Observing, capturing, synthesizing, and sharing information is at the heart of most knowledge work. This is true for marketers, CEOs, and even sales people. It’s especially the case for me as an industry analyst and content creator.
For many of us, the core of this “knowledge value chain” is a system for capturing notes and ideas for later use, whether that’s via an app, some text files, or a good old-fashioned notebook.
As one who likes to continually evolve my tools and processes to make my work more efficient, I’ve tried a bunch of different approaches over the past 30 years: Moleskine notebooks, Google Docs, and Evernote have all played big roles in my workflow.
That is, until my switch to a tool called Roam Research over a year ago, which changed the way I capture and create knowledge.
Now, this isn’t an article about Roam. You’ll find many of those on the ‘net. Rather, it’s about how Roam—which, full disclosure, I’ve moved on from*—is one example of a new crop of note-taking tools enabling what some call “networked thought.”
What’s emerging with Roam, Obsidian and others in the note-taking space will prove to be as important for those who work with ideas as the advent of the spreadsheet was for those who work with numbers.
The term networked thought being popularized by Roam, while a bit haughty for a note-taking app, actually does a good job of capturing what’s exciting about the current crop of
note taking thinking tools.
Unlike a bunch of standalone notes, these new tools excel (yeah I did that) at allowing you to link one note to another.
The benefits of these inter-note connections are many, ranging from greater discoverability of your notes and sources, easier connection-making between ideas, reduced friction when it comes time to capturing notes or ideas, and bidirectional linking between notes, which is what makes the “net” of ideas “work.”
All this makes it easy to relate ideas fluidly between one another and—when it comes time to synthesize—find everything you need easily.
Some examples of how this plays out for me:
- Each day the system creates a daily note for me, in which I add the details of my day’s activities. Here’s an entry from last year. On this day I worked on setting team priorities for the month and I reviewed my notes from an interview as part of updating my Kubernetes for MLOps eBook.
- By putting a hashtag in front of or double square brackets around any term, I promote that term into a concept that has relevance in my web of notes. I can now click on any of these terms to easily see all my notes on a topic.
- If I’m working on a Kubernetes-related project for example, I can click anywhere on that term (or just search for it) and pull up my note page about Kubernetes. In this case I’ve got some notes made directly on the card, but more important to me are the Linked References at the bottom of the page. These contain “backlinks” that collect all the references to Kubernetes in my notes database.
Here I can easily see references to Kubernetes in my daily notes on several days, including the Interview notes I referred to above, along with a white paper I came across that looked interesting, a to-do to grab some use-case information from somewhere, a cross-reference from my project page for the eBook, a vendor press release, etc.
I’ve never before had such easy and well-organized access to all the information I collect in my work, and this is just a taste of what these tools make possible.
Shoulders of giants
Now, I know, these aren’t necessarily new ideas. I remember my initial fascination with a rather esoteric tool called TheBrain—think mindmapping tool and note-taking tool make a baby—back in the early 2000s.
And the idea of a network of notes or ideas has even more intellectual heritage in the wiki, first introduced by Ward Cunningham in the mid-90s, which in turn took inspiration from Apple’s HyperCard software (80s) and Vannevar Bush’s memex concept (1945).
More to come
Tools like Roam and Obsidian have played a big role in helping to popularize these ideas, mostly by galvanizing fervent communities around them (Roam’s refers theirs as the #RoamCult, an idea I’m not crazy about).
Because they are still pretty geeky though—let’s be honest, you can barely read a blog post about one of them that doesn’t mention transclusion—I think their more important contribution at the moment is in pushing more mainstream tools like Notion to adopt and spread these ideas.
I expect to see much more of this over the coming years. Maybe even boring old Evernote will find a way to include bidirectional links one day. Evernote users are certainly asking for it.
I’d love to hear about your experiences with these types of tools. Do you agree that they’re the start of something big?
* I’m no longer using Roam because I’ve migrated everything to Obsidian. Roam and Obsidian are similar and in some ways I like Roam better, but where Roam is pursuing a SaaS and keeps your notes locked away in a proprietary database (yes, it’s exportable, but…), Obsidian stores all your notes in text files on your computer (or in Dropbox). While I don’t mind paying for great software (and Roam is great), I do worry about the future when a company is arrogant enough to refer to its users as a cult. The jury is still out though and I may be willing to trade off the cost and uncertainty of Roam for its greater ease of use.
Thanks to Gad for feedback on a draft of this post.