A blogger born in Bulgaria finds a permanent spot in the US Library of Congress for her pursuit of the power of reading. A German sociologist uses his notes to produce more than 70 books and nearly 400 scholarly articles ranging from law to love. Stars on the epaulette of the written word. Their incredible body of work would not be possible without a systematic process of recording, sorting and applying their thoughts.
We’re in the midst of a social and cultural revolution. The power of thoughts and ideas are back in the limelight, ignited by the expansion of a borderless digital knowledge economy. The atomic unit powering this movement is the humble notepad.
In this article I would like to demystify the world of digital note taking systems and where they’re headed. We have briefly spoken about it here.
Let me introduce you to the idea of Networked Note-taking and what it can do to your idea engine. We will also talk about a few applications for this new style of approaching a notes management system.
Journey to Networked Note-taking
In order to understand Networked Note-taking, you must retrace the steps of note-taking itself. Going as far back as the 1500s in Europe, note taking has aided scholars, travelers and scientists to compile their ideas into coherent narratives or treatises. Early consumers of these content maintained notes in the margins of those books, sometimes transferring them to their notebooks to create derivative content.
The advent of computers brought about the convenience of space and removed the limits on the volume of such notes. Software soon caught up with the ability to help classify them. The internet opened the doors to free exchange of ideas born from these notes. Subsequently, these notes found value and meaning in this interconnected space. Now more than ever, it has become important for us to play an active part in the journey from taking notes to inspiring with ideas.
One way to catalyze that transformation is to create a system that encourages you to capture your thoughts and effectively churns the volume of your notes to help you generate usable content.
Planting our feet firmly in the digital note-taking realm, let us look at how some of these systems have evolved.
The Folder discipline
Ever since GUI, we’ve been seeing the Folder Structure. For a long time, operating systems prided themselves on the level of folder nesting and categorization features they offered. People maintained text and word files in folders organized by the compartment of information they deemed it fit for.
For a while, it was good. Computers were largely the tool of offices and a department-wise folder allocation was the norm. It helped the companies work in the silo-based approach that they were used to
Soon, computer usage spilled out of offices into the hands of day to day users and an organic knowledge explosion came about owing to the internet. There was more information in play now than ever before. Folders were now getting in the way.
Tagging helped people cut across folders and were soon threatening to make folders obsolete. Early on, tags became a secondary categorization that lived alongside folders and became a powerful way to tie multiple pieces of information across walled bins.
When tags became the central unit of classification, note-taking became more organic. Not bound by a hierarchy of folders. Instead, part of a flat ecosystem where a note had the potential to have applications across multiple subjects.
A commonly practiced method of following a book or a lecture was to take notes in the order that it was presented in. This helped people mimic the thought pattern of the author or the lecturer.
It was a system that barely required much effort from the note-taker. Unfortunately it also meant that, outside of the context of its source, those notes had no other purpose. Such lecture notes lived and died once it was processed for the purpose of a test or term paper. Original interpretation and insight required different tools.
Non linear note-taking emerged to fill this space.
Universities even taught the students many of the popular ones, ensuring that the system carried on in work spheres for many of them. The Cornell Method, mind maps and ishikawa diagrams became popular for their emphasis on approaching a subject through summarization and visualization. This had some positive impact in improving Learning for Inference.
Building from the flywheel of non-linear notes, and aided by technology, we enter the era of note-taking that understands and replicates how the brain generates ideas
Let’s revisit the German sociologist we spoke about at the beginning of this article. Niklas Luhmann‘s use of a mid 1500s research technique is now at the heart of a revolution in thinking and creating in the age of digital tectonic shifts. It is a note management system called Zettelkasten (German for “slip box”)
Unlike methods that preceded it, which focused on making you understand the concept you were trying to record, Zettelkasten was designed to create a democratic environment for notes to co-exist and link where they may. It promoted new connections between concepts. Niklas Luhmann credited his prolific output to this technique.
The methodology is absorbed an interpreted in Sönke Ahrens’ well received book “How to Take Smart Notes“. What happened once this system gained popularity amongst software developers is the subject of the rest of this article and will become an ongoing topic for us to explore.
The engine of a Networked Note
Bi-directional linking, Backlinks, dynamic hyperlinks, graph view. Lots of buzz, lots to love.
Combining the best of tagging with the url structure that built the internet and some special sauce brought us to networked notetaking.
