The state of backlinks

The more I’ve been using connected thought apps like Obsidian and Roam, the more I’ve become surprised with both the importance of backlinks and the total lack of options to make sense of them.

I wrote my thoughts down here: https://en.technosoof.nl/blog/2020/07/03/state-of-backlinks.html TL;DR: backlinks are useful, but they’re still just one big flat list. It would be way more useful if they could be sorted and folded by folder or other properties.

I already found some related topics like Nested folders and Allow Show folder name alongwith file name in backlinks, but I feel like this could be so much more.

Curious to hear how you think about this and how you could see this being implemented in Obsidian.

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This is of course one of the advantages of Roam in this regard. You can query, filter, and hide/show various aspects of your notes as desired. While not 100% fully formed yet in Roam, it is powerful. I personally use both pieces of software (Roam and Obsidian), yet I still feel at the most foundational level you should be curating your backlinks through “Related Notes” sections in each note (as you use the note and process it further). Backlinks are the beginning of discovery, but as the Zettelkasten system demonstrates, notes should be strung into linear pathways, not through backlinks, but through intentional linkages.

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Backlinks ARE intentional links, from the viewpoint of the originating note.

In fact, there is no difference between forward links and backlinks.

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Perhaps my language was inelegant, but functionally there is no difference. However if you have 20 links going from one note outward, I would curate (highlight) those that currently more actionable for the project at hand. Particularly in a zettelkasten system where those atomic notes first emerge through a single linear context, and later come into further salience as another avenue of investigation crosses an earlier one. In a way I think about it like this. Backlinks are level 1 cognition of linkages, “Related Notes,” level 2. New permanent/evergreen notes as level 3 (something new out of a collection of linkages.

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I agree that backlinks are just normal links and should be intentional in a Zettelkasten. The point is that for me my Zettelkasten serves as a ‘top layer’ to navigate my ever growing body of (mostly fiction) quotes, stories, songs, books, articles, etc. You don’t want to have to add every single highlight from a book manually to a Zettel.

This is where the automatic backlinks or ‘linked mentions’ or whatever you want to call it come in very useful, because they allow you to simply ‘tag’ something and see whatever you linked to the current Zettel without having to add each and every backlink manually.

The only problem here is the lack of organisation. Obsidian already offers folders, so why not show the mentions in their position in the folder hierarchy?

Say I’ve got a Zettel ‘Life is inherently meaningless’ and a list of backlinks that goes like this:

- Mentions
  - [standalone quote]
  - [book I'm reading]
  - [movie I've seen in 2020]
  - [song lyrics]
  - [book I've read in 2002]
  - [article I've read in 2020]
  - [movie I've seen in 2019]

But I’ve already organised all of these in folders. Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense if they were shown in that hierarchy? Like:

- Mentions
  - books
    - currently reading
       - [book I'm reading]
    - read
      - 2002
        - [book I've read in 2002]
  - movies
    - seen
      - 2019
        - [movie I've seen in 2019]
      - 2020
        - [movie I've seen in 2020]
  - articles
    - read
      - 2020
        - [article I've read in 2020]
  - quotes
    - [standalone quote]
  - lyrics
    - [song lyric]
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Is this really a zettelkasten or just a set of notes?
(This isn’t meant as a negative comment. Just a question because a zettelkasten is defined by some very precise requirements, and I thought it better to check before making assumptions).

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I do keep the two combined. So there’s the Zettelkasten with all the atomicity stuff etc. And there’s the notes (books, quotes, movies, etc.) The Zettelkasten does function independently. The related content is like an extra layer that can be linked to the topics that I cover in the Zettelkasten.

I was just giving this another thought and I guess it’s like the reference manager that many Zettlers talk about. But rather than keeping my references in a separate app, I like to keep it in Obsidian (in a separate folder) to make it easy to link and add notes to them. One of the cool things about that is that it can turn anything into a reference. People, stories, movies, it doesn’t matter. And because they’re kept in a separate folder, they don’t clutter up the Zettelkasten itself.

Agree on all the above (used Roam for ~4 months, trying to go to Obsidian). The backlinks here are nominal and provide none of the niceties that Roam provides to actually make them useful.

On major thing Roam does is show more context on backlinks, often by nearest header. So while I care where a backlink is, I also want more context on that link. Displaying the header the backlink falls under (and defaulting to page name) would be super nice.

Additionally, having the ability to filter backlinks by their header. This is what Roam provides and lets me look for backlinks of something like “Automobiles” and filter it by “occurures that appear under the heading of #quotes” to then find quote about automobiles (and then due to headings I can usually see who quoted it). This is all done from the backlink panel, and never needing to navigate to a new page.

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+1 for me

A friend of mine was also telling me about the lack of logical links. He’d love to see things like “influences / influenced by”, or “supported by / refuted by” in his backlinks so that they’re not all treated equally.

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I’ve suggested something similar here and over at the zettelkasten.de forums. Semantic links could also greatly enhance the usefulness of backlinks:

In my opinion, the next further improvement would be to offer a formalized & standard way to encode the link relationship type with the link itself. Besides many other benefits, this would also allow software to provide a much better backlinks feature. E.g., if we could mark certain note links as “supporting” (or “opposing”) the thoughts in our current note, the software could group the autogenerated backlinks by link relationship type. That way, the software could visually separate links to “supporting” notes from “opposing” ones. IMO, such “qualified links