There are a multitude of note-taking apps that are competing with each other for the market of idea organization & creation. I thought of voicing some of my thoughts and stating some facts regarding the current Second Brain ecosystem, albeit from a more focused perspective that only targets applications that utilize the Zettelkasten method as the base of their intended workflow.
I’ll start with the forefather of all:
Roam Research defined the era of linked thought. Conor White-Sullivan truly revolutionized thinking by creating a well-thought-out system of backlinks and blocks. The backlinks create a free-forming structure without the ill-defined folder hierarchy, which greatly limits the reach of ideas in other domains. Be creative and apply biology in the field of technology. Or have some really crazy ideas linked together in a new way. Backlinks are the best way to create order from chaos, instead of putting the chaos into drawers.
Not only that, it creates a much more focused environment as well. You no longer have to care about carefully choosing in what folder something belongs. Instead, you just focus on writing. Linking is done intuitively fast.
Roam Research, you could say, has a cult following —
#roamcult. The community is really passionate about the different workflows of other people and are eager to share ideas.
Conor White-Sullivan thinks of note-taking in applications such as Evernote as “Burning down the library”. His reasoning is that the notes written do not resurface later1.
Even with the useful design decisions, there are limits that direct people to other tools.
One of the these limits, or rather flaws? Is the cloud-driven approach. Through careful optimizations, Roam is able to provide a comfortable writing experience, a fast one too, all the while syncing across devices and keeping notes stored away for safekeeping.
The fundamental criticism is that you “don’t own your data”. The team could restrict access to your notes at any time, and thus wasting years of accumulated note-taking. Another concern is the security of your notes. The team can access your notes if they wanted to.
If you are concerned about data integrity, Roam Research has the feature to export your data, and even to do so regularly, in Markdown or JSON format.
If you are concerned about privacy, Roam Research provides another graph variant called “Encrypted Graph”. These, as the name implies, are encrypted databases of notes locked using an alphanumeric password provided by the user. The notes are encrypted using a standard encryption scheme — AES. Now, even if encrypted, what if the team backdoored the encryption? Well, if someone found out, Roam would be ruined. But all poetic justice aside, there is this one video that shows how you can verify encryption. https://www.loom.com/share/338bd42b80b647aaa0bed3082c53dccd
Personally, I don’t do backups and use a regular graph, all for an unencumbered writing experience. I know all about “blind trust” and “you’ll regret it later”. I am well aware, I am a privacy & security advocate to heart, and I realize that this could show off as disconcertingly ignorant. With all that in mind, Roam does a great job at protecting my notes currently. I don’t know their revenue, but I assume they have employed very experienced engineers to work on Roam’s security. I have faith… For now.
This was the antithesis to Roam Research. An application that is local-only, and all content is in a portable format, Markdown. You are the sole owner of your data.
There are a few technical differences to Roam Research, that I must mention.
Foremost, it’s local-only. Sure, it has a paid sync feature, but it is merely a simple sync. There is no central database of some sort. In addition, you can use your favourite syncing service like Dropbox or MEGA.
Another technical difference is the page-oriented model, as opposed to the block oriented model of Roam Research. Blocks are sort of individual, referable pages for every bullet point paragraph you create when simply pressing the Enter/Return key on your keyboard. Blocks can be freely moved, queried and manipulated. This freedom allows for very creative and convenient ways of writing and referencing.
But, with all that power comes the loss of performance. Every block is identified with a Unique Identifier (UID), and in conjunction, has unique properties. All of this cumulative data greatly impacts performance linearly over the growth of the graph.
ObsidianMD, being page-based, has superb performance. You can still reference, and do a lot of block-like querying, but blocks are not implemented in ObsidianMD as part of its architecture; but querying can be done very close to a block-based model.
ObsidianMD, in contrast to Roam Research, is actually “free forever”. Because of this, many have flocked to have the “Roam Experience” for free. This, in combination with productivity gurus advertising the usefulness of backlinks, have sparked a community of great dimension. This sudden growth of popularity has led to the creation of various plugins to extend ObsidianMD’s functionality, to fit other needs.
Because of the monstrous community size, support, and active development, ObsidianMD remains an uncontested king among Tools for Thought; and the reason many will not change to anything else.
Logseq has an indistinguishable visual to Roam Research.
It was born out of the necessity of creating a local-first, Open Source, note-taking tool. It’s also, first and foremost, block-based.
It has an active community and many plugins available. It has gained a lot of traction because it’s very similar to Roam Research, but free & open source. Furthermore, it has all the same features, essentially. I can’t go into detail without repeating everything I’ve said so far in the Roam Research section.
Although, it has a lot more built-in features such as flashcards, Org markup support, and a lot more customization.
If you really don’t want to pay for Roam Research, and are an avid fan of Open Source, I do recommend you give it a try.
This is a note-taking app centred towards memorization through the use of flashcards.
It is similar to the aforementioned tools in earlier sections, but is mainly targeted towards students who need powerful memorization features.
For this very reason, it is also free, while some features are only available in the Pro plan, which you must pay for.
RemNote and Roam Research are quite compatible, have feature-parity, and are both cloud-based. The most notable feature of RemNote is the flashcard memorization. Whether you care about memorization or not, which you probably should, it’s useful; RemNote can be a pretty good substitute.
Currently, these aforementioned tools have a lot of potential for building your Second Brain. Now, which one you choose, is up to you. There are many deciding factors such as: price, features, plugins, and community. I’ll leave the choice up to you.