Eleven: Bi-directional links or backlinks

The internet allows multi-directional linking of thoughts and ideas.

Backlinks are the new cause célèbre in the broader learning space that uses the names wiki (a communal shared commonplace), digital gardens (personal wikis), and online notebooks & productivity tools like Zettelkasten and products like Notion, Roam Research, Obsidian, Evernote. These are all just variations of the commonplace in digital settings.

#HeyPresstoConf20

Read A $200 Million Seed Valuation for Roam Shows Investor Frenzy for Note-Taking Apps (The Information)
The shift to remote work has buoyed the valuations of several startups making productivity tools. The latest is Roam Research, which has raised $9 million at a valuation of $200 million, or about 25 times higher than the median valuation for seed rounds.Roam is tapping more than a dozen ...
Roam Research should really be going the Zebra route and not the VC funding route. If the 11 person company is truly self-supporting with its current user base and there’s so much upside for growth, they’d be far better off to keep that value internally.

The only reason for VC funding is if they’re looking to do questionably moral things with their users’ data in the future. Data lock in was already my primary concern before this funding round, now its a complete deal blocker.

The VC funding model means that their long term viability is limited, particularly with the competition in the space. The only reason for company management to take this sort of funding is hopes at a quick buy out and large cash windfall at which point their mumblings at data and privacy for users are moot. Buyer beware.

Aside: From a marketing perspective the photo on this article has me wavering between the ideas of a Northern European shoegaze band and an Arizona-based hipster religious cult.

A note taking problem and a proposed solution

tl;dr

It’s too painful to quickly get frequent notes into note taking and related platforms. Hypothes.is has an open API and a great UI that can be leveraged to simplify note taking processes.

Note taking tools

I’ve been keeping notes in systems like OneNote and Evernote for ages, but for my memory-related research and work in combination with my commonplace book for the last year, I’ve been alternately using TiddlyWiki (with TiddlyBlink) and WordPress (it’s way more than a blog.)

I’ve also dabbled significantly enough with related systems like Roam Research, Obsidian, Org mode/Org Roam, MediaWiki, DocuWiki, and many others to know what I’m looking for.

Many of these, particularly those that can be used alternately as commonplace books and zettelkasten appeal to me greatly when they include the idea of backlinks. (I’ve been using Webmention to leverage that functionality in WordPress settings, and MediaWiki gives it grudgingly with the “what links to this page” basic functionality that can be leveraged into better transclusion if necessary.)

The major problem with most note taking tools

The final remaining problem I’ve found with almost all of these platforms is being able to quickly and easily get data into them so that I can work with or manipulate it. For me the worst part of note taking is the actual taking of notes. Once I’ve got them, I can do some generally useful things with them—it’s literally the physical method of getting data from a web page, book, or other platform into the actual digital notebook that is the most painful, mindless, and useless thing for me.

Evernote and OneNote

Older note taking services like Evernote and OneNote come with browser bookmarklets or mobile share functionality that make taking notes and extracting data from web sources simple and straightforward. Then once the data is in your notebook you can actually do some work with it. Sadly neither of these services has the backlinking functionality that I find has become de rigueur for my note taking or knowledge wrangling needs.

WordPress

My WordPress solutions are pretty well set since that workflow is entirely web-based and because WordPress has both bookmarklet and Micropub support. There I’m primarily using a variety of feeds and services to format data into a usable form that I can use to ping my Micropub endpoint. The Micropub plugin handles the post and most of the meta data I care about.

It would be great if other web services had support for Micropub this way too, as I could see some massive benefits to MediaWiki, Roam Research, and TiddlyWiki if they had this sort of support. The idea of Micropub has such great potential for great user interfaces. I could also see many of these services modifying projects like Omnibear to extend themselves to create highlighting (quoting) and annotating functionality with a browser extension.

With this said, I’m finding that the user interface piece that I’m missing for almost all of these note taking tools is raw data collection.

