They're designed for storage, not sparking insights. Can AI change that?
Out of curiosity, have you ever had a chance to play with Netbase's Quid Pro?
It's not an app for general consumption, but I used it for a couple of years working for a global consultancy and it had a very interesting mapping function. You could search for topics and parameters in English-language media coverage, then it would lay out all of those articles as related dots on a map, grouping any of proximate topic/association. Then, you could refine and tweak the map to bring out the relevant clouds of topics.
It was particularly interesting for me, because this was a process that I essentially internalised a looong time ago. Before and after learning the mindmap function, I typically used Quid to just open like 40-200 articles on a topic and then just group them in my head around topics. But, over time, I've learnt that this is not a common practice. And, I thought the mind-mapping function might be a way for people to learn to develop that type of thinking.
So, even if you don't ever use quid (it's annoyingly expensive or I'd just have a subscription for fun), that might be a way to explore different thinking approaches? Maybe you could transport your notes to a visual plane or an audio plane? These aren't new ideas, I know, but just thought it could be fun.
Long before he torpedoed any and all social/intellectual/creative credibility, Father Ted/IT Crowd/Unhinged Transphobia creator Graham Linehan talked about how his process for making a sitcom season involved writing down random ideas for a couple of weeks/months, then putting them all on cards, and shifting them around on the floor to connect them all. From these connections, he'd lay out episodes and season plans.
He had this line I always think of: "The actual work of writing isn't really fun at all, so you should always try to trick yourself into making it fun for as much of the process as possible before you actually have to do it."
Useful perspective, even if he is a depressing toilet in today's chronology.
My personal note taking journey went from Bear to Apple Notes to Neovim...but I gotta say re-learning how to journal with an actual paper and pen feels much more satisfying and freeing from the distractions of tech. Ditto for reading paper books again.
Btw I think my generation (millennials) tends to think writing by hand is slow and inefficient - I certainly did, but we mostly judge it by using cheap ballpoint pens and crap paper.
If you want to have a good time: buy a Leuchtturm or Midori notebook, and an entry level fountain pen (Lamy Safari, Pilot Metro) and...don’t ever google for nicer stuff or rip your wallet :)
I love your articles BUT this one in particular hits hard. I love note taking apps and during the entire first half of this I was saying “Obsidian” out loud repeatedly and was so sad you didn’t like it. Give me any app that creates an abstraction layer between myself and universally accepted file type like markdown.
Also I feel like somewhere in the mix of all this is an ode to the humble 32” single screen 4k monitor that allows for single tasking. Just one screen. Doing one thing. Crisply.
Thank you for this Casey! I’m a huge productivity / note-taking nerd too, and my own newsletter lives on an invisible backend of Notion.
Similar to you, I’ve got hundreds of various half-formed thoughts and essays in a kanban, with them moving to the right the closer they get to publication.
I haven’t found a great need (or application) of the Notion AI features, even after being part of the closed beta. I find myself turning to ChatGPT (and the MacGPT app that keeps it ever present in my menu bar) as a sparring partner, when I think myself into a dead-end and need a little nudge in a different direction.
(Related: did you see the TextFX thing from Google? Using LLMs to help writers in creative ways. Very smart application of the tech and a good indication of how Google will be talking about AI going forward, in a way that it can augment human behaviours and practices, and not replace them.)
Long comment which could be more succinctly summed up by saying this is exactly the type of unexpected thing I’ve come to expect from Platformer. More musing, less Musking!
Love this insight about notetaking and productivity apps. It reminds me a lot of the Needlestack Theory.
Back in the day, tech folks said that the internet was like a pile of hay, and we all felt overwhelmed because we were all searching for the needle. But they promised that eventually tools like search and filtering would improve and it'd make it easier for us to "sift through the hay" quickly to find what we were looking for on the vast expanse of the internet.
But what ended up happening --- I guess --- was that search and filtering got too good and converged with social media, pop-up notifications, email alerts, news aggregators etc. Now, we're literally adrift in PILES OF NEEDLES and rarely any hay.
The internet knows exactly what grabs our attention, and serves it to us on a silver platter, and most of us feel more overwhelmed by the endless supply of interesting information than we did by the exhaustive search for the right information.
A real modern-day conundrum. My approach has been finding balance between my digital systems (which make me more efficient) and my analog systems (which still work best with my human brain). For the most part, I take notes by hand, but have a daily and monthly routine for digitizing what's important and sorting it into it's proper spot.
On a daily basis, I also parse information "out of the cloud" (the digital services I use for calendars, project management, etc.) onto paper, and then reconcile those systems at the end of the day. That helps with the trap of going online to use one of these tools, and then falling down into an internet rabbit hole. Having what I need for the day on paper makes a big difference in my focus and productivity. ✌🏻🧡📝
Long-time reader. First-time commenter here.
I see this topic getting a fair bit of coverage lately, besides yourself. This, nevertheless, is the most cutting and useful analysis of the state of note-taking/read-it-later/productivity apps.
Your account of hopping between apps was my life the last few years. I think I was funnelling energy into curating a neat and tidy note space without keeping in mind what I was ultimately doing this for, i.e. to unlock more creative and insightful thought processes for writing, in my case. I happen to be an organizer-type personality, so I guess this heightened their appeal. But that'll only get you so far.
Have you heard of Melon? They're probably worth a try for you. I've been using it most of this year and I like how I can create collections of all media types (e.g. I increasingly find myself encountering interesting human stories and educational shorts via TikTok...). I've heard the CEO's pitch for their upcoming launch and it sounds like they're trying to counter a lot of the pain points up here - AI to pull together all the saved content etc. I'm looking forward to giving it a whirl - cautiously optimistic that it'll be the one that finally gets it right. Who knows.
Keep up the good work.
There’s a difference between notetaking to remember information and generate to do lists versus as a means to writing/journalism.
For the former, I’m reminded of a comment by Jason Fried. I’m paraphrasing, but basically he argues for no physical notetaking. The idea is that if it can’t fit in your brain, it’s probably not a priority so don’t waste the time writing it down and organizing it so you can recall it later.
After running a few startups, I tend to agree. I take notes as a mechanism to retain information in my brain, but rarely find any value in revisiting them.
This is somewhat ironic given Jason owns the successful project management app, Basecamp and my start up just raised quite a bit of money to build a better workplace communication mousetrap. (of which notetaking is a critical component.) 😅
Great article, I've felt the same for years. I've found emailing myself PDFs is the best way to organize and work with articles. I use https://www.emailthis.me/
Which 9/10 sends me a perfect PDF copy of an article even if it's behind a paywall.
New subscriber, here. You had me at note-taking app.
I agree that the promise of Roam and its progeny has gone unrealized and I have a whole bunch of things to say about that, but to push back a sec: What about all the stuff you collected, synthesized, and wrote about while using these tools? I mean they may market themselves as a destination, but they’re really ever only going to be a means to an end. The number and quality of the articles you’ve written and the volume of research you did to inform them is impressive. What might you have used if Roam had never been built? (Apologies.) What would have been different about the process?
I ask because I have the same same same frustrations, and yet I’m learning stuff, and making stuff, and kinda having fun setting up new systems, geeking out over new software. I’ve found I need to just for-freaking-give myself for being so promiscuous with these apps. I’ve let go of the idea that they’ll add up to something and am trying to be content with software that’s easy to add to, is pretty, and doesn’t completely fail me when I need to find something again. I’m realizing that note-taking apps do what the diet-industry does. They make impossible promises that we somehow keep believing despite all evidence that they never work, and they are financially incentivized to keep us flailing.
BRB, gonna go look into Mem.
So good, Casey