Some thoughts on using Roam as an Obsidian person / Questions for Roam Refugees

Obsidian is my chef’s kitchen of choice. I like owning my files. I like the app. I like the community. It’s a great place to cook a delicious steak dinner. And it’s what I’d like to be using for everything, permanently.

However, I’m not often at my desk these days. Which means I have to use 1writer A LOT if I want Obsidian to work. And using 1writer with my Obsidian data is like cooking a steak dinner on a hotplate. It’s a HUGE bummer. As an app 1writer is … fine? The same way that driving an old prius is fine. It’s underpowered, but it’ll get you from A>B. It’s not pretty, but it’s not ugly. It’s not a joy to use by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just…fine.

Because of this, I’ve been trying out Roam as a daily driver for a couple of days.

Roam refugees often cite the price and the cult as reasons they left. But what about the product?

I wanted to see if the trade-off in functionality is worth it. How big of a difference do Roam’s power features make? Here’s what I’ve observed so far…

First of all, I hate that Roam is a web app. Being web only comes with so many disadvantages that I can’t (won’t) list them all here. Web apps have always been a deal breaker for me, until Roam. (however, to be fair, Electron has always been a dealbreaker, until Obsidian).

But being a web app also means it’s available everywhere, on everything that I use. It’s not perfect, it freezes on my phone occasionally, but it’s good enough to be better than nothing.

Block referencing has been great for easily pulling together outlines for class lectures from many different sources and notes. I also like the ability to create a page out of a tag, so that it’s possible to have blocks tagged with something like “thoughts” that are then automatically available on a “page” called “thoughts.”

The browser extensions are OK. Safari is my main browser because it does a great job of working across all of my devices. Roam mostly works in Safari, but works much better in Chrome (evil) and Firefox (fine but it’s an island). I’m not switching my browser for Roam. That leaves me with having to bounce back and forth between browsers in one way or another. And because I don’t use Chrome as my main browser (because it’s a nightmare), all of the browser extensions are not super helpful.

I hate the privacy policy. Just thinking about the privacy implications causes some friction when writing. Can I trust that my writing isn’t going wind up as a part of a data breach, or in a marketing database?

And yes, some parts of the community freak me out. Like a silicon valley Stepford community.

Obsidian is where I intend to land full time. I keep saying that I’ll move when there’s a better mobile/ipad experience. Roam is a great product, but my conscience is irked by using it and there’s always the chance that I move back sooner than I plan to.

For the Roam Refugees in the house, How was your move? Have you had to change your workflow? Were you using Roams power features, like block references, and if so, has that made a big difference in how you do your work? How much of a pain will it be to move after amassing a medium to large graph?

And most importantly, if Roam was free, would you have moved?

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No. I don’t trust a free, online server only model for notes that I plan on using throughout my career. Local files or bust, never mind whatever feature improvements others (like Roam) have.

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I guess what I’m after is whether removing price from the equation would’ve changed things for people who switched.

I wound up finding that block referencing was adding complexity, and I was getting more lost in my notes. It’s powerful, but simplicity works for me. I only very occasionally use note embeds in Obsidian too.

Price is not an issue for me. If a tool is valuable enough, I’ll make room for it in my budget. My reason for switching was entirely because of the privacy/web-app/online nature. Particularly how attachments get uploaded to a Google cloud storage.

I think I wrote this in Discord. But the biggest risk to using a web app isn’t the price, but the lock-in. If I think about using my notes over decades, having them tucked away in some online account is not appealing. I’ve often completely forgotten accounts I had until 10 years later I get some spam saying “we’ve updated our TOS” or “we’ve experienced a data breach, sorry!” and I’m like, “new phone, who dis?”

But my Zim database is still sitting on my HD since 2008. Readable and accessible.

So far in Obsidian, I’ve already had the advantage of being able to sweep my files with Python scripts, to clean things up. I just used a script to reformat my Daily Notes from YYYY-MM-DD to YYYY-MM-DD_dddd last night, and then used the “touch” command to change their modification dates to match, so they sort in order. This kind of flexibility and freedom is amazing.

So I haven’t experienced any friction or pain by switching. Except I did have to download and relink all my Google Firebase online attachments to local files.

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I suggest you try Notebooks.

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Ha! I love those emails. “Exciting news! Zipityboop is now CrunchBamBam.”

