Markdown-based knowledge base

New Insights into Past Work

Here is the other issue I wondered about when I came across Obsidian: Taking new notes for new projects is all well and good, but what about past work? Can Obsidian give me more insights than I could discover myself about my previous writing activities? That is, can Obsidian help me to write more efficiently or to find new uses for my past work?

Right now, I still do not have a final answer to these questions. But I already know enough to believe that the answers may be at least partially positive.

As of February 2021, my main blog [8] contains over 1,200 posts, written over 13 years. The posts contain more than 700K words total, and are published online with the Hugo static site generator [9]. Each post is a Markdown file, with tags and other metadata in its own frontmatter, and all links among posts are relative URLS (that is, the URL of the About page is just /about, without the full domain name).

After practicing with the Ideal Linux Distro Vault, I copied all the Markdown files of that blog in another folder, told Obsidian to open it as Vault, and began to explore the result. On one hand, I was pleased to see that Obsidian correctly recognized all the links between my posts, as well as most of the tags in the frontmatter. On the other hand, I was disappointed to find that Obsidian and Hugo do not parse frontmatter tags in exactly the same way. In Hugo, a frontmatter line like this:

- open source

defines one single tag, open source. Obsidian, instead does recognize such lines as tags, but seems to stop parsing at the first whitespace, thus treating tags like open source or open hardware as if they all were the same tag, called open (Figure 8). Enclosing words between quotes seemed to make no difference. For other users, this may be a totally irrelevant issue. For me, so far this mismatch has made analyzing my tags with Obsidian much less effective than it could be. But it's just plain text files, remember? Should I find that I really need it, I could probably patch the problem with some script that automatically removes all the spaces inside tags.

Figure 8: Obsidian recognizes the tags presents in files generated with other tools … as long as they don't contain spaces!

Apart from tags, I have found the way Obsidian shows me my own past work intriguing, at a minimum, and potentially very useful, even if it requires time. Figure 9 shows what my whole corpus of more 1,200 blog posts looks like through Obsidian. Some groups of posts (e.g. those numbered 1 to 5 in Figure 9) rightly appear as mostly independent clusters. (Number 6 does not really matter, because it is the cluster of all the posts that link to the About page of the whole blog.)

Figure 9: More than 1,200 blog posts, all connected in one zoomable graph!

Those five clusters, in fact, are long essays that at some point I republished on the blog after splitting them into multiple short posts, with an "index" post that is now the hub of the cluster. Further study of the Obsidian graph will help me to see if those clusters should also be linked from other nodes. Then there are many posts without any link to or from the others. Obsidian can list them in a special pane, but the graph (see number 7 in Figure 9) really makes them stand out. The last marker in Figure 9 indicates the graph menu, which offers many options to customize the graph. Hopefully, those graph visualization options, combined with the backlink listing function of Obsidian, will give me many suggestions to make my blog more interesting, and more useful, for all its readers.

Conclusions

Let's be clear: It takes a lot of self-discipline to really take advantage of any tool like Obsidian, but if you can gather that discipline, it is really worth it. While this software is not open source, it is "open" in the sense explained above (i.e., highly interoperable with other tools and without lock-ins). For these reasons, plus its graphic presentation, link management, and tagging functions, Obsidian can be quite helpful for anyone who has a lot of mainly textual material to record, organize, and reuse with the smallest possible effort, and that doesn't mean just students, academics, and other professionals of the written word, from lawyers to journalists. I half suspect, half hope, that Obsidian can really help to discover what an essay I read calls "the adjacent possible" [10].

Its web page says that "Obsidian works better if you have large screens and atomic short notes." As true as this is, surely it is not the only valid setting for Obsidian.

Personally, I will continue to test Obsidian as an organizer and assistant for preparing ebooks and other long-form texts or data catalogs. But the best way for you to use Obsidian depends on how your own brain works and on the kind of material you need to organize and analyze. I encourage everybody to try Obsidian to discover what their way may be.

Infos

  1. Obsidian: https://obsidian.md/
  2. Markdown format and tools: https://daringfireball.net/projects/markdown/
  3. CommonMark: https://commonmark.org/
  4. GitHub Flavored Markdown (GFM): https://github.github.com/gfm/
  5. Roam Research: https://roamresearch.com/
  6. Zettelkasten: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zettelkasten
  7. MarkDownload: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-GB/firefox/addon/markdownload/
  8. My "Stop!" blog: https://stop.zona-m.net
  9. Hugo: https://gohugo.io/
  10. "Exploring the adjacent possible – The origin of good ideas" by Ulf Ehlert, Understanding Innovation (blog), January 3, 2019: https://understandinginnovation.blog/2019/01/03/exploring-the-adjacent-possible-the-origin-of-good-ideas/

The Author

Marco Fioretti (http://mfioretti.com) is a freelance author, trainer, and researcher based in Rome, Italy. He has been working with free/open source software since 1995 and on open digital standards since 2005. Marco also is a Board Member of the Free Knowledge Institute (http://freeknowledge.eu) and blogs about digital rights at https://stop.zona-m.net.

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