I’m not the sort of person whose learning style (or memory) is benefited by writing or typing out notes into my notebooks. I’d far rather just have it magically happen. Even copying and pasting data from a web browser into my digital notebook is a painful and annoying process, especially when you’re reading and collecting/curating as many notes as I tend to. I’d rather be able to highlight, type some thoughts and have it appear in my notebook. This would prevent the flow of my reading, thinking, and short annotations from being subverted by the note collection process.

Different modalities for content consumption and note taking 

Based on my general experience there are only a handful of different spaces where I’m typically making notes.

Reading online

A large portion of my reading these days is done in online settings. From newspapers, magazines, journal articles and more, I’m usually reading them online and taking notes from them there.

.pdf texts

Some texts I want to read (often books and journal articles) only live in .pdf form. While reading them in an app-specific setting has previously been my preference, I’ve taken to reading them from within browsers. I’ll explain why in just a moment, but it has to do with a tool that treats this method the same as the general online modality. I’ll note that most of the .pdf  specific apps have dreadful data export—if any.

Reading e-books (Kindle, e-readers, etc.)

If it’s not online or in .pdf format, I’m usually reading books within a Kindle or other e-reading device. These are usually fairly easy to add highlights, annotations, and notes to. While there are some paid apps that can extract these notes, I don’t find it too difficult to find the raw file and cut and paste the data into my notebook of choice. Once there, going through my notes, reformatting them (if necessary), tagging them and expanding on them is not only relatively straightforward, but it also serves as a simple method for doing a first pass of spaced repetition and review for better long term recall.

Lectures

Naturally taking notes from live lectures, audiobooks, and other spoken events occurs, but more often in these cases, I’m typically able to type them directly into my notebook of preference or I’m using something like my digital Livescribe pen for notes which get converted by OCR and are easy enough to convert in bulk into a digital notebook. I won’t belabor this part further, though if others have quick methods, I’d love to hear them.

Physical books

While I love a physical book 10x more than the next 100 people, I’ve been trying to stay away from them because I find that though they’re easy to highlight, underline, and annotate the margins, it takes too much time and effort (generally useless for memory purposes for me) to transfer these notes into a digital notebook setting. And after all, it’s the time saving piece I’m after here, so my preference is to read in some digital format if at all possible.

A potential solution for most of these modalities

For several years now, I’ve been enamored of the online Hypothes.is annotation tool. It’s open source, allows me reasonable access to my data from the (free) hosted version, and has a simple, beautiful, and fast process for bookmarking, highlighting, and annotating online texts on desktop and mobile. It works exceptionally well for both web pages and when reading .pdf texts within a browser window.

I’ve used it daily to make several thousand annotations on 800+ online web pages and documents. I’m not sure how I managed without it before. It’s the note taking tool I wished I’d always had. It’s a fun and welcome part of my daily life. It does exactly what I want it to and generally stays out of the way otherwise. I love it and recommend it unreservedly. It’s helped me to think more deeply and interact more directly with countless texts.

When reading on desktop or mobile platforms, it’s very simple to tap a browser extension and have all their functionality immediately available. I can quickly highlight a section of a text and their UI pops open to allow me to annotate, tag it, and publish. I feel like it’s even faster than posting something to Twitter. It is fantastically elegant.

The one problem I have with it is that while it’s great for collecting and aggregating my note data into my Hypothes.is account, there’s not much I can do with it once it’s there. It’s missing the notebook functionality some of these other services provide. I wish I could plug all my annotation and highlight content into spaced repetition systems or move it around and modify it within a notebook where it might be more interactive and cross linked for the long term. Sadly I don’t think that any of this sort of functionality is on Hypothes.is’ roadmap any time soon.

There is some great news however! Hypothes.is is open source and has a reasonable API. This portends some exciting things! This means that any of these wiki, zettelkasten, note taking, or spaced repetition services could leverage the UI for collecting data and pipe it into their interfaces for direct use.

