A Digitized Second Brain

The idea of a database to contain all your notes and ideas was first introduced to me in 2014 when I read Steven Johnson’s book "Where Good Ideas Come From." He emphasizes connectivity and new technologies, and even mentions how he uses DEVONthink to help write his books on multi-disciplinary fields. Later I read about Ryan Holiday’s commonplace book system which is essentially based off of Luhmann’s Zettelkasten method ("slip-box").

As a college student, I didn’t want to pay a lot for a software, even it the price was justified. And I passively waited around for a different option to pop up. Since that point, my notes have moved from text files —> Google Docs —> Notion.

Even while at Notion I debated going over to ClickUp since it already has an API out, more features and are releasing updates constantly. They even had a road map for each update with a timeline. But Notion was also expanding their team and adding updates faster than ever before so I decided to let it be. And of course, there are many more competitors coming out every day so simply decided to keep building my knowledge base on Notion.

This is when Roam Research entered the picture. It was exactly what I was looking for; a software that made bi-directional, neural connections with your notes, and as an added bonus, showed you a map of everything that is connected in your database or what folks are calling, the "second brain". The cost is between $15 – $30 a month which to me is worth it, if it is the only software that does what it does or is the best at what it does. Of course at that point, DEVONthink would be cheaper but I decided to go looking for alternatives.

Someone on Reddit compiled all of them (god bless this person) and asked others to add on their own alternatives as well (god bless reddit). Besides just this post, FOSS seemed to be an important feature on the internet for this since a personal database is well…personal, and should serve you well over a lifetime.

That’s something I hadn’t specifically thought about before. But as I’m learning about Python and migrating my life over to Linux, I realize why this is important.

Another advantage of these alternatives are that many of them use plain text files which have big benefits over web-based applications:

  • Take up very little space. Super easy to zip and transport
  • Will ALWAYS be around, as long as computers are around in the future. If computers aren’t around then….we may have bigger issues to deal with at that point
  • Text editors are FAST. Much faster than using a web based system since your speed doesn’t depend on your wifi connection
  • Phones also has have basic text editors and if using different devices is a concern, then it’s quite easy to host and sync files, many of which offer self-hosting
  • Saves time from having to jump from one software to another when things change or improve

Notion, ClickUp and Roam Research are all relatively new and there will always be new ones that come out. The idea is to find a piece of software that is not temporary (web-based apps have the risk of being exactly that) and has developers adding updates and features. Side Note: Technically Notion and ClickUp’s star features of combining collaborative tools are different from Roam Research’s tool for networked thought, hence why some folks use both. But I think I only need one for now.

With all these apps that promise more and more features, it can be paralyzing to pick one and stick to it, especially since the migration process of switching to a new software is exhausting.

From my research these are my favorites. I enthusiastically wanted to quickly test out all the other alternatives not on this list but I quickly became weary of the time requirement.

  • Org-Roam (Pros: Extensive, great features, lots of updates, open-source Con: High learning curve due to Emacs, difficult to install)
  • Athens (Pros: similar to Roam Research, easy to use, open-source Cons: not sure if it has text file options, not out yet!)
  • Obsidian (Pros: great UI, easy to use, lots of updates Cons: Closed-source)

Basically, there are lots of great options available and many may argue that Roam Research has features that you won’t find it other software. But the beauty of implementing free, non-patented ideas like the Zettelkasten method into software that has a passionate community of builders and doers, is that it’s just a matter of time before things catch up. Matt Williams has a great video called Making Connections in your Notes which also covers some of these topics. But in general, It’s quite exciting to where folks will take this type of software (including Roam Research itself) and share what they have come up with to the world, where everyone can benefit.