Obsidian Is a Good Idea! Again.

For years I've been looking for a way to keep an organic, self-organizing system of notes, something that ties all my thoughts together so that I can get at the ones I want based on what I'm doing.

In my life I've looked for this over and over again. Andy Hunt wrote about keeping a personal wiki and spending time “Wiki Gardening” in his excellent book Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, and I've tried to follow that advice. Any time I've been good at “Wiki Gardening” has been a mentally productive time in my life.

Here are a few I've tried:

Tomboy was doing this well over a decade ago. Its only problem is that it's fiddly to set up on anything other than Linux.

VoodooPad was doing this well over a decade ago. Its only problem is that it's Mac-only, and keeps changing hands. Well, also it's weirdly locked into a RTF-style format, and a proprietary database format.

I even made one of my own when I was still using Sublime Text, cleverly called SublimeWiki. It didn't have cool graph features, but it was pretty cool overall. I liked it.

The newest hotness in this space, of course, is Roam. Roam is this linked-note, graph database style research tool. Excellent! We should make new ones that work on everything! It has new features like embedding notes inside of other notes! (like IA Writer ...) It makes a cool graph database! That is genuinely awesome!

Roam is probably great. It's entirely possible that in a month I will be writing a new post about how I started using Roam and I will never be able to go back to anything else. It's happened before!

Except...

I'm uncomfortable with two aspects of Roam:

  1. Monthly/Annual/5-Year charges
  2. Cloud based

I still have my Tomboy notebooks from well over a decade ago. I pulled all the data out of them long ago, but I have the originals just in case. I still have my VoodooPad notebooks, although they are in more danger because of the aforementioned proprietary format and RTF nonsense. And my OneNote notes (also proprietary). And my Evernote notes(ditto...). And my Bear notes...and I'm not paying to store any of them.

It must be cost effective to let my knowledge repose in your knowledge repository. —Nate Dickson, just now

I've spent years working in IT and CS, so I'm savvy when it comes to keeping data safe and moving it from system to system when I upgrade computers. I realize a lot of people want to use a good note-taking system without building and maintaining a NAS. In that situation Roam is probably a good deal!

But I want to be sure I can use my notes in 2032, regardless of Roam's corporate management. Looking at some of my collections of notes, there are files that have gone eight years between access events, and have been valuable to me eight years after creation. What happens if Roam (or any cloud service) goes belly up between the time I last used their service and the time I need that data again?

Speaking of being cloud based...well, it's kind of the same problem. “Cloud based” solutions are great, but what are you trying to accomplish? If it's “My data is on any system I happen to be using” then we can solve that problem in other ways, and retain control over our files at the same time. If the problem you're solving is “I don't want to/can't install native apps on each of the systems I use” then cloud is a good option. But you have to watch the cost, and you have to be vigilant about your data stewardship.

What I Like Better

However, I'm grateful to Roam for inducing me to look into graph note systems again. That research introduced me to Obsidian. Obsidian lives in files on your computer, written in regular ol' Markdown, meaning even if Obsidian dies you can still access them. Or you can edit them in vim, or NVUltra, or whatever comes next. The feature sets may not be 1:1 identical, but the things that Obsidian may be lacking are more than compensated by the added control I have over my information.

I've been playing with Obsidian today, and just for fun I've been playing around with opening my Obsidian files in other editors and note taking systems. It works just fine! My files are safe, and they're synced to all my computers via the magic of shared folders. I'm impressed with Obsidian's feature set, I'm happy with their price, and I'm happy to see my files where I can keep an eye on them.

I’m publishing this as part of 100 Days To Offload. You can join in yourself by visiting 100 Days To Offload.

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