A note taking problem and a proposed solution

tl;dr

It’s too painful to quickly get frequent notes into note taking and related platforms. Hypothes.is has an open API and a great UI that can be leveraged to simplify note taking processes.

Note taking tools

I’ve been keeping notes in systems like OneNote and Evernote for ages, but for my memory-related research and work in combination with my commonplace book for the last year, I’ve been alternately using TiddlyWiki (with TiddlyBlink) and WordPress (it’s way more than a blog.)

I’ve also dabbled significantly enough with related systems like Roam Research, Obsidian, Org mode/Org Roam, MediaWiki, DocuWiki, and many others to know what I’m looking for.

Many of these, particularly those that can be used alternately as commonplace books and zettelkasten appeal to me greatly when they include the idea of backlinks. (I’ve been using Webmention to leverage that functionality in WordPress settings, and MediaWiki gives it grudgingly with the “what links to this page” basic functionality that can be leveraged into better transclusion if necessary.)

The major problem with most note taking tools

The final remaining problem I’ve found with almost all of these platforms is being able to quickly and easily get data into them so that I can work with or manipulate it. For me the worst part of note taking is the actual taking of notes. Once I’ve got them, I can do some generally useful things with them—it’s literally the physical method of getting data from a web page, book, or other platform into the actual digital notebook that is the most painful, mindless, and useless thing for me.

Evernote and OneNote

Older note taking services like Evernote and OneNote come with browser bookmarklets or mobile share functionality that make taking notes and extracting data from web sources simple and straightforward. Then once the data is in your notebook you can actually do some work with it. Sadly neither of these services has the backlinking functionality that I find has become de rigueur for my note taking or knowledge wrangling needs.

WordPress

My WordPress solutions are pretty well set since that workflow is entirely web-based and because WordPress has both bookmarklet and Micropub support. There I’m primarily using a variety of feeds and services to format data into a usable form that I can use to ping my Micropub endpoint. The Micropub plugin handles the post and most of the meta data I care about.

It would be great if other web services had support for Micropub this way too, as I could see some massive benefits to MediaWiki, Roam Research, and TiddlyWiki if they had this sort of support. The idea of Micropub has such great potential for great user interfaces. I could also see many of these services modifying projects like Omnibear to extend themselves to create highlighting (quoting) and annotating functionality with a browser extension.

With this said, I’m finding that the user interface piece that I’m missing for almost all of these note taking tools is raw data collection.

I’m not the sort of person whose learning style (or memory) is benefited by writing or typing out notes into my notebooks. I’d far rather just have it magically happen. Even copying and pasting data from a web browser into my digital notebook is a painful and annoying process, especially when you’re reading and collecting/curating as many notes as I tend to. I’d rather be able to highlight, type some thoughts and have it appear in my notebook. This would prevent the flow of my reading, thinking, and short annotations from being subverted by the note collection process.

Different modalities for content consumption and note taking 

Based on my general experience there are only a handful of different spaces where I’m typically making notes.

Reading online

A large portion of my reading these days is done in online settings. From newspapers, magazines, journal articles and more, I’m usually reading them online and taking notes from them there.

.pdf texts

Some texts I want to read (often books and journal articles) only live in .pdf form. While reading them in an app-specific setting has previously been my preference, I’ve taken to reading them from within browsers. I’ll explain why in just a moment, but it has to do with a tool that treats this method the same as the general online modality. I’ll note that most of the .pdf  specific apps have dreadful data export—if any.

Reading e-books (Kindle, e-readers, etc.)

If it’s not online or in .pdf format, I’m usually reading books within a Kindle or other e-reading device. These are usually fairly easy to add highlights, annotations, and notes to. While there are some paid apps that can extract these notes, I don’t find it too difficult to find the raw file and cut and paste the data into my notebook of choice. Once there, going through my notes, reformatting them (if necessary), tagging them and expanding on them is not only relatively straightforward, but it also serves as a simple method for doing a first pass of spaced repetition and review for better long term recall.

