Networked Notes

twitter threads, note-taking, tools

Most note-taking apps share a common problem: as you add more notes, the app becomes less useful. Over time, it becomes harder to find what you have stored because you have too many tags, too many folders, and too many notes to search through.

(Link to Twitter thread.)

A new generation of note-taking apps have taken an innovative approach to solve this problem. A bit like how the brain forms more synaptic connections to strengthen the connection between frequently associated concepts,

networked note taking apps allow you to build new connections between related notes, making them easier to find. The secret sauce is the backlink” which shows you all the notes linking back to the current one.

Let’s say you are doing research on golden retrievers.” In an earlier generation of apps you might end up with tags or folders for dogs, pets, retrievers, golden-retrievers, goldenretrievers, golden_retrievers, etc. Over time, your notes will become increasingly fragmented.

This can still happen in these newer apps, but they now give you the tools to solve the problem. For instance, if you make a page listing all these various tags, golden retriever research project,” it will show up in the backlinks for each of the other pages.

Because links are bidirectional, when you go to pets” you will now also see a link to golden retriever research project”. Going there will reveal the other linked pages. You have helped bind these other ideas together by adding new links between them.

Another trick is the ability to merge pages. Renaming dog” to dogs” will go back and rename all links to dog” as well. Similarly, creating an alias, will make dogs” work as a synonym for dog” - so that tagging with either will send you to the same page.

And the automatic linking function in these apps will even surface pages with those words that weren’t explicitly tagged, allowing you to find pages where you wrote dog” instead of #dog” or (as these apps like to do it [[dog]]).

Perhaps, one day in the near future, an AI might be able to go through and do this for us. For now it still takes some conscious effort, but I find the process to be quite organic. It happens as you use the app to do your work.

For instance, when searching for a note you think should be in one place, only to find it somewhere else is a sign that you should add an additional tag or link to that page, creating a new connection. (Or a new project page, like the example above._

One thing that new users find strange is that you are encouraged to put your notes in a blank daily journal” page each day. This makes sense because, by adding links to those notes, you automatically surface them in the backlinks for the topic pages you have created.

So, if I write a note in today’s journal saying: The best [[dog food]] for [[golden retrievers]].” Then, when I go to the golden retrievers” page I will magically see a backlink with today’s date and the full text of that note.

This means you can just start writing, adding links as you work, rather than wasting time trying to find the right place to enter your notes, or having to open a new blank note and then file it away somewhere.

Eventually, if you find that what you are writing deserves its own page, you can do what I did in the first example, creating a special page for that project which links together all the related pages.

You can also embed one note within another. This means that it is easy to draw together notes from different places into one project note without disturbing or duplicating your earlier work. Editing and embedded that note in one place will change it everywhere.

The idea of networked note taking has become so popular that it has become impossible to keep track of all the new apps that have come out, so I’ll just list my two favorites: @logseq and @obsdmd. The first is best if you want an outliner, and the second if you prefer plain text.

Unlike many of these apps, these two both save all your documents on your own computer, as plain text files, rather than in a database hosted on the cloud. They also both have great communities and developer teams behind them. And both can be used for free.