An email to Andrew about Roam

Posted on Oct 15, 2020

My friend Andrew emailed me the other day to ask how I was liking Roam Research now that I’ve gone all-in on it. It turns out, I had some thoughts. :) He gave me permission to share my lengthy reply to him. It helped me think through some stuff, and I hope it’s useful to others!

Hi Andrew! First of all, thank you for taking the time to wade through my Roam! Yes, I just scrolled through the past few days of my stuff and it does turn out to be quite a lot. I should write a proper blog post about where all the content originates. A lot of it—probably more than half—starts in Drafts on my phone. Each morning, I start a yyyy-mm-dd daily notes draft in Drafts and that’s where I lob links and quotes and random thoughts in Markdown format. (I never add stuff to Roam on the phone. I may be superstitious, but I think that’s asking for syncing trouble.) I paste that Daily Notes draft into Roam once or twice each day on my MacBook and clean up formatting and add wiki links where they’re needed. The rest of the notes I just write directly in Roam while thinking out loud when I’m processing that stuff or grabbing a few extra links from Safari.

I was on org-roam (in Doom Emacs) for a nice little bit, and it’s still just amazing and I miss the tactility of it, but the mental overhead with Emacs was too great. Org-roam was the best at dealing with filenames and aliases, though. It’s so smart about removing the worry about filesystem-safe characters, and its method of item aliasing makes it so easy to refer to one thing by many names.

Then I went with Obsidian for a long time for a few reasons:

  • There was zero “how do I use this” overhead with it compared to Emacs + org-roam. It’s just a Markdown editor, and Markdown is in my bones. I kept having to wrestle with org-mode formatting to make stuff readable.
  • There was a time a few months ago when Roam kept losing peoples’ data and I’d hear horror story after horror story about it. I think they’ve upgraded their infrastructure enough now that I don’t see that happen anymore. At least I don’t think it’s bitten me yet.
  • I really wanted to keep my files local, partially because I’m old and I still think in files and folders, and also because I thought that having them all in Dropbox would be the only way I’d be able to reliably search and access them from my phone. I also thought I’d edit them on my phone more often (which I haven’t felt the need to do, actually). And there’s the geek factor of being able to do a Spotlight search on the Mac that pulls up any files stored on it.
  • I still prefer how Obsidian properly handles Markdown blockquotes. That kept me in Obsidian probably more than anything. I don’t know why Roam doesn’t obey the > character and treat it like a blockquote like every other Markdown-based app in the world.

What finally pushed me over the edge and back to Roam was that:

  • They seemed to have fixed the data syncing problems.
  • Jack jumped back in 1000%.
  • I even heard David Sparks of Mac Power Users getting excited about it.
  • The Roam owners increased their staff (I guess because they got that round of VC funding) and felt like the service was robust enough to charge for it. I actually love paying for things I use at lot, so that made it feel like it wasn’t going anywhere.
  • The more I saw new people jump on the bandwagon, the more I just felt like I was missing out.

Also, that push from Jack and Kevin on to make a public Roam DB helped. :)

Now that I’m back in it, here’s what I think:

  • Having to think about what to name a file about a note sucks. With Roam, I don’t even have to create “pages”. Every bullet is addressable and if you focus on a particular bullet, it acts like a page anyway.
  • Obsidian does a lite version of transclusion/embedding, but it’s nowhere near as good or seamless as Roam’s.
  • Roam’s automatic backlinks are just the best. So nicely presented and easy to jump back and forth with.

Roam is so good at everything else that I don’t care that it’s stored in the cloud, I don’t care that much anymore about the blockquotes, and I can live with how it isn’t good at aliases at all. Once I really started using it for everything, I just got addicted to the lack of friction. I don’t create many “pages” anymore. I just add stuff to Daily Notes and nest it under whatever page-like tag, or add a hashtag to the end. It makes Obsidian feel primitive and it makes my dear TiddlyWiki feel clumsy (where you have to worry about opening and closing tiddlers and making sure you don’t lose a draft of a tiddler).

Roam is even good enough that I have a whole separate private database that everything goes into first. 95% of what’s in there ends up copied to the public database, but because it’s all Roam, I don’t have to reformat anything to get it from private to public.

I’m still brand new to Readwise, so I’m figuring it out as I go and haven’t pasted those pages into the public DB. I like what I’ve seen other people use it for, though.

The biggest things that make me believe that Roam is the right app for me now are:

  1. I never think about using anything else.
  2. I never think about the $15 USD/month. It’s worth it.

I’ll admit that when the Roam dudes were tossing around the idea of charging $30/mo for it, I was seriously doubtful that I’d hang in there for that. I still don’t know if I’d be using it if it were that expensive. When they announced $15/mo, our lizard brains were so collectively relieved that that seemed like a bargain in comparison.

I suspected for a while that I’d probably end up back in Roam anyway, and I also knew that I couldn’t think my way through it without trying it again. And here I am!