Lectures

Naturally taking notes from live lectures, audiobooks, and other spoken events occurs, but more often in these cases, I’m typically able to type them directly into my notebook of preference or I’m using something like my digital Livescribe pen for notes which get converted by OCR and are easy enough to convert in bulk into a digital notebook. I won’t belabor this part further, though if others have quick methods, I’d love to hear them.

Physical books

While I love a physical book 10x more than the next 100 people, I’ve been trying to stay away from them because I find that though they’re easy to highlight, underline, and annotate the margins, it takes too much time and effort (generally useless for memory purposes for me) to transfer these notes into a digital notebook setting. And after all, it’s the time saving piece I’m after here, so my preference is to read in some digital format if at all possible.

A potential solution for most of these modalities

For several years now, I’ve been enamored of the online Hypothes.is annotation tool. It’s open source, allows me reasonable access to my data from the (free) hosted version, and has a simple, beautiful, and fast process for bookmarking, highlighting, and annotating online texts on desktop and mobile. It works exceptionally well for both web pages and when reading .pdf texts within a browser window.

I’ve used it daily to make several thousand annotations on 800+ online web pages and documents. I’m not sure how I managed without it before. It’s the note taking tool I wished I’d always had. It’s a fun and welcome part of my daily life. It does exactly what I want it to and generally stays out of the way otherwise. I love it and recommend it unreservedly. It’s helped me to think more deeply and interact more directly with countless texts.

When reading on desktop or mobile platforms, it’s very simple to tap a browser extension and have all their functionality immediately available. I can quickly highlight a section of a text and their UI pops open to allow me to annotate, tag it, and publish. I feel like it’s even faster than posting something to Twitter. It is fantastically elegant.

The one problem I have with it is that while it’s great for collecting and aggregating my note data into my Hypothes.is account, there’s not much I can do with it once it’s there. It’s missing the notebook functionality some of these other services provide. I wish I could plug all my annotation and highlight content into spaced repetition systems or move it around and modify it within a notebook where it might be more interactive and cross linked for the long term. Sadly I don’t think that any of this sort of functionality is on Hypothes.is’ roadmap any time soon.

There is some great news however! Hypothes.is is open source and has a reasonable API. This portends some exciting things! This means that any of these wiki, zettelkasten, note taking, or spaced repetition services could leverage the UI for collecting data and pipe it into their interfaces for direct use.

As an example, what if I could quickly tell Obsidian to import all my pre-existing and future Hypothes.is data directly into my Obsidian vault for manipulating as notes? (And wouldn’t you know, the small atomic notes I get by highlighting and annotating are just the sort that one would like in a zettelkasten!) What if I could pick and choose specific course-related data from my reading and note taking in Hypothes.is (perhaps by tag or group) for import into Anki to quickly create some flash cards for spaced repetition review? For me, this combination would be my dream application!

These small pieces, loosely joined can provide some awesome opportunities for knowledge workers, students, researchers, and others. The education focused direction that Hypothes.is, many of these note taking platforms, and spaced repetition systems are all facing positions them to make a super-product that we all want and need.

An experiment

So today, as a somewhat limited experiment, I played around with my Hypothes.is atom feed (https://hypothes.is/stream.atom?user=chrisaldrich, because you know you want to subscribe to this) and piped it into IFTTT. Each post creates a new document in a OneDrive file which I can convert to a markdown .md file that can be picked up by my Obsidian client. While I can’t easily get the tags the way I’d like (because they’re not included in the feed) and the formatting is incredibly close, but not quite there, the result is actually quite nice.

Since I can “drop” all my new notes into a particular folder, I can easily process them all at a later date/time if necessary. In fact, I find that the fact that I might want to revisit all my notes to do quick tweaks or adding links or additional thoughts provides the added benefit of a first round of spaced repetition for the notes I took.