As an example, what if I could quickly tell Obsidian to import all my pre-existing and future Hypothes.is data directly into my Obsidian vault for manipulating as notes? (And wouldn’t you know, the small atomic notes I get by highlighting and annotating are just the sort that one would like in a zettelkasten!) What if I could pick and choose specific course-related data from my reading and note taking in Hypothes.is (perhaps by tag or group) for import into Anki to quickly create some flash cards for spaced repetition review? For me, this combination would be my dream application!

These small pieces, loosely joined can provide some awesome opportunities for knowledge workers, students, researchers, and others. The education focused direction that Hypothes.is, many of these note taking platforms, and spaced repetition systems are all facing positions them to make a super-product that we all want and need.

An experiment

So today, as a somewhat limited experiment, I played around with my Hypothes.is atom feed (https://hypothes.is/stream.atom?user=chrisaldrich, because you know you want to subscribe to this) and piped it into IFTTT. Each post creates a new document in a OneDrive file which I can convert to a markdown .md file that can be picked up by my Obsidian client. While I can’t easily get the tags the way I’d like (because they’re not included in the feed) and the formatting is incredibly close, but not quite there, the result is actually quite nice.

Since I can “drop” all my new notes into a particular folder, I can easily process them all at a later date/time if necessary. In fact, I find that the fact that I might want to revisit all my notes to do quick tweaks or adding links or additional thoughts provides the added benefit of a first round of spaced repetition for the notes I took.

Some notes may end up being deleted or reshuffled, but one thing is clear: I’ve never been able to so simply highlight, annotate, and take notes on documents online and get them into my notebook so quickly. And when I want to do something with them, there they are, already sitting in my notebook for manipulation, cross-linking, spaced repetition, and review.

So if the developers of any of these platforms are paying attention, I (and I’m sure others) really can’t wait for plugin integrations using the full power of the Hypothes.is API that allow us to all leverage Hypothes.is’ user interface to make our workflows seamlessly simple.

Read Best Roam Research alternative? Amplenote offers more for less (amplenote.com)
Amplenote and Roam are more different than they are similar, but there are still many common touchpoints. Below, we'll outline how the two compare as of mid-2020. If you would like to import your Roam JSON file to see how it compares in Amplenote, you can start a free trial and then try out our Roam Research Importer here. Paid annually, Amplenote pricing ranges from about $5/month to $25/month.
Looks like yet another silo version of a note taking application. I think I’d prefer something more IndieWeb.
Read 7 Things Roam Did Right by tre (Proses.ID)
Sections Seven things Roam did rightPotentialsIs Roam just a fad, a shiny new tool?All the small thingsAnecdotesThe trifecta: getting things into, out of, and across heads Roam Research is a phenomenon that took the tools for thought space by storm. Let’s appreciate the seven things it did right a...

Displaying Webmentions on TiddlyWiki

I’ve previously written about setting up receiving Webmention for TiddlyWiki by logging into webmention.io and creating an account to delegate the receipt of the notifications.
 
Naturally, these notifications can be more fun for cross-site conversations if one has the ability to display the webmentions on the posts to which they relate. There are probably a number of ways of doing this, but following the TiddlyWiki advice of keeping Tiddlers as small as possible, it seemed like creating a tiddler for the response and then transcluding or embedding it into the original would be the best course of action.
 
