A case for MOCs

Maps of Content

When taking notes there are a variety of philosophies about how one should conduct their workflow. No matter the system, the notes one takes start out as individual components to a larger structure. How one chooses to organize that larger structure is a matter of debate. One popular way and one that I think is worth focusing on is to use Maps of Content or MOCs.


Types of Networks

For the purposes of this thought exploration I will focus on three main network types as shown in the image below. The image was developed by Paul Baran in 1964 to show three separate network topologies and their levels of vulnerability in the case of a nuclear attack.

3 networks


Centralized

A centralized network is one in which all notes have a home in a single centralized index node. In a centralized system, there is little flexibility in how to relate notes to one another. There are some specific use cases when this is appropriate, but for an entire collection of notes it is extremely limiting. Using backlinks, one has to travel through the centralized index each time in order to see connections to other notes within the system. Everything is connected, but the strength of the connections are weak and difficult to understand.

Navigating through a centralized network is like moving through a city and constantly having to pass through the town square each time you wanted to move from one location to the next. Obviously this would be highly inefficient and it would be very difficult to notice any other points of interest along the way.

Distributed

A distributed network shows what occurs when an index node is entirely absent. This network is extremely resistant to disruption and is the network topology that Paul Baran chose when deciding which style of network to prioritize for the US military. You can lose a large chunk of your data and still see relevance and connection to other surrounding notes. There is structure, but the connection between two notes on opposite sides of your writing spectrum are difficult to see. A distributed network works much better than a centralized one for finding connections, but is also quite limiting.

One argument for this style of network is that it allows for great spontaneity and a relatively free flow of ideas. Users never have to think about where a note goes in their file system, everything is stored in a single destination and there is rarely a worry about how to organize anything. While true that this allows for great spontaneity, there is also a stark lack of guidance through one’s network.

Navigating through a distributed network is like moving through a city with a map that only shows a two-block radius around you at one time. If you are familiar with the city you will likely get to your destination, but it won’t be very efficient and will take an excessive amount of time and energy. You will however likely find many points of interest along the way, though you will also likely have trouble finding your way back.

Decentralized

Finally, we come to a decentralized network which works quite well for note-taking in most use cases. In this style of network, there is a centralized index node, but as one moves out from the center there are many additional index nodes or, MOCs.

Within this network, users are able to connect notes spontaneously while also having a greater ability to navigate through collections of ideas. Notes are generally stored in a single directory but the network is augmented by adding MOCs to help users collect all relevant notes on a single topic. An MOC can be used in a variety of ways, but generally consist of a broad topic with a collection of backlinks to other notes within.

An example would be:

Cats MOC

Types of Cats

[[Tabby Cats]]
[[Bengal Cats]]
[[Lazer Cats]]

What Cats Like

[[Boxes]]
[[Mice]]
[[Lazers]]


These MOCs can be spread throughout the network of notes to provide much more readily accessible navigation. Navigating through a decentralized network is like moving through a city with a map that shows the large landmarks nearby to help find the path to your destination. The landmarks in no way detract from the spontaneity of finding new points of interest along the way, but they are a tremendous help in re-orienting you and assiting you in finding a new path forward.

Each MOC can stand on it’s own, or can reside within a larger index structure. If you write about many different types of animals for example, you may find it helpful to have an “Animal MOC” which is nested with a larger “Interests MOC”. This methodology allows users to create structure within their notes while also having the flexibility of recording spontaneous thought. Notes can be added to MOCs later after they are written, or simply stay in the main directory forever if they don’t need to be classified further.

Final Thoughts

MOCs allow for the use of whichever individual note-taking philosophy one desires, while also providing a way to add navigational features to their collection of knowledge. They are temporary and flexible, one could do away with their entire MOC system overnight and lose nothing but the organization it provides.

Maps of Content are navigational beacons in the sea of ideas within the nebulous collection of knowledge that arises in one’s “second brain”.

Notes:

  • This was greatly inspired by @nickmilo’s IMF starter kit.
  • While I prefer the term Map of Content one could just as easily call this something else. I like to think of them as maps because it is easy to visualize a map and explain it with anecdotes.
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I like your short essay above, it is an interesting take on networks and how MOCs fit in there.

I am still puzzled by the concept of a MOC, though, so let’s look at your example.

The Cats MOC is a note with links to individual notes. Those individual notes could be tagged with e.g #cat-type and/or #cat-like and/or #cats. Searching for those tags brings up the lists of notes as per the MOC.