Some notes may end up being deleted or reshuffled, but one thing is clear: I’ve never been able to so simply highlight, annotate, and take notes on documents online and get them into my notebook so quickly. And when I want to do something with them, there they are, already sitting in my notebook for manipulation, cross-linking, spaced repetition, and review.

So if the developers of any of these platforms are paying attention, I (and I’m sure others) really can’t wait for plugin integrations using the full power of the Hypothes.is API that allow us to all leverage Hypothes.is’ user interface to make our workflows seamlessly simple.

This post was originally published on Chris Aldrich

Annotation posts >> Highlight posts

Because they’re so similar, I’ve decided to discontinue the custom highlight posts my site had in lieu of the more prevalent annotation post kind. The layout and format of both as highlighted text quoted from another site was almost exactly the same with the primary difference being my additional commentary added to the highlighted text to call it an annotation. Conceptually I considered “highlight + commentary/reply = annotation”. The difference is marginal at best–pun intended.

Since I only had 13 highlight posts versus 121 annotation posts (plus various additional annotations and highlights which I’ve rolled up into the body of some of my read posts) over the last year and a half, I felt it seemed redundant and bothersome to maintain two separate, but nearly identical post kinds. Semantically one may think of a highlight on some text as an annotation anyway, thus the idea of annotation subsumes that of a simple highlight.

As of this evening, I’ve changed all the custom highlight posts to be of the annotation kind. Other than the one word visual difference of the post kind text changing from “highlight” to “annotation” this change won’t affect much except for those who may have been subscribed to the highlight feed. Going forward you may consider subscribing to my annotation feed instead.

I had created highlight posts first, but in the end annotation posts have won the day. And for those that don’t have them, fear not, because honestly annotation posts are really just glorified bookmarks with custom text in the context. (The glorification only entails a highligher icon instead of a bookmark icon and a bit of CSS to color the text yellow.) I do find having them delineated for my personal research purposes useful though.

This post was originally published on Chris Aldrich

I’ve been seemingly “away” from my online presence for several months, but felt it’s time to come back to posting publicly a bit more frequently. Some of the hiatus has been set aside for crafting some new workflows for posting more content privately for a slightly different version of my commonplace book. 

While I’ve learned a lot in my experiment, I’ll have to ruminate on it a bit longer before writing any specific takeaways. One of my favorite portions has been some work to pull more data out of the books I’m reading in terms of highlights, notes, and marginalia for research purposes. 

In general, not much has changed here directly, but I will have to get used to the the posting interface and some of my old workflows again. I’ll also need to get around to some general updates and fixes that I’ve let slide for far too long. I’ll also have to catch up on some change logs for things that have improved since my hiatus began.

I will say that while I’ve been very productive during my hiatus, which has included stepping away significantly from other forms of social media consumption as well, I also very much miss interacting with a lot of my online friends and colleagues on a more regular basis. It’ll be good to ease back into my feed reader and see what everyone has been up to for the past several months.

was originally published on Chris Aldrich

Quickly making watch posts on my website

I was reading about how Cathie LeBlanc sometimes felt overwhelmed about logging the movies she’d recently seen:

I have to be better about posting my movie “reviews” more quickly. I get overwhelmed thinking that I need to write something about the movie when really the whole point of me doing these reviews is just to record what movies I’ve seen. So this month, I’m writing very little about each of these viewings.

I always had this problem too and finding quick and easy ways of posting them before I forgot became part of the solution. I’m not sure I’ve fully documented what I’ve been doing, but it’s slowly changed over time, so I thought I’d take a moment to write down some of the faster methods I use or have used.

One can always use the WordPress mobile posting app, bookmarklets in conjunction with Post Kinds, or even posting via email, but it usually takes a few minutes and can distract from conversations and family/friends when they’re around. Generally I’m looking to immediately capture the title of the film/tv show, the date/time stamp, and maybe the location. Later on, when I’ve got a few extra minutes, I’ll come back and optionally add details/context like poster art, cast, crew, etc. and a mini review with a rating. The method you use will depend on what kind of display you want and how much detail you’d like. At the end of the day, do what works best for you.