Or “Our incredible journey has come to an end. Nibnub will be sunsetting at the end of August. Please export your Zib-Nubbins by August 31.”

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I’ll check it out for sure.

I tried Roam for a few months, but decided to ditch it. Fortunately enough, I discovered Obsidian a couple of days later.

So, in short, here are my thoughts on it. Let’s start with the pros:

  • an outliner with bidirectional links
  • block referencing
  • programmable (in-line queries and such)
  • (kind of a Project Xanadu spiritual heir)
  • Above all, made both users and industry aware of this “new” paradigm

But the cons, oh well, one of these would be enough:

  • cloud only, DB driven
  • fragile exports due to reference codes
  • Ill-suited for long-form text
  • ludicrous “privacy policy”
  • creepy toxic cult following
  • arrogant CEO/cult leader

One might thing that these last two were not that serious. Well, they are. I won’t trust a “tool for thought” that comes from such an intellectually dishonest crowd.

On the other hand, it looks like I’m forgetting the price. I’m not. I really could make that serious financial effort if Roam turned out to be as good as it seemed at first.

A few days after ditching Roam, I knew that Obsidian (early as it was in its beta stage) would be the right tool for me. I don’t think I need to tell you lot why.

Regarding portability, my advice to you would be to stay off anything with double curly braces, because they’re all you’re going to get when you export to .md. Also, long texts are really a pain, with an hyphen at the beginning of every line.

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That’s helpful, thank you. The way things are going, I’ll probably be out of Roam by the end of the night.

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Although I understand part of Roam’s appeal, I say this without hesitation: get the hell out of there.

Save your files, write with whichever tool you see fit. Obsidian is damn near perfect and hasn’t even reached v1. If you don’t like it later on, take your files elsewhere. Or everywhere.

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I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. You could have a career in SV product marketing, I am sure.

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@KevinR: if you have not checked it out yet, please note that the “trial” period is about 10 mins.

Whoops. Wasn’t paying attention. Not only is the trial over, but I’ve assumed responsibility for 30% of their corporate debt. This’ll be the last time I skip reading the EULA…

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I too ran deep into the RoamResearch rabbit hole last February. I thought it was the cat’s meow! But I read an article on the dangers of having one’s data ensnared in a proprietary app on some cloud server inherent with privacy and access issues. In other words, portability was of the highest consideration in developing one’s own web of knowledge, at least with that source. Then, reinforced by the axiom that “the software is not your zettelkasten,” the realization that my zettelkasten needed to be as software agnostic as realistically possible.

I still follow incantations of the RoamCult and realize that every new and shiny thingy they are adding to Roam breaks the concept of each page being a simple Markdown file. The Markdown that Roam exports is not compliant with most other Markdown editors and significant cleaning up needs to be done.

For every new feature that Roam added to the magic of your thoughts, it deviates from basic, agnostic Markdown and simply entrenches your content tighter and tighter into their framework.

Yes. Get the hell out of there as quickly as you can.

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@kdjamesrd: an essential point you make there about portability. I had to learn the hard way, getting out of Evernote, OneNote, and Cherrytree. Each time I had to export my data and spend a lot of time fixing it, until the penny dropped: it should be software agnostic. Markdown !!! Yay.

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Amen to that!
Same thoughts here.
Roam is great and everyone needs to make a decision for themselves.
I don’t like my notes put into a database and/or in a proprietary format.
Obsidian is the right solution for those issues. The makers have put this in their Manifesto so that you being the owner of your information and the fact that that information is kept in a software agnostic way is great.
I do understand that this is not an issues for others which I respect. Someday their penny will drop too :wink:

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There’s another aspect: your data on Roam’s server is accessible to any Tom, Dick, and Harry working at Roam. The manifesto says “we promise not to”, but there is no guarantee of not having a rogue engineer flouting the rules.

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Also, promises aren’t any more legally binding than the norms that used to keep US presidents in check :cowboy_hat_face:.

Not that I think anyone would want to look at anything I’ve written.

Been reading a book called “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” that has me thinking about this kind of thing even more than I normally do.

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@KevinR: you’ve put it the right way.

Thanks for mentioning the book :grinning:

I’ve once had a Roam cultist explain to me that it wasn’t right to keep private notes. Instead we should all be sharing everything we write in this new global brain. So it has come to this.

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