I love taking notes. It might be the only effective way for my brain to work. Regardless of the technology involved I always gravitate towards a blank slate of some kind and spill thoughts onto the medium.
I used to buy paper notebooks and filled them with barely readable words and other scratches. There were arrows, diagrams, and strike-throughs on every page, and exclamation points inside triangles for when I really meant it. The notes were pure expressions of my thoughts.
Then one day I decided the physical paper medium was too cumbersome (I had a pile eight inches high) and I switched to digital notes. I knew I would miss the free-wheeling nature of paper notes but I believed I would gain in searchability, portability, and durability.
So how did that work out?
Once upon a time there was a web-based note-taking service called Luminotes. It was brilliant. It was like a wiki but it didn’t require remembering tricky syntax to link related pages.
When I was taking notes on paper I could let my hand write, I just had to think. I wanted to stay as close to that feeling in the digital realm. Any kind of syntax necessary to create a note would force me to engage my coding brain (are the brackets matched? do I need to escape this underscore?) and break my flow. In fact I valiantly resisted using markdown-based systems because they make me feel like I’m writing code, not notes.
I dove in and started organizing all thoughts related to my projects in a bunch of linked notes. The Wiki was the organizational paradigm that I could not get on paper: I could now record relations between notes in addition to the notes themselves.
I made heavy use of this service and depended on it. I was a big fan, an early and dedicated user, and I exchanged a number of emails with the developer.
Then one day the developer said he would no longer maintain the project. He had moved on and didn’t want to deal with the overhead of maintaining the server. He was willing to open source the code, but he would not participate in its development.
To be clear I don’t blame the dev. Maintaining things is hard, and when you’re providing a service it’s even harder. Babysitting servers when your heart is no longer in the project is even more challenging, and shutting things down is be the only reasonable thing to do.
I really wanted to keep using Luminotes in some way or another, so I created a Google Group to organize the efforts of the few Luminotes die-hards who would band together to keep the app alive through the magic of open source collaboration.
We got nowhere.
I never managed to install the darned thing on a development server. It was written in a language I didn’t know and depended on outdated dependencies that I failed to get installed. Others in the group had similar issues. Our meager efforts fizzled then died, the hurdles too numerous to justify staying involved.
It was time to look for another note-taking application.
Catch Notes (2010-2013)
I settled on Catch Notes after a vain search for a wiki system that had the same ease of use as Luminotes.
I examined plenty of wiki authoring tools but none of them had the same degree of “thought-free operation” as Luminotes did. I tried using some but they felt finicky and I just couldn’t write comfortably with them.
So Catch Notes it was. The problem with Catch Notes is that it wasn’t a wiki at all. It used a system of tags to keep notes organized. The result: after migrating my data my notes degraded from a carefully crafted personal knowledge graph to a pile of disconnected notes. I could no longer just click around from note to note to follow my thought process at the time. My painstaking work had lost a good chunk of its value.
Still, I knew that would happen and accepted my fate. Over time I started thinking in terms of tags and little by little found it to be a decent way to go. I found peace with CN and tags and enjoyed productive note-taking.
Then – shocker – Catch Notes shut down.
This time I decided to go with a big established player: Evernote. I had fully adopted the tags system of Catch Notes, but unfortunately Evernote’s support for tags was flimsy. My notes lost some of their value again as they got processed through another migration.
My experience with Evernote was never stellar. I was there because I felt they wouldn’t die and not because their offering was compelling to me. Their desktop app on Mac was slow and badly designed and they seemed to be developing new products in dozens of new directions while their core offering was underwhelming. Not a good place to be.
Then Evernotes started showing signs of not being around forever. There was talk of financial troubles and of an exodus of users.
But who would be surprised by this turn of events? This was a note-taking app that also sold socks on their website for crying out loud.
This time I decided not to wait until the app I used went belly-up to spread my wings and fly away.
I don’t recall exactly how I ended up in Redmond’s grip. It might have been because Satya was charming the tech world by reinventing Microsoft.
Or it might have had something to do with my new Windows laptop with a touchscreen and digital pen. I got excited about taking freehand notes again, and OneNote’s tools seemed well suited for that.
That excitement was nothing short of the tantalizing feeling that technology was catching up to fantasy. Could I get the best of both worlds? The freedom of hand-written notes with the weightlessness of the digital medium?
No. The answer is no. The fantasy did not survive contact with reality. I wouldn’t take any notes by drawing with the stylus or my finger. I tried, but it didn’t work. A 15” laptop is very awkward to use as a tablet to draw on, and OneNote’s tools for drawing leave a lot to be desired.
So I got duped by a bunch of kids apparently sketching cool mods for their fixie bikes. Can a corporation pander to me any harder than that? I should have known.
So now I’m using big clunky OneNote and it’s not a party. I don’t sketch with it like I wanted, and its UI is pointlessly cumbersome. Their phone apps aren’t good, syncing takes too long and is unreliable, and their desktop Mac app always throws some sort of authentication error so I’ve given up on it. Also its search function is terrible.
I desperately want to spread my wings again.
Where To Now?
There are some new players in the space and people rave about them on the socials. I read about these shiny new note-taking apps and I feel a tinge of envy and a desire to try them out. But I’ve been let down too many times. I want to do one more migration and then that’s it.
Clearly I should go with something open source. Looking at my trajectory from Luminotes to OneNote, I have gravitated towards closed systems. In retrospect it’s possible much of my troubles are due to that.
However remember that Luminotes was open source, and that didn’t do me any good. It’s not enough to be open, there has to be a sufficiently active community for the project to survive the departure of the original creator.
Another factor is that open source note taking apps are often developer-centric, which usually means they use markdown or some other syntax, which I am not a fan of. Frankly I just haven’t found an open source note taking system that suits me.
Finally there is the issue of self-hosting. I might jot something down on any of 4 devices I use regularly so I don’t want my notes to live on a single device. If there is no service available I’d have to run a server myself. This is a pain. I spend enough time dealing with servers, I really don’t view tinkering with a Linux server as a hobby. To me it’s a chore, so self-hosting comes with its own set of problems.
New Note Taking Paradigm?
I’ve greatly evolved how I take notes and how I think of my notes. I don’t think the Wiki approach works for me anymore. As the number of notes grows it becomes a lot of work to keep that graph organized.
Categories don’t cut it either, they just don’t scale. And tags can scale but are too limiting. I’m rethinking the very concept of a note too.
To be continued…
PS: Thanks to the Internet Archive for making it possible to get screenshots of defunct services 10 years on! If you’re able please donate to the Internet Archive.