This is a bio-mimicry in the sense that it mimics how the brain forms associations of new information with existing information and that is how new ideas are born. Let’s talk a little bit about the features offered by networked note-taking tools that make it so unique
This may be the single biggest game changer feature of all. Yet it astonishes in its simplicity.
You write a note, realize it conceptually relates to a different topic within your notes, you link them together. In practice that may just be a keyboard shortcut or a couple of clicks. Now when you visit either note, they will indicate that they have a link that you have identified. That’s it.
Once you build a body of notes and diligently identify interlinks when you come across them, the more they start to lend themselves to an improvised narrative. Here’s the story of how this article itself came to be using backlinks in Obsidian.
It began as a from the notes I’d taken for one of my previous articles. While putting together the research on Learning techniques I had amassed stray notes on the subject of distributed intelligence, zettelkasten and in the same breath, networked notetaking. Having all these notes in Obsidian, and linked through a breadcrumb trail of backlinks helped create the skeleton for this article. Combine that with my ongoing research on Roam and Obsidian, this article just came together by itself.
If you want to know more about using Obsidian, I have a beginner’s guide right here.
Backlinks by themselves are a great game changer, but being able to visualize those connections becomes the icing on the cake. Once you have a sufficiently large body of notes, it becomes difficult to remember what was linked with what at a granular level.
Obsidian knocks this one out of the park. Not only does it offer a fluid visualization of the inter-relation, it also allows finer control over the graph view. Allowing you to establish the direction of the link, restrict or expand the degree of that relationship, adding filters and a host of other tools to harvest your bounty of notes the way you see fit. You can head over here for my practical tutorial on how to use Graph view.
Not all networked note-taking software offer robust visualization. But I would wager that this feature is in its infancy and is going to be the cornerstone of the next breakthrough in networked note-taking.
Having the power to discover and create your own backlinks is a seed you sow that pays great gains in the future. But having undiscovered links pointed to you by the platform itself is, just, perfection.
Roam Research excels at pointing out other notes and info-blocks that carry references to the note you are currently working on or reviewing. You can review their suggestions and determine if this is a valid connection or an unrelated coincidence.
But in either case this is a rewarding experience and it encourages you to revisit your old notes often to see if Roam has discovered any new connections that has escaped your observation. This is serendipitous discovery: The “Aha!” moment when you realize that your notes on thermal responsiveness across the color spectrum explains why your bread recipe needs you to put foil on the loaf in the last 15 minutes of its cooking.
Armed with these tools, the new generation of Networked Note-taking tools are coming out of the niche segments and early adopters to a laptop near you. You could benefit greatly by trying them out inexpensively while they’re still assessing their value in the mass market. But how do you use it in a way that would make its benefits obvious?
Use cases for Networked Notes
I am offering a few scenarios where people from different walks of life can benefit from networked note-taking
Personal Medical records
Suitable for people with chronic illnesses, hospitals, palliative care units and resident caregivers.
Maintaining notes on historically diagnosed conditions, related symptoms, prescribed medication and juxtaposing that against a daily wellness journal can be a life saver in identifying patterns that trigger adverse responses.
This can also become a valuable input for medical professionals in diagnosis as well as research
Here we lean on the remarkable example of Dr Luhmann himself. Using a networked note-taking platform as the primary home of your thinking leads to an interlinked repository of ideas that can be interpreted in multiple ways depending on which thread you choose to follow.
Academic research can also benefit from pooling the interlinked notes of two or more researchers on similar or complementary researchers. Once their collective knowledge spheres find associations within their shared space, it is bound to lead to the kind of output that moved the world (Hardy-Ramanujan, Watson-Crick or Einstein-Grossman).
This includes, Blogging, Journaling or Fiction/Non-Fiction writing.
The journey through ideation, research, outlining, character/chapter development and editing can all benefit from the multi-window environment and quick access to linked notes within these platforms.
As explained earlier, this very blog post was conceived and written across Obsidian and Notion. Both of these platforms contributed to the idea for the the post by visualizing my existing notes from a new perspective and development process with their instant access to linked notes.
The school is an ideal environment for testing the potential of networked notes. When inculcated early, students can create standalone conceptual notes like flash cards. Then proceed to find logical linkages between these concepts.
Learning through such processes of inference and discovery lays the foundation for self learning creating a better equipped body of students.
Platforms like Roam research also enable integrating a spaced repetition framework within it. This makes the platform the perfect solution for assessing your recollection and preparing for tests.
Part of creating a Life OS is to incorporate an active knowledge management engine that would provide the inputs for research and creative output in our personal field. This becomes part of your Creation Hub.