Or you could put all those individual notes the MOC links to, in a folder.

Doesn’t the MOC present extra administrative work? According to Nick Milo a MOC is fluid, which means you have to make amendments to it, like adding and deleting links. Similarly, if those notes were all in a folder you would have to keep adding and/or taking notes out of that folder. Admin.

OTOH, if you just have the individual notes with those tags you don’t need to keep amending them.

Another important point Nick makes about MOCs is that they give new insights and new ideas - they “talk”, they clash, they frolic, they “make love” (my words), etc. How does this work? In your example I see a note with some links. How are those links different from the links in any other individual note?

Your emphasis is on navigation/organisation/structure; in addition, Nick also emphasises the new insights. To me it seems MOCs for the nav/org/struc comes at an admin cost that could be avoided with tags, while the admin cost for an improved insight benefit is not clear to me.

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Thanks @Klaas!

For me, an MOC allows me to “structure the structure”. Tags and folders work ok, but they are not great for providing much context to the larger organizational structure of those notes. Searching for #cats will bring up a list of cats fairly randomly, and a folder only allows you to see the notes together with greater grouping. An MOC allows me to look at a larger topic and break it down into smaller pieces.

When working on a large project or with a broad idea this becomes particularly useful. I can format the MOC with nested [[notes]] throughout and fit topics under individual headings. I am also able to make notes about the larger topic contained within the MOC. I am currently studying UX design for example and there are a lot of different topics that fall within the field. Within the MOC I am able to not only list particular [[notes]] but am also able to add other context and resources as needed. I may want to give a brief definition under a subheading, or provide a link or image within the MOC I am working with.

Amending the MOCs can become an issue, but there is no need to keep all or even most of one’s notes within the structure. Again, they shine with particular projects or ideas where I want to be able to quickly look at all the notes in one place and move outward from there. The admin cost personally is 100% worth it because without the MOCs I would be lost!

The beauty of MOCs is that you can (and should) still tag your notes with whatever system you work with currently. It is not meant to replace any structure you have now but simply to build upon it. The admin cost is negligible because MOCs help me to bring things together and help to map out how I want to interact with a particular idea, project, etc.

Does that make sense? Basically, MOCs lend structure to my structure and allow me to create “landmarks” which help me to navigate through large and complex topics.

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Thanks for replying. I have been struggling withthis subject, feeling there is something useful, yet not being able to get my head around it. I have always been a slow thinker, but now I believe I understand the function and usefulness of a MOC.

To use your example, on the MOC note you could e.g. next to [[Tabby Cats]] write a short explanatory sentence of what tabby cats are, or where you picked up that name, or …… whatever.

Next to [[Bengal Cats]] you could insert an image of such a cat, or a map of the region of Bengal, or …… whatever.

That way, for your Cat project, you have a link to all the relevant notes, as well as some context (you could call it metadata) about certain aspects.

And when the project is completed, you will keep all the individual notes, but you can decided to keep the MOC too or ditch it.

In other words, a MOC is 1 notes that brings together all the info + metadata about the project.

Have I understood it well, or am I still off track?

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@kai I think your explanation hasn’t dived into how structures in networks enable power. Here’s a note of mine on this topic. I do think it contributes to a case for MOCs, hopefully it helps !

@Klaas I agree that MOC takes extra administrative work, but the benefits may justify it.

Maps of Content enables power through Structural Centrality

The power of Maps of Content can be expressed through it occupying advantageous positions in networks of relations. Although the context in which the idea of Structural Centrality and Power appeared is social, the power can be re-interpreted for note-taking activities.

A MOC can be thought of as a (relatively) central actor. In the study of centrality and power, there are three structural properties that give rise to power: degree, closeness and betweenness.

Selection Power

A central actor who has higher degree has more opportunities and alternatives than others (a.k.a selection power). This means that a MOC can represent a larger number of combinations between multiple ideas.

This is intuitive, since if you are connecting multiple ideas to form a larger narrative,
putting that narrative in any particular note it references would de-atomize that note. Naturally, a note that connects many ideas has a (relatively) higher degree.

Practically speaking, a multidisciplinary study which provides many directions, complex contrasting arguments which are still in development would benefit from a MOC due to this property, as it allows more rooms for permutations and re-combinations of ideas.

Influencing power

The second property of structural centrality that gives it power is closeness. Power comes from the fact that central actor can be a “reference point” which other actors use to judge themselves, and the central actor’s voices and opinions are more easily heard (a.k.a influencing power).

