Zettelkasten and the Argument Against Category Taxonomies


Mood 🔗Organization
Tags Organization

I recently heard about Zettelkasten as a way to organize information. Glancing over it, it seems like it’s primarily information organized by tags. I have long felt that a system utilizing hyperlinks and tags is the simplest way to keep ongoing notes organized, provided you keep track of your tags.

Don’t use categories. Use tags instead.

This caught my eye because I have long struggled with the utility of “Categories” and how to use them effectively. But just today I was adding some notes to my site folders and I realized I needed a new category (“Code”) to help connect pages that reference code snippets–so there you go. Nevertheless, the argument against categories is an interesting one, and my need to retroactively create a Code category after the fact, when posts have already been created and my brain naturally seeks to connect them in a useful way, fits into the author’s argument that instead of having pre-defined categories you should allow information to organically cluster and topics (category names) will naturally emerge.

Some of this is semantics. In Hugo, categories and tags are just different names for the same mechanism (a taxonomy), and we’ve decided categories are a more top-level taxonomy because that’s how we commonly use the term in blogging. The argument isn’t really that you shouldn’t have categories, but that you shouldn’t have pre-determined categories, especially if you’ve begun blogging or writing on a new subject.

This helps explain my struggle. The only way I could use categories effectively was to add them after the fact, which is annoying and time-consuming, but it’s reassuring to have someone put into words why that organic use of categories is more effective and personal.

Anyway, I haven’t thoroughly investigated it yet but it appears I’m independently using site features that reflect the Zettelkasten organization method on some level. I post information in two main formats–microblog posts like this one, that are really intended to be written-and-done and more stream of thought, and longer formal blog posts that have tables of content and are intended to be updated and improved over time. These are all connected by curated tags and often have linklists at the bottom.

Basic blogging doesn’t quite do what Zettelkasten wants, but it seems like Hugo could be a useful software for this concept. Some of the examples using Neuron look like a sort of hybrid blog/wiki. In fact, Tiddlywiki is also a recommended option for the Zettelkasten method.