Checkin Method

I’m a relatively avid user of the Swarm app (fka Foursquare), so I’ll often take a photo of the movie poster, ticket, theater/other while I’m at the theater and then quickly checkin on my phone. Swarm typically has some interface to indicate which movie I’m seeing when I check into movie theaters. Otherwise it’s pretty easy to manually type things in while I’m waiting for the show to start. Once the movie is over I can discretely can go back to the checkin and add a few quick comments and a rating without disturbing the rest of the party, otherwise I’ll revisit it later.

To get this all on my website I’ve set up the Micropub plugin and configured OwnYourSwarm (for public/private posting–you choose), and the service takes care of posting all the data for me as a checkin so that I don’t forget. In the end it’s usually less than 10 seconds, and I’ve got the data I need as it happens.

Traditional PESOS watch method using IFTTT

This alternate PESOS method can be done using popular services like IMDb.com or Letterboxd.com and relies on using RSS feeds from them to pipe content to my site using IFTTT.com. (Other silo services may be able to do this as well.) Most often I send the URLs of movies/tv shows of what I watch from IMDb to my Reading.am account which has an RSS feed to trigger IFTTT.com that, in turn, creates a draft post on my website. (If only IMDB.com had a usable RSS feed, I could skip the Reading.am account. Typically I’ll search for the movie on IMDb, share that from my browser to may email client and email it to a custom Reading.am email address that autoposts it to my Reading.am account.) Later I can peek in on it, add a mini-review and rating if I like, and publish publicly or not. Letterboxd can be used similarly, but it has the added benefit of having a rating system built in so it can send that data as well.

Hopefully they’ll resolve with a logged in account, so here are the two IFTTT.com recipes I’m using as reference:

(If you can’t access the recipes to recreate your own, let me know, and I’ll manually delineate all the relevant settings.)

Both methods will work without it, but I’m also using the Post Kinds plugin to create explicit watch posts which have a nice contextual presentation which I kind of like. It also has the ability to parse URLs to create the context quickly, so if you put in an IMDb or Letterboxd URL, it will fetch artwork, cast, description, etc. automatically and there’s no need to cut/paste.

Examples

To get some idea, here are some interesting examples of these methods.

If others have better/faster methods, I’d love to hear them or see them documented. Perhaps one day someone (or maybe even IMDb or Letterboxd) will build a custom Micropub client specifically for watch posts (something akin to Teacup for food/drink or Indiebookclub for reading) that will automatically poll the data related to a film/television title and post it to one’s site?

Quickly making watch posts on my website was originally published on Chris Aldrich

Lurking, Twitter, The Commons, and Private Posts

Lurking

Yesterday I was catching up on chat logs and ran across a stub for lurking on the IndieWeb wiki. I cleaned up the formatting a bit and added some additional material. Later Ton Zijlstra dropped a link to his excellent article from 2004 on the topic: Lurking and Social Networks (though honestly, I first came by the link courtesy of our good friend Jeremy Cherfas who added it to the wiki page).

Lurking is the quiet watching/listening that what many people of the web do in chat rooms in order to begin gauging culture, learning jargon or lingo, and other community norms or unspoken principles before diving in to interact on a more direct level with other participants.

While the word lurking can have a very negative connotation, online it often has a much more positive one, especially in regard to the health and civility of the commons. Rather than rehash what Ton has done an excellent job of doing, I won’t go into the heavy details and history of online lurking, but instead, let’s take a look at where it isn’t in today’s social media landscape.

Twitter

Since 2004, Twitter and a slew of other social media has popped up on the scene and changed many of our prior behaviors concerning lurking. In particular, Twitter’s interface has made it far easier to either like/favorite a post or retweet it.

