On the Obsidian forum I came across an intriguing post by Andy Matuschak. Matthew Siu and Andy have made an Obsidian plugin to help with sensemaking and they are looking for people with use cases to test it out.
I filled out the survey saying I had a large variety of notes about EU data law, digital ethics, and (data) governance, which I need to make sense of to guide public sector entities. They asked about online traces of me as well. Soon Matthew reached out and we decided on a time for a call.
And that is how I ended up working in Obsidian for an hour while Matthew and Andy were watching my shared screen. Sort-of how I once watched Andy work through his notes after reading a book. They’re on the US west coast, so with the nine hour time difference it was 22:00-23:00 hours here, which plus my cold meant I wasn’t as focused as earlier in the day. It also feels slightly odd to me having people watch me while doing actual work.
Because that was what I did, doing some actual work. Using notes from several conversations earlier this week, plus EU legal texts and EU work plans, and notes from workshop output from over a year ago, I was working towards the right scope of a workshop to be held early March.
The plugin I tried out is called the Obsidian reference plugin.
It allows you to select something in one note, and paste it in another. It links back to the source, is uneditable where you paste it, and marked where you copied it. When you hover over it, it can preview the snippet in its original context, when you click it the source opens/focuses in another tab. It seems a simple thing, and similar to block transclusion/references, yet still it had some interesting effects:
- Initially I saw myself using it to cut and paste some things from different notes together in a new note. This is a bit like canvassing, but then solely in text, and focused on snippets rather than full notes.
- The snippets you paste aren’t editable, and the idea is you can paraphrase them, rather than use them as-is like in block transclusion. I did a bit of that paraphrasing, but not a lot, it was more like gathering material only. Perhaps as I was bringing together parts of my own (conversation) notes. I can see that when going through the annotations of a source text, this can be a second step, thinking highlights and annotations through, remixing them, and come up with some notions to keep (see second to last bullet).
- It was easy to bring in material from a range of notes, without it becoming hard to keep an overview of what came from where. This is I think key when comparing different inputs and existing own notes.
- Once I was interacting with the collected material, my use of additional snippets from other notes shifted: I started to use them inline, as part of a sentence I was writing. This resembles how I currently use titles of my main notions, they’re sentences too that can be used inside another sentence, as a reference inside a flowing text rather than listed at the end. I often do this because it marks the exact spot where I think two notions link. This means using smaller snippets (part of a phrase), and it is possible because the reference to the source is kept, and its context immediately accessible through hovering over it.
- Discussing this effect with Matthew and Andy I realised another use case for this plug-in is working with the content of the core of my conceptual notes (that I call Notions) inside project or work notes. Now that reference is only to Notions as a whole. Adding a snippet makes a qualitative difference I want to explore.
- You can collapse the snippets you create, but I didn’t do that during the hour I let Matthew and Andy watch me work. I can imagine doing that if I’m working through a range of snippets to paraphrase or use. I can see this being useful when for instance collating results from in-depth interviews. For my World Bank data readiness assessments the report was based on snippets from some 70 (group) interviews. A lot of material that I would mine along the lines of ‘what was said about X across all these conversations’, or ‘what assumptions are voiced in these interviews regarding Y’.
- I spent the hour working with notes mainly from conversations, which are often pseudo-verbatim with my associations and questions I had during the conversation mixed in. Reading old notes often allows me to be ‘transported’ back into the conversation, its setting etc in my memory. Being able to glance at a snippet’s context from conversation notes as I work with it, and getting transported back into a conversation, felt like a rich layer of potential meaning being made easily available.
- What I created in the hour was something I otherwise likely wouldn’t have. I was able to build or at least start a line of detailed argumentation for both the scope of the workshop in March I was working on this hour, as well as a line of argumentation to be used within that workshop to show participants why taking EU developments into account is key when working on a regional or local issue with data. In a more explicit way and I think I might otherwise have come up with a ‘result’ rather than the path to that result. ‘Thinking on paper’ in short. Useful stuff.
- Reflecting on all this afterwards before falling asleep, I realised that a key way to use this is connected to the video I linked to above in which Andy gathers his thoughts and notes after reading a book: reflecting on an article or book I just read. A key part of the work there is seeking out the friction with previous reading and Notions. Not just to work with the annotations from a book as-is, but also the messy juxtaposition and integration with earlier notes. Then bringing in snippets from here and there, paraphrasing them into some sort of synthesis (at least one in my mind) is valuable. Collapsing of snippets also plays a role here, as you work through multiple annotations and ‘confrontations’ in parallel, to temporarily remove them from consideration, or as a mark of them having been used ‘up’.
- Once you delete a snippet, the marking at its source is also removed, so if a link to source is important enough to keep you need to do that purposefully, just as before.