Networked Note-making

Working definition: A link-driven approach to cultivating evergreen notesthat keep evolving and growing over time. I think of it as a private note-making practice that might eventually lead to a public digital garden if you decide to share some of the notes.

Roam Research was my entry point to this style of tool
and it set me on an entirely new path for note-taking, writing, and thinking. Now I’m using Obsidian, but the basic approach is similar.

Key idea for me: let links be the basic organizing principle of collecting and organizing notes (rather than folder hierarchies and tags). This allows thinking to evolve organically and in associative ways – more in alignment with the way our brains work.

The pay-off: getting “compound interest on your thoughts,” as Conor White-Sullivan, the founder of Roam, puts it.

Basic Affordances

In my view, these are the basic features need for a tool to support networked note-taking:

  • Easy to make links: all you have to do is use wikilinks (double brackets [[ ]]) and an autocomplete dropdown helps you select an existing note.
  • Easy to make notes: if you create a link to a note that doesn’t exist, clicking on that note creates a new note.
  • Easy to see how notes are related: bi-directional linking creates an automatic list of any notes link to given note.
  • Easy to maintain links: if you change a title, it automatically update all links referencing that note
  • Easy to link to parts of notes: you can link to blocks and headings in other pages, not just entire notes

These are other common and very useful features that many tools have:

  • transclusion: the ability to embed parts of one page in another (and sometimes entire pages in other pages)
  • a graph showing a visual and interactive representation of your interconnected notes
  • data queries: a framework for making more complex data queries to mine your notes for insights

A Rough List of Networked Note-Making Tools

  • Obsidian – what I’m currently using
  • Roam Research
  • Logseq – A local-first open-source knowledge Roam-style tool
  • RemNote– A Roam Research-style tool that features spaced repetition. Geared towards students
  • Integrates calendars and task management
  • Other interesting variations
    • Notion – a unique combination of notes and spreadsheets/databases; also has bi-directional linking
    • Craft – card-based, interlinked documents; Mac-oriented

New tools seem to pop up all the time so, for a way to explore and compare a number of these apps, see: 24 best note taking apps analyzed over 273 features