $5-7 a month for a newsletter to be delivered to your inbox and not even being aware that you are paying for it, let alone making sure that whatever you are paying for (in time or money) adds any value to your life.
It is quite disturbing, don't you think?
Once I was aware of the number of newsletters I am subscribed to (all free, sorry, I can't bring myself to pay for any of it (relative to the added value to my life), even though I know how time-consuming it is to create them), I just used my email filtering to automatically forward all my Newsletter to a specific email folder as I describe in the article.
Subsequently, I unsubscribed from most of them, because either my interests changed or they were full of links to other articles adding significantly to the time suck. There are newsletters devoted entirely to collecting links from around the web and delivering them to your inbox and claiming they are saving you time, so you don't have to go looking yourself. When, in reality, you are probably not any better off knowing about them at all.
The whole newsletter trend crept on me so slowly, that I almost missed it.
But once I became aware of the time suck and started paying attention to the newsletters I subscribed to, especially the recently emerged ones I noted several similarities:
They (at least those I am subscribed to) don't try to sell you anything (a course here and there, perhaps)or the newsletter itself;
They share their knowledge and insights, and they link to other knowledge sharers;
They regurgitate old and new ideas (don't we all) and give them a personal spin;
They do it in short, bite-sized bits, i.e. NOTES
And they are highly addictive, because, in my humble opinion, they give us an illusion of doing something productive
But from experience, of course, reading about something productive and actually implementing it in our lives, are two completely different things.
Knowledge Sharing through Notes
But what I didn't realize is just how much knowledge collecting is a thing.
I don't know why it took me so long to realize, especially since I do exactly the same thing and have done for years - in private.
But you can now have access to (selected) personal notes of many bloggers.
Here is a bit of (unscientific) observation on who the majority of notes sharers seem to be
(disclaimer: personal observation)
they are childless Millennials
if not childless then they are usually male (excuse my bias here)
Many of them seem to be in the software development field (working from home, i.e. spending the majority of their time on their computers)
Many are multipotentialities (that all-encompassing, modern term for renaissance souls)
Sönke Ahrens and the Note sharing boom
Sönke Ahrens' How to Take Smart Notes changed so much.
Now everyone is condemning note-takers (those collecting knowledge in heaps, e.g. via the good old Evernote) and praising note makers (those selecting their notes and linking them to other knowledge and producing their own thinking through them, e.g. via newish tools such as Obsidian)
The system basically goes like this:
Collect - Take-note on what you are reading, learning and most importantly thinking
Connect - link those notes to other notes to expand on ideas (this is where tools such as Obsidian come in handy because it is designed with easy backlinking in mind)
Create - use the connected knowledge to write original articles or even books (similar to how Niklas Luhmann used his Zettlekasten)
On the flip side, here is a detailed article offering a thorough critique of the Zettlekasten boom. It basically comes down to (quote from the article):
My zettelkasten remained (and remains) an interesting object, but I had to admit that once again my attempts to disrupt thinking with a technology of note-taking had only resulted in an enormous, useless accumulation of busywork.
I am sure many of us will not easily admit to this. But there it is.
Note Sharers aka Digital Gardeners aka Second Brainers
We have popular terms to label this process such as:
Learning in public
Zettlekasten (for those who want to credit Luhmann)
Some have really taken Zettlekasten and note-making (vs note-taking) to heart, put a personal spin on it and are selling (expensive) courses teaching others how to do the same.
But It Is Not a New Thing
This free booklet (How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think by Lion Kimbro) was written in 1998 and with the whole note-making, linking and sharing boom, Zettlekasten, etc. going on now, it is literally decades ahead of its time, explaining the manual system before we had Obsidian, Roam, and even Evernote. Absolutely impressive if totally unedited (the author uses sentences such as "if I forget to talk about (this) later in the book, email me at ..." - oh, those good, old, early days of the internet)
Thanks to this book, I learned that the word Wiki was coined in 1995, because the author used it and I was like, wait, this can't be from the nineties. It is.
Also, it looks like Kimbro was the first to use the term MOC (Maps of Content) in regards to his "index" like mapping of similar notes.
While largely irrelevant to those of us who use digital systems now, it is an interesting insight into how to effectively link your own thinking and notes as opposed to 'knowledge collecting)
The Notes Shared
Many are very proud of their digital gardens. Most topics relate to general knowledge and trivia, but some deep dive into technical areas.
Many summarize books and post excerpts of books read on Kindle via apps such as Readwise. Most of the books being reviewed are on productivity, are in English, and are ranking high on Amazon, which is why most of the note sharers review exactly the same books (Almost inevitably we find Atomic Habits, Sapiens, Show Your Work and of course How to Take Smart Notes among others)
Their websites have a very clean, minimalist look. Lately many are hosted on Ghost, or self-designed, and possibly looking like mine does now (I like the sleek design).
Many you wouldn’t find unless you knew they existed (they are hardly fighting for SEO rankings - which is kind of refreshing)
They are just there, for their owners and the rest of us who like a peek into that semi-private sphere and who like to get new ideas from others (that is, literally, how I procrastinate).
How Do We Stop Consuming and Start Creating
However, writing even one article like this makes me feel more productive than reading 100 of them, and yet, I still don’t do it as often as I would like to. Passive consumption is of course much easier. And slowly, we seem to be creeping into a kind of world described in The Machine Stops (it's a really short article, but illuminating, please read it!):
"She lectured and attended lectures. She exchanged ideas with her innumerable friends and believed she was growing more spiritual.”"
To "help" you on that journey here is my collection of some interesting Note sharers.
And a long list of public 'second brains' (some links are defunct).