What is the exit plan for your notes?
I'm willing to sacrifice both features and UX for the longevity of my notes collection. And right now, I only find longevity in locally stored markdown files, text files that can be opened in any text editor on any device.
Personal knowledge management (PKM) and Tools for thoughts (TfT) are relatively new buzzwords. There is a lot of hype around the Zettelkasten method, books like How to take smart notes, and tools like Roam Research and Obsidian. The toolset for taking notes and the ideas on how to use them took a very big leap forward in a very short time.
But when features like graph visualizations, block references, and bi-directional linking (popularized by Roam, but now “everywhere”) get a lot of attention, less is talked about a more boring part.
By now, it should be clear to everyone that most services and applications eventually fade away when something better rises on the horizon. Applications for note-taking are no exception. Not that many years ago, Evernote was the cool kid in notetaking-town. Today, I don't see that many Evernote advocates around.
But I won’t argue that you should use Roam Research, Obsidian, Athens, Notion, Logseq, Remnote, Bear, Dendron, Foam, or any of the more hyped Evernote alternatives either.
I'm not here to talk about applications or services.
I'm here for the file formats and export features.
Longevity before hype
When I found the Zettelkasten method sometime around 2017, I straight away felt it was the workflow I had been looking for. Just having hundreds of pdfs in Evernote didn't help at all when I needed to remember what I had read earlier. But what the Zettelkasten method propose – having atomic notes on specific ideas, written in my own words and linked together – did.
Since 2017 my private research archive has proven its value several times. Whenever I need to pull ideas out of it, the articles I write become better because I find ideas, concepts, and connections I otherwise would have forgotten about.
But this isn't my first research archive. It's just the latest incarnation of one. And, I hope, the one I will continue to build upon for a long time.
Since 1999, when I started a career as a journalist covering digitalization, I’ve done hundreds (thousands, even?) of interviews, read a huge amount of articles, papers, books, visited a lot of conferences.
The ways technology has consequences both the private and the public sector, individuals, and humanity are complex and often interconnected in many ways. As a journalist, the goal is to connect the dots. In my current role at AI Sweden, the need for a toolset like this is the same. When reading scientific papers on cryptography, I also have to think about implications on privacy, surveillance, etc. This in turn means that a paper on cryptography read years ago for a story about source protection can suddenly become relevant for a story about securing elections.
And if it does, I need a note-taking system that helps me rediscover notes I did years ago. I would love to have an archive that included all my notes from 1999 and forward.
Thinking in a timescale that long into the future makes it obvious to me that you have to avoid lock-in at all costs when it comes to things like a tool for note-taking.
Export is not enough
It’s not unusual for note-taking tools to offer export functionality. But how useful that export is varies a lot. You might have a way to get your data out of the tool, but not always in a particularly useful format.
Some of the tools on the list above do offer export to markdown files, a markup syntax for plain text files developed by John Gruber. But some of the tools, like Obsidian, are natively using markdown. Which is better.
If you rely on export, you can't decide how your data is formatted when exported. Don't be surprised if your exported notes need a lot of work before they are usable in another application.
If you, on the other hand, use a tool like Obsidian, where markdown is the native format, you decide where tags should go, how lists should be formatted, etc. And it is you who decide how the files should be named.
Not all notes need to live forever
The question "How should I take better notes?" is asked over and over again right now. On Twitter, in forums, on Facebook. All too often, the answers are about tools. "I use Roam, you should too!", "Try Obsidian, it's wonderful!" "Notion, all the way!"
But I very seldom see someone ask a question of their own before they answer: "What is it that you want to take notes on, and for what purpose?"
Longevity is not always needed for a note collection.
Every tool has its upsides and downsides, and if you don't have an understanding of the use case – or the technical expertise of the person asking the question – you can never give good advice. No one would answer a question about how to build a house with "Go with SuperHammer 3000 – it’s amazing!"
Many use cases for note-taking are long-term. You take for granted that the notes you make today will be available tomorrow. But how long into the future do you extrapolate? Will the notes be there in one year? In two? Five? Ten?
I'm willing to sacrifice both features and UX for the longevity of my Zettelkasten. And right now, I only find longevity in locally stored markdown files, text files that can be opened in any text editor on any device.
And, thanks to being textfiles, they can also easily be modified in bulk, so that internal links and other things work if or when you decide on another tool. The folder which holds my 3129 notes has moved from Devonthink to EagleFiler to Devonthink to The Archive to Obsidian to Logseq and back to Obsidian. Without very little trouble.
This data portability is not important for all tools. For my to-do lists, I use OmniFocus. And there I'm totally fine with proprietary storage. Should I want to migrate to Todoist, Asana, etc, it's just a few hours of work to move my active projects over manually. What’s already done can be left behind.
It's also true for notes of more ephemeral value.
But putting my personal research archive in a cloud service, with a proprietary file format, and being forced to trust its export functionality?
And as a bonus, you won't only benefit from markdown files in a folder in the future. The benefits are here and now: With text files in a folder, you have separated data from function. If a feature you need is not available in Obsidian, but in Logseq or Devonthink, nothing is stopping you from searching, viewing, or editing your notes collection with the tool providing the feature you need at the moment.