The Folgezettel Conundrum

Deep dive into one of the most debatable concepts of Zettelkasten

When I discovered Folgezettel concept, I felt like I discovered a hidden gem. Something that will finally transform my messy pile of wannabe-smart notes into a meaningful collection that can add tangible value to my thinking and writing. Convinced that I discovered a missing piece, I was in seventh heaven — but not for long.

Ditching order, embracing structure

Folgezettel is a fancy name for a nested sequence of ideas. It is a structural concept that emerges from the specific organization present in the slip-box. Distinctive organization solves two problems, unique to the physical slip-box: navigation and accessibility. If we work with hundreds or even thousands of notes, we need to ensure that we will be able to find the note we are looking for in less than a minute. If we have no map, and no guidelines, finding the right note becomes a hopeless quest.

Luhmann used unique alpha-numerical IDs to map the notes. It is like adding names to notes and arranging them alphabetically. If we know the ID of the note, we can locate it in a few seconds. ID represents the position of the note in the slip-box.

We have two choices when adding a new note. We can add it to the end and record all possible connections as references. The second choice is to pick one of the related notes and put a new note after it, while recording other possible locations as references.

Luhmann decided to use the second approach, and he called it internal branching. Each note is related to the preceding note, and it has a proper ID that illustrates the branching. If we are adding a new note after note 1, it becomes note 2. If we already have note 2, the new one becomes 1a. By creating these branches, we are constructing Folgezettels. We are developing sequences of connected ideas. This strategy implies that we can add an indefinite number of notes anywhere in the box.

Nesting is blind

Let’s say we are adding a new note related to 3b, 4c11, 4d, and 7a10. We decided to place it after note 3b, so it becomes 3b1. Although it could be positioned after all of them equally, we will store other connections as references. The downside of this is the fact that with time we will develop this primary sequence more and more while neglecting the other three. Next time we branch inwardly from 3b1, a new note will be 3b1a and it will be related to the overall context of the 3b sequence. In theory, 3b1a note can be a branch of 3b, 4c11, 4d, or 7a10 sequence, because its parent 3b1 belongs to all of these sequences. In practice, 3b1a will be related only to 3b, because that is something we can clearly track with IDs. I call this Folgezettel deception.

The idea about Folgezettels as something more important than regular links rests on a wide-spread misconception. We tend to think that a reference between distanced notes is less significant than reference between two notes placed next to each other. Linear arrangement of notes in the form of an array or a list can deceive us into thinking that each note has only one parent - note that is one level above in the sequence. For example, 3b1 is a parent of 3b1a and 3b1b. Therefore, it is easy to overlook that some of the references written on the card are also parents. Reference is an abstraction of location, and note contextually exists in more than one location.

Nesting presupposes linear branching, while Zettelkasten thrives on radial branching. It is not possible to portray radial branching in the physical slip-box, where notes organization is linear, in the form of a one-dimensional chain. If note belongs to three sequences, in radial branching the first note of each sequence should be equally distanced from the observed note. It ensures that, in the moment of interaction, we will be able to compare these sequences objectively and choose one that is currently relevant regardless of its position and context.

If we are not able to see all these linked notes at a glance, we will be biased towards the closer one, although it might not be the most relevant. At this point, it is fair to say that Folgezettels are not the source of the problem. Friction is a result of our flawed capacity to be impartial.

Understanding the purpose

Before discussing possible solutions, it is fair to ask: “Do we even need sequences?” If we decide to supplement the main idea with a few questions, or arguments and counter-arguments, written on a new note, it is practical to store this group of notes as a sequence. Few months down the line, we might find one note from this sequence through its reference and decide it is a good argument we could use in our writing. To size the opportunity to add even more arguments, or to find something more suitable, we must have a clear record of all notes from the same sequence.

Also, every time we add a reference to the note, we are investing it into a context. If we decide one day that a specific context related to that note is of interest for our current thinking, it is useful to have the option to see other notes related to the same context. It provides essential clarity we need to articulate our ideas.

The third purpose, tied mostly to the physical slip-box, is faster navigation. We can think of sequences as clusters, points in the collection, which are getting the biggest portion of our attention. It means that we are interacting with them quite often. Therefore, it is practical to have linked notes positioned close to each other, so we can spend less time skimming through the box in pursuit of the connected notes.

Battling the bias

If we adopt the assumption that Folgezettel is a special type of reference between notes, we are getting too attached to nesting as a method of keeping track of sequences. And there is a better way.

Let’s take a look at the 3b1 note one more time. As we said, it is related to notes 3b, 4c11, 4d, and 7a10. We want to keep track of all these sequences, so we will use separate notes instead of ID nesting method. At the top of each sequence note, we add a short description of what topic or question the sequence is tackling. We add a list of notes that belong to the sequence, with their corresponding IDs and titles. In a digital database, it is easy to insert a new line, while in the physical slip-box we will need to re-write the note from time to time.

If one note belongs to more than one sequence, this method will protect all of them, instead of favoring just one.

One idea becomes a functional part of more than one branch.

We can’t predict what branch will be important to us in the future. Therefore, we must keep all branches available for further expansion. We decided against categorization by topics, but imposing categorization by favoring certain references is just as bad and limiting.

Digital implementation

Using physical slip-box in today’s world seems like a complete waste of time, space and paper. I still believe that my thinking is not the same while I type on the computer and while I am writing with pen and paper. But I can’t deny that digital workspace has some advantages.

In the digital workspace, we can ditch alpha-numerical IDs, and liberate our minds of thinking in one-dimensional sequences. We can use titles, simple consecutive numbers, timestamps, or a combination of timestamps and titles. ID is not tied to the location anymore. It is just a unique identifier.

Each time we create a new note, we will add a timestamp, title, content, and references. If we have sequences that the new note can enhance, we will add it there. Folgezettels are now outlines written on separate notes, as we mentioned in the previous section. Since we are working with digital workspace, if we need to insert a new note in the middle of the outline, all we have to do is hit the Return key.

To see all sequences the note belongs to, we will add the ID of each sequence note to the original note as a reference.

We can freely decide, at the moment of interaction, which thread we want to follow. We don’t have to follow the same path every time just because we can track only one sequence with traditional ID nesting.

Folgezettels for the long-run

We are not constructing Folgezettels inside the slip-box as an outline for our writing, although we can use them for that purpose as well. Everything that is in the slip-box is abstracted from any project type of organization. Projects come and go, but slip-box is there to outlive them all. The main reason for creating sequences inside the slip-box is to have an elaborated, well-articulated context for our ideas and thoughts.

All decisions we are making today regarding links, content, or contextual branching are there to increase the re-mixing potential of our notes. They are not there to be absolute truths. They will evolve and change with time. Therefore, we must keep in mind that everything we add to the slip-box is not there because we need it today. It is there because it will be helpful months or years from now in a way that can’t be preconceived at this moment.

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Aspiring learner, passionate about physics, math and the world in between, writing about personal experiences, sharing inspiring discoveries