Web Applications

Roam Research: initial thoughts

Roam Research not only justified subscribing pretty much up front but has also made it onto my pinned tabs in virtually no time flat. It’s basically a web-based knowledge management system. I’m already a fan of Workflowy so I’m already comfortable with putting information into trees and hierarchies, in fact there’s a lot of overlap between the two applications as you can just use Roam as a kind of org-mode bulleted list organiser.

The thing that makes it different is the ability to overlay a wiki-like ability to turn any piece of text into a link which creates another list page to store other notes.

The resulting page highlights the linked portions of the trees in other pages as well as containing it’s own content.

The links then form a graph that can be explored but I haven’t generate enough content for it to be generating any useful insight yet.

The pages are searchable so you can either take wiki-like journeys of discovery through your notes or just search and jump to anything relevant in your knowledge graph.

By default the system creates a daily “diary” page for you to record notes in an initially unstructured way organically as you roll through the day. I’m still primarily in my todo lists in a Getting Things Done mode during the day but I have found it a useful end of day technique for reflecting or summarising ideas to follow up on.

Roam is very much influenced by and part of the new wave of knowledge management tools based on Zettelkasten. If you’re unfamiliar it’s worth reading up on it (I don’t know it well enough to create a pithy summary).

To date though everything I’ve tried in this space was a bit formal and tricky to get going or fit into my existing ways of working. Roam on the other hand is web-based, relatively quick and usable and uses enough metaphors from existing systems to make it feel accessible.

Weirdly the first use that convinced me I needed this service was actually recipes. You can have a hierarchy of different types of recipes but use a link and you can have a vertical slice across ingredients or techniques.

The second was while genuinely doing some market research on Javascript enhancement frameworks where I wanted to have one page for my overall thoughts (“Is this something to pursue?”) and was able to break the list of all the frameworks I was looking at into their own pages with links to the frameworks and any thoughts I had as I was playing around with them.

The mobile experience isn’t quite as good, it’s a kind of fast noting system where I’m not sure how I can quickly attach a thought to an existing page. Here it’s still easier to use a note-taking app and consolidate thoughts later.

Overall though this is still the most exciting web app I’ve used this year.

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