The Cons of current Offerings
While networked note-taking certainly holds the promise to be the engine powering your second brain, it is not there yet. Part of being an early adopter of the development means having to deal with the shortcomings of the current offerings.
If you are planning to try it out for yourself then I would like to appraise you of a few niggles I’ve spotted in the journey
No hand written notes
For a platform that aims to become the central repository of thoughts and ideas, there’s no elegant way to pick up an iPad and Apple Pencil and jot down few notes or to upload a photo of handwritten notes from my bullet journal and have its contents captured by the service.
Unlike OneNote and Evernote which have robust copy-paste and interaction capabilities with embedded spreadsheets, images, PDFs and documents in other formats, the new kids on the block are still guarding their spartan fortress. The trade-off for a distraction free environment turns out to be leaving out rich content features.
However, looking at the growing after-market features being developed, it is imminent that the platforms will expand their native support soon enough. Some of them have already committed to releasing an API in the near future
Poor or No mobile apps
Trying to be the nursery for ideas yet ignoring the primary capture device of thought isn’t the smartest move. Yet as of today, none of the major contenders for networked note-taking have a quick capture system for mobile.
I would add voice notes to my wishlist. But is that asking for too much at this stage, I wonder?
Nascent Integration options
This expands from the “Weak embeds” point earlier. It would be great if my creation engine seamlessly integrated with my other creation or action tools. If Obsidian or Roam Research could connect to Microsoft 365 and ClickUp, I would be able to register myself as a cyborg within the next quarter.
Alright, that’s an exaggeration (is it?). But it would certainly help convert my ideas and notes into output that is linked with the projects being executed on a collaborative platform.
Overview of available options
This article is not aimed to be a review. But I want to list a few options to those of you interested in trying out networked note-taking.
I’ve also included one video-link per option that best describes their note-linking capability and the advantages it brings if you take the plunge.
My primary Networked Note-taking tool currently. Obsidian is a good entry into this field owing to its price (Free!) and its emphasis on privacy of your notes. You can start with a clean interface that helps focused notes creation without worrying about formatting. The backlink creation is simple and the visualization is powerful. The notes are maintained in Markdown making migration, simple and publishing, easy
Learning resource: A Beginner’s Guide to Obsidian
The current darling at the forefront of networked thought. I have mentioned it in earlier articles here. People have gone as far trying to craft an entire Life OS system on the basis of this platform. While starting up on it is simple, unlocking its power involves passing through a learning curve and adopting a freeform mindset for your notes.
Learning resource: Anonym.s Course
A personal favourite for the friendly community of users it has garnered Notion started as a “build your own productivity tool” environment. Their strength lay in built in RDBMS capabilities. But as recently as September 2020 they’ve added support for backlinks within their structure. It is supported within its free tier making them immensely accessible and expanding their capabilities greatly.
I would highly recommend those interested to take their time in learning not just about backlinks but understand the potential of this platform with some patience. It will be worth it.
Learning resource: Bi-directional Linking in Notion
Originally conceived as a study aid, RemNote presents an early look at what networked notes were all about. They present an easy entry into the field of networked notes for those who do not want to be burdened by advanced features. This student’s tool can easily be modified to become a repository of your notes with a built in feature for rediscovering old notes.
Learning resource: RemNote overview and course
Unlike the other tools in this list liquid text does not label itself as a networked note-taking tool. But they have conceptually adopted that exact capability in a touch-friendly environment.
Liquid text started its journey as an excellent iPad research app, allowing users to take notes from multiple documents, link them to their context and sources as well as to each other to illustrate cause and effect. They’ve recently come out with a Windows and Mac interface with ability to seamlessly continue your work across these platforms.
Learning resource: Recent review by Paperless X
Networked note-taking may be a new concept for the digital world. But for the brain, it is a native feature. It should feel intuitive to us but it doesn’t. We have years of linear note-taking conditioned into us from school. Harnessing the power of this would mean unlearning some of the inferior skills that have been burned into our practices.
At an experimental phase, I would highly recommend maintaining a copy of your notes in a networked platform. If you currently keep them in Google Keep, Evernote, OneNote or similar platform then export a copy of your notes into Obsidian or Roam Research
I intend to continue writing about this topic, as it is an essential component of my Life OS. Let me know if you want me to specifically address any use case or feature. You can reach out to me on mail or twitter.
Disclosure: This article may contain affiliate links. Which means that, at no cost to you, I get a small commission if you choose to buy through my links. Please go through my Disclaimer notes for more info