In comparison the the preceding era of the blogosphere represented by Tons’ post, Twitter has allowed people to send simple notifications back and forth about each others’ posts indicating a lower bar of interaction than writing a thoughtful and measured comment. Now instead of not knowing about dozens, hundreds, or thousands of lurkers, a (micro)blogger would more quickly know who many more of their readers were because they were liking or resharing their content. Naturally there are still many more potential lurkers who don’t interact with one’s posts this way, but these interactions in some way are like adding fuel to the fire and prompt the writer to continue posting because they’re getting some feedback that indicates they’ve got an audience. Twitter has dramatically lowered the bar for lurkers and made it more socially acceptable for them to make themselves known.

A mid-century imagining of a Twitter company sign on the side of a commercial building, but aged to the point that the sign is rusted, broken, and decaying from neglect
Twitter image from the collection Social Decay by Andrei Lacatsu

Of course, not all is rosy and happy in Twitterland as a result of this lowering the social bar. Because it’s so easy to follow almost anyone and interact with them, naturally everyone does. This means that while before one may have lurked a blog for weeks or months before posting a response of any sort, people are now regularly replying to complete strangers without an resistance whatsoever. While this can be valuable and helpful in many instances, oftentimes it comes off as rudely as if one butted into the private conversation of strangers at a public gathering. At the farther end of the spectrum, it’s also much easier for trolls to tag and target unsuspecting victims. As a result, we have the dumpster fire that Twitter has become in the past several years for many of its users.

The problem for the continued health of the commons is how can we maintain a bar for online lurking, but still provide some feedback? How can we keep people from shouting and yelling at passer-by from their proverbial front porches or vice-versa? How might we encourage more positive lurking online before directly jumping into a conversation? 

Read Posts and Private Posts

For several years now, as a part of the IndieWeb movement, I’ve been more directly controlling my online identity and owning my content by using my own domain name and my own website (boffosocko.com). While I still use Twitter, I’m generally only reading content from it via a feed reader. When I post to or interact with it, I’m always publishing my content on my own website first and syndicating a copy to Twitter for those who don’t own their online identities or content and (sadly) rely on Twitter to do that for them. 

Within this setting, since roughly late 2016, I’ve been posting almost all of what I read online or in books, magazines, or newspapers on my own website. These read posts include some context and are often simply composed of the title of the article, the author, the outlet, a summary/synopsis/or first paragraph or two to remind me what the piece was about, and occasionally a comment or two or ten I had on the piece.

screencapture of a read post on my website
An example read post with context from my website at https://boffosocko.com/2019/06/02/lurking-and-social-networks-ton-zijlstra/

In tandem with these posts, I’m also sending webmentions to the websites of those pieces. These (experimental) read webmentions are simply notifications to the originating site that I’ve read their piece. In our prior framing of lurking or Twitter, I’m sending them the simplest notification I can think of to say, “I’m here lurking. I’m reading or looking at your work.”

I’m not saying that I liked it, favorited it, disliked it, bookmarked it, commented on it,  or anything else, but simply that I read it, I consumed it, I spent the time to interact with it. But in contrast with Ton’s older method of looking at server logs to see what kind of traffic his posts are getting, he can see exactly who I am and visit my website in return if he chooses. (Ton’s old method of sifting through those logs was certainly not a fun experience and the data was usually relatively anonymous and useless.) These newer read notifications could potentially give him a much richer idea of who his (lurking) audience actually is. Then when someone shows up with a comment or reply, it’s not completely from out of the dark: they’ve previously indicated that they’re at least somewhat aware of the context of a potentially broader conversation on his site.

These read notifications are semantically different from likes, favorites, or even bookmarks on other platforms. In fact many platforms like Twitter, which has moved from “stars” (with the semantic idea of a favorite) to “hearts” (with the semantic idea of a like), have so few indicators of reaction to a post that the actual meaning of them has been desperately blurred. Personally I’ll use Twitter’s like functionality variously to mean: “I’m bookmarking this (or the linked article within it) for reading later”, “I like this post”, “I’ve read this post”, or even “I’m acknowledging receipt of your reply to me”. That’s just too much meaning to pack into a silly little heart icon.