At the recent Gardens and Streams: Wikis, Blogs, and UI—a pop up IndieWebCamp session there was some discussion on internal bi-directional linking in wikis, but I thought it would also be fun to show off bi-directional linking between my wiki and other websites. To do that will require displaying at least some Webmentions.
My wiki currently doesn’t have very many webmentions or incoming links, but after writing about a Bookmarklet for pasting content into TiddlyWiki, I got an email from Anne-Laure Le Cunff that she’d used some of the code to write a bookmarklet for Roam Research. Since her article didn’t send a webmention, I used Telegraph to manually force her article to send my wiki a Webmention so my account would have a record of it for the future for potential exporting or other use.
Now I’d like to display this webmention on that tiddler. Doing it automatically would be great, but I thought, since I don’t expect to receive many on my wiki that I ought to try out a manual set up to see how things might work and how I might display them if they were automated.
Since I had created that bookmarklet, I used it to copy and paste the text from Anne-Laure Le Cunff‘s website into a new tiddler. I then massaged it a bit to format it to look like a response and I’ve transcluded it into the original post under a heading of Responses.
The side benefit of doing this is that the stand alone tiddler that has the link and the context from her post also sits in my wiki as a bookmark of her post as well. As a result, I get a two-for-one deal: I get the bookmark of her post with some context I’m interested in, but my original post can now also display it as a response! Now I can also use that bookmark in other places in my website as well. If only one could do this so easily in other CMSes?!
I’ve yet to hear of another example of this in the wild, so unless I’m missing something, this may be the first displayed Webmention on a TiddlyWiki in the wild.

Next steps

Data formats

TiddlyWiki has lots of ways to display data in Tiddlers, so perhaps one might use various fields in a bookmark tiddler to create the necessary comment display. This could give a more standardized method of displaying them as well. It could be particularly useful if someone was using a microformats parser to import the data of such mentions. If this were the case, then the tiddler that is being commented on could do a filter/search for all tiddlers in the wiki that mention it and transclude the appropriate pieces in a list format with the appropriate mark up as well as links back to the individual tiddlers and/or the links to the sending site.
I’m curious if others have ideas about how to best/easiest implement the display portion of webmentions on a public TiddlyWiki? Since I’m also hosting my entire TiddlyWiki on GitHub pages, there might be other potential considerations if I were to be hosting it statically instead. This may require some experimentation.
I’ve got a few mental models about how one might implement showing Webmentions in TiddlyWiki, but it may take some more thinking to figure out which way may be the best or most efficient.

Automation

I don’t anticipate a lot of incoming webmentions to my wiki at present, but if they become more prevalent, I’ll want to automate the display of these notifications somehow. This will take some thought and coding as well as more knowledge of the internals of TiddlyWiki than I’ve currently got. If someone with the coding chops is interested, I could probably brainstorm a set up fairly quickly.

Microformats

It would also be nice to be able to have full microformats support in TiddlyWiki so that the stand alone “bookmark” mention works properly, but also so that the transcluded version might have the correct mark up. This may rely on the two things to be properly nested to make them work in both contexts.

In going down rabbit holes relating to wikis for Saturday’s IWC pop up event, I came across Mark Bernstein’s (@eastgate) Storyspace and Tinderbox products from the early 1990’s, and I couldn’t help but thinking that Roam Research (@RoamResearch) is reinventing an old wheel.

It’s all rather similar to TiddlyWiki with TiddlyBlink and TiddlyMaps added as well. While most of these are private note taking tools, I can’t help but wonder if making the data public may actually be the linchpin for adding tremendous value?

I ran across Roam Research in late 2019, and in exploring TiddlyWiki lately I’m seeing a lot about people adding Roam-based functionality to TW5. What I’m not seeing is any conversation about how the same sort of backlinking could be done in MediaWiki. 

Of course I did mention something related the other day, but the functionality could be better surfaced:

One of my favorite “hidden” features of the IndieWeb wiki is the sidebar link for “What links here” that often provides some deeper and richer information than is found in the See Also sections.

Bookmarked TiddlyBlink — TiddlyWiki with bi-directional linking (giffmex.org)

TiddlyBlink is an adaptation of TiddlyWiki with the goal of helping you see connections between your ideas, and move quickly from one idea to another. It was inspired by the bi-directional linking found in Roam (https://roamresearch.com/), but built with capabilities already available in TiddlyWiki (https://tiddlywiki.com). See my example file here.

If he hasn’t seen this, it seems like the sort of thing that Jack Baty would appreciate.

I wonder if he’s considered using webmention.io to work with his TiddlyWiki? I’ve set it up with my MediaWiki set up, but still need to tinker with it on a public TiddlyWiki.