This argument is more understandable in the context of social power. However, it may
be interpreted that a MOC acts as a “reference point” by enabling us to consider the relevance of new (or existing) notes to it. This is the case (though not exclusively) when you are writing a book which has a grand narrative. The MOC is the grand narrative, and new or existing information can be organized or re-framed so that it modifies or extends this grand narrative.

Brokering power

The final structural property that enables power is betweeness. For multiple parties
that have no other connections except between one actor, then that actor
is at an advantageous position. It benefits from “service charges” of
brokerage and the power to isolate or prevent contracts.

Back to the multidisciplinary study example, perhaps there are two ostensible concepts that, through the course of developing this multidisciplinary study through various contrasting arguments that may not make sense on their own (yet), are distinguished clearly.

The exchange of information between these two concepts would happen through
the MOC. Since the concepts are distinguished clearly, they are no longer ostensible, and thus the MOC provides us the power to prevent two concepts from (incorrectly) transferring.

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I think I understand your point and I’ve also pondered quite a bit on whether the effort required to maintain an MOC is worth it. I’ve realised that for many cases it actually makes sense if you see an MOC as either a project or a perspective (like in Omnifocus).

From Nick Milo’s example vault, the most interesting one I found was the Quotes MOC and all it had was a list of tags ( #onLife, #onLearning, etc.) categorised by major topics. And that idea changed my view of an MOC totally. I like saving a lot of quotes and I’ve been trying to restrict myself to use only up to 3 tags per quote, otherwise the tags go unwieldily. Even with that, I end up having a lot of tags and this is not even considering the tags used in other types of notes. With the inability to manage tags like organise them hierarchically with groups that we can fold/unfold and search with multiple tags, it becomes tedious to even keep track of all the tags we have from just the tags pane. With a MOC, however, two things happen without much effort,

  1. Whenever adding a new quote, we can quickly refer to the Quotes MOC for an existing list of all tags used in quotes before. This reduces the possibility of creating tags with similar meanings like say #onLife and #onLiving.
  2. This becomes an entry point now whenever we are looking to find a particular quote or just in general some quote about certain topics.

Can those 2 things be achieved without MOCs? Sure. For #1, someone had mentioned that they keep a list of all tags they use and always refer to that to avoid synonymous tagging but that sounds like a TOC or MOC itself with the same issue as the tag pane though that it represents all the tags in the system vs the tags for only quotes. For #2, one solution could be prepending tags like #q_onLife, #q_onLove, etc. might solve the absence of tag hierarchy but seems less clean to look at. So I think MOCs solve this in a decent and clean way.

Besides the specific use case for Quotes, I think even generally using MOCs could provide a perspective for what I’m working on right now. In your example of Cats, sure you could tag everything as a #cat and maintain no central list of cats. The problem with that is the lack of filtration. I might have mentioned #cat in both notes about cats themselves but also in my daily notes or some other place where I saved a cat video. While searching then, I cannot find anyway to filter out those entries whereas with a MOC, that is already taken care of. Is a search faster than generating the MOC? Sure. But that one time work saves up many searches (especially complex ones with boolean operators) in the future.

Also, if anyone comments why even save cat gifs in some notes if you want to filter them in searches about #cats, well, if we can’t save cat gifs in our notes, then what’s the point even of taking digital notes? :man_shrugging::grinning:

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I am coming round to the concept of MOC. In fact, if I am not mistaken, it is the as what others call “structural note” or “hub”. I am still waiting for Kai to let me know if my understanding is correct.

Elsewhere, in one of the channels, I explained my use of a “story river” note, which, in effect, is like a structural note or a MOC. The big difference is that the notes mentioned on the story river are transclusions of notes, and they are arranged such that they tell a story. They are “knitted” together with text between the transclusions in the story river note.

This cannot be applied to a project, there a true MOC would be the solution.

=========================================================
A small side issue, though related. You said:

…… someone had mentioned that they keep a list of all tags they use and always refer to that to avoid synonymous tagging ……

That someone was me. I said that I keep a list of all my tags with the sole objective to keep a comfortable, useable number of tags but not letting that get out of control. The way I do that is to have a list of my tags, and next to each one I have synonyms of each. Since my tags are normal English words (I had not specified that before) I could extract synonyms from a couple of dictionaries.

That way, if I want to use a non-existing tag I check my list. If it is not there I decide whether it is worth creating that new tag or dropping the use of it.

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:see_no_evil:My apologies for not remembering. I’ve been participating in a lot of discussions lately on a few discourses, discord groups with many channels and it’s hard to remember everybody!