Because I’m using my own website over which I have complete control, I can make it do a better job of unpacking some of this semantic tom-foolery. I’ve written about it a bit in the past if you care to see some of the details: Thoughts on linkblogs, bookmarks, reads, likes, favorites, follows, and related links. See also: the read-posts tag on this site.

If they choose, some website owners display these read post notifications in one or more ways. Some sites like Aaron Parecki’s or Jeremy Keith’s will show my interactions as bookmarks. Others, primarily WordPress-based websites that support Webmention (via plugin), will actually show these interactions in their comment sections under the heading “Read” and display my photo/avatar as an indicator that I’ve interacted with that post. In the case of read posts on which I’ve written one or more comments, the receiving site also has the option of showing my interaction not as a read/bookmark intent, but could also show my comments as a reply to their post. I’ve written a bit about this and its potential for large news outlets before in Webmentions: Enabling Better Communication on the Internet for A List Apart. There are also some older legacy sites that might show my interactions as a trackback or pingback, but these seem few and far between these days, particularly as those systems are major targets for spam and the Webmention protocol has a richer interaction/display model.

screencaputure showing how Jeremy Keith displays my read post as a bookmark. The relevant section reads: "# Bookmarked by Chris Aldrich on Thursday, April 11th, 2019 at 1:31pm"
How Jeremy Keith displays shares, likes, and bookmarks (including my read post) in the comment section of his website.
Facepiled Likes, Reads, and Mentions in the comment section of the online newspaper with a heading "Reading" under which appears an avatar indicating one person has read the article.
The display of a read post on ColoradoBoulevard.net

A new itch

But as I think about these read posts, lurking, and being more civil on the internet, I have a new itch for some functionality I’d like to add to my website. I very frequently use my website as a digital commonplace book to collect links of things I’ve read, watched, and listened to. I’ll collect quotes, highlights, and even my own marginalia. As I mentioned above, my read posts sometimes have comments, and quite often those comments are really meant just for me and not for the author of the original post. In many cases, when my comments may be too egregious, sensitive, or perhaps even insulting to the original author, I’ll make these posts private so that only I can see them on my site.  Of course when they’re private, no notifications are sent to the site at the other end of the line.

Sometimes I would like to be able to send a read notification to the site, but also keep my commentary privately to myself. This allows me to have my notes on the piece and be highly critical without dragging down the original author or piece who I may not know well or the audience of that same piece which I haven’t properly lurked (in the positive community-based sense indicated above) to be as intelligently and sensitively commenting as I would otherwise like. Thus I’d like to build in some functionality so that I can publicly indicate I’ve read a piece (and send a notification), but also so that I can keep the commentary on my read private to either myself or a smaller audience.

I suspect that I can do this in a variety of meta-fields on my website which aren’t shown to the public, but which might be shown to either myself or logged in users. In some sense, this is a subset of functionality which many in the IndieWeb have been exploring recently around the ideas of private posts or by limiting the audience of a post. In my case, I’m actually looking at making a post public, but making smaller sub-portions of it private.

To begin with, I’ll most likely be looking at doing this at a small scale just for myself and my commonplace book, as I can definitely see second and third-order effects and a variety of context collapse issues when portions of posts are private, but others who may be privy to them are commenting on those pieces from the perspective of their public spheres which may not be as private or closed off as mine. i.e.: While I may have something marked as private, privy readers will always have the option of copy/pasting it and dragging it out into the public.

For those interested, I’ll briefly note that Sebastiaan Andeweg just wrote Private posts: the move of the checkins which has some useful and related background to private posts. (Of course I remember exactly when I read it.) I also highly suspect there will be a private posts related session(s) at the upcoming IndieWeb Summit in Portland in June (tickets are still available). I’m interested to see what others come up with on this front.

Lurking, Twitter, The Commons, and Private Posts was originally published on Chris Aldrich