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Links and granularity in note-taking systems, plus Veronica Erb on annotating books & other things worth your attention.
INFORMA(C)TION — May 1, 2022
Links and granularity in note-taking systems, plus Veronica Erb on annotating books & other things worth your attention.
Hello! I'm Jorge Arango and this is INFORMA(C)TION: a biweekly dose of ideas at the intersection of information, cognition, and design. If you like this email, please forward it to a friend. And if you're not subscribed, sign up here. Thanks for reading!
An aerial photograph of a network of illuminated highway on- and offramps taken at night.
Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

We’re used to the web as it exists today: content pages and applications you call up with a web browser. These pages and applications are published on servers by individuals or organizations responsible for their content and functionality. The operation is primarily one-way.

The original intent was slightly different; Tim Berners-Lee conceived of the web as a document management system for scientific collaboration. The first browser, WorldWideWeb, had an editing mode: you were meant not just to read documents published by others but also to write your own. The result would be a network of linked ideas you could explore and add to, a living thing that would grow and become more useful over time.

At the core of this vision is the hyperlink: a way to quickly and easily jump from one document to another (or to a specific part of a document.) Hyperlinks existed well before Berners-Lee started his project; the web was just the first instance to be adopted widely. Its success is a testament to the power of the idea coupled with a simple, open protocol.

But today, vastly more people read than publish on the web. And someone could conceivably use the web for years without realizing that linking is something they can do. The system’s client-server structure discourages users from thinking of themselves as authors.

Next-generation note-taking tools such as Roam and Obsidian harken back to the web’s original vision as a hypertext document management system. Like the web itself, links make these tools different. They encourage the creation of independent documents that are strung together in ad hoc clusters.

Many previous digital note-taking apps also support links. For example, Apple’s Notes app lets you create links in a note. However, Notes.app assumes you want to link to things outside the app, such as web pages. It doesn’t make it easy to link from one note within the app to another.

What’s new with tools like Roam and Obsidian is ease-of-use: they remove most of the friction in linking. By using a very simple text protocol, they let you create inline links to other notes or create new notes that become linked automatically to whatever you’re working on, without having to think too much about it.

The ability to quickly and easily link notes within the app changes how you use it and how you think. Rather than write down all ideas related to a particular topic in a single note, you can create individual notes for each concept and string them together using links.

The main advantage of this approach is that individual ideas can inform more than one topic. Notes can be part of different networks or threads, which you, as the author, can compose on the fly. Ideas suggest other ideas, which you capture in the system as well, leading to several different clusters that share some ideas in common.

More alluringly, you can point AI agents to trawl through your notes to find patterns between ideas that you may have missed. That’s how I use Obsidian with DEVONthink: the former is how I capture granular notes, and the latter lets me spot possible relationships between them.

The results can be quite powerful. But it works best if you capture ideas granularly — i.e., one note for one idea.

We’re not used to thinking this way. Most of us were taught to take notes linearly. For example, when listening to a lecture, we write down ideas in the sequence we hear them. The result is one or more (long) pages with a bunch of ideas presented in a fixed sequence. We don’t think to start a new note with every new idea we hear in the lecture.

This isn’t intuitive. Karl Fast and I delivered our first workshop on this subject a couple of weeks ago, and one of the biggest concerns we heard from participants was the challenge of taking notes in this more granular way. It seems most of us are deeply vested in the linear “all-in-one-go” approach to note-taking. But to create effective hypertext repositories, New idea = new note is a muscle we must flex.

And these apps make it easy: you can type out a longer note as you would in the past and later extract individual ideas into separate notes. (Roam makes it even easier: it treats each paragraph as an individually addressable block you can link to from elsewhere.) You can also transclude notes within notes, so you can have the best of both worlds.

Like the original web, the intent is to create a repository of ideas you can use and grow over time. You’re reader and author — but it’s a different type of authoring that asks you to shed assumptions about what a document is. One idea, one note.

The process is still collaborative, but the person you’re collaborating with is a future version of you. Years from now, you’ll serendipitously revisit an interesting idea and consider the many paths that converged on it — and you’ll be thankful you had the prescience to start linking granular notes.


Tweet from @karemcgrane that reads: Someday someone will ask to see my folder structure and I will have to discreetly fire myself from my information architecture job

Upcoming workshops

Information Architecture for Design Leaders 🎯
May 24, 2022 — UXLx (Lisbon)

Also worth your attention

Personal knowledge graphs
A useful overview of what’s new about hypertext note-taking systems such as Roam and Obsidian. Squarely within what Karl Fast and I taught at the IA Conference earlier this month and what I’m writing about in Duly Noted. (H/t Aaron Bradley)

Linking manifesto
“Activating an aptly-placed link to information is easier and faster than searching for the information — and more protective of flow.” An exhortation for software developers to include better linking capabilities in their apps. (H/t Karl Fast)

Covert-Klyn IA Model
“What is the thing you're doing when you ‘do IA’?” Abby Covert and Dan Klyn presented a new information architecture model at this year’s IA Conference. See the linked video for an explanation.

Navigation queries
“To minimize the distance between intent and action, we can query users about their intent and then assist users in their journey.” There’s more to navigation than menu design.

Twitter acquisition
“Let me say upfront: I have no idea what Twitter will be like under Elon's leadership and neither do you. But that's the point.” Insights from Ethan Zuckerman on the possible impacts of this change. (Presented in a Twitter thread, of course.)

Critical thinking
Six things you can do to find more effective solutions to difficult issues.

Systems change
Systems thinking tools and principles from the World Wildlife Fund. (H/t Austin Govella)

Pace layers for organization
An overview and synthesis of various models for tackling organizational challenges. (H/t Tom Critchlow)

The life of Stewart Brand
“What’s the secret to being at the right place at the right time?” A good overview of the new biography by John Markoff, which is fantastic — especially if you want to learn about the origins of tech culture.

103 bits of advice
Kevin Kelly celebrated a milestone birthday by sharing another great list of advice. “Half the skill of being educated is learning what you can ignore.” (Don’t ignore these.)

The Informed Life with Veronica Erb

Episode 86 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with UX design researcher Veronica Erb.

One of the ways I’ve been doing research for Duly Noted is by asking people about their note-taking practices on Twitter. Veronica responded to one of my tweets with a thoughtful thread, and we agreed to discuss it further on the show.

It was great to hear about her process. If you like to read books — especially non-fiction, and especially when looking to learn — it behooves you to listen to this episode.


The Informed Life episode 86: Veronica Erb

Parting thought

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.

— Alfred North Whitehead

Thanks for reading! 🙏
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