I do remember your story river concept too. In fact I use it myself for deeper levels of MOC. As an example, I’ve some main first level MOCs like Nick. Interests links to Chess MOC which is a story river transcluding other notes like Chess Lessons, Chess Jokes, People in Chess (which is also transcluded in the main People MOC).

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No problem, Rishi, I am happy to have been able to give you some food for thought, as you have given me. That’s the beauty of these discussions, and it is only human not to always remember who said what when.

That’s helpful @minhthanh3145 I hadn’t thought of it in quite that way before, though I think I had an intuitive sense. The diagrams in the article really helped me to understand the concept in greater detail. As I understand it, MOCs are powerful because of their position within the network. I will have to integrate this idea into my thinking!

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Great thoughts @Rishi! The way that @nickmilo organizes tags within MOCs is brilliant and I am working on customizing his system to my needs currently. MOCS helps me to synthesize information as I organize it as well which helps in understanding the topic I am focusing on at the moment.

Also, cat gifs/memes are life. I’ll just leave this here, my personal curated channel lol: Meow Don’t Be Alarmed

@Klaas I think that is a great way to put it! I am no expert though so however you understand it is perfect :smile: That is the beautiful thing about knowledge, we all get our own perspectives. Info + metadata seems like a good explanation to me personally.

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@Rishi I am new user of Markdown. How are you transcluding content in Obsidian? Do you use another MD editor?

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Obsidian has built in support for transclusion using the syntax ![[link]]. This works for both notes and attachments! And if you want to embed only a section of a note, use ![[link#heading]].

I realize this is thinking of an MOC in extremely simplistic terms but don’t backlinks serve as an automatic index? Linking to the page of your MOC takes just as much effort as creating a tag or moving something to a folder. If you decide to leave the MOC page blank and only use the backlinks as the index then there isn’t any upkeep to deal with.

Personally, I feel it’s best to build an MOC as you go. I’m starting with a page of links and summaries for each note.

Hopes this helps people who are turned off to MOC because it feels like it would be too much work.

I don’t use backlinks that much tbh but the way I see it, is that if you only use MOCs that way then even if it’s a set of links that you gathered you would only have a randomly sorted list of links, whereas the value I see in a MOC is more than just a list of links, I can order them as I want, I can even give small comments to introduce some context as to “Why is this link here?”.

I’ve had both cases happen to me, sometimes I have an idea of a MOC I want to create for a particular topic, and so I create the MOC and then from there I create notes.

Sometimes I want to group notes that currently are not close, i.e., there isn’t a place(note) where I can see them together, so I create a MOC to make such a place.

I am in no way an “expert” on the subject, just wanted to share my thoughts on how I do/see things.

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I follwed the syntax “![[comments]].” and this is what I get doesn’t look transclusion
Confused :man_shrugging:t2:

@kai
@minhthanh3145
@Rishi

The implementation of MOCs seems very convenient to me.
However I have no idea how to actually implementi it in Obsidian… could you provide some guidance for a total rookie?

Thanks

Create a new note, e.g., Shrimp recipes MOC

Add to your Shrimp Recipes MOC note links to all of your notes in your Zettelkasten with Shrimp Recipes.

There you have your new tasty Shrimp Recipes MOC.

:shrimp:

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so basically, the Shrimp recipes MOC would just be the “physical page” where I’d store all related shrimp-stuff.

In this sense it could also being see as the navigation panel through the shrimps universe :crazy_face:

is this correct?

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For two great posts about MOCs, see

In my day-to-day, the MOC is a note, which contains

  • Links to notes.
  • Links to other MOCs.

You can use the concept to, for example:

  1. Bring structure to your ideas
  • Sequence ideas
  • Group ideas
  1. Group projects
  2. Group actions into projects
  3. Define a project
  • Situation, complication, Alternatives, Scenarios, Financial projections, Recommended alternatives, project implementation plans
  • High level design - Processes, Structure, Technology, Capital plans
  • Detailed design
  1. Structures copious Supporting data
  • Present status
  • Financials
  • Operations
  • Interview notes
  • Process maps
  • Sales data
  • Manufacturing data
  • Client data
  1. Group copious notes about a client
  2. Group notes about a disease
  • Symptoms
  • Diagnostic
  • Treatments
  • Drugs
  • Surgical procedures

You’ll find several ideas in the forum about MOCs, if you search for MOC, MOC of MOCs, TOC. I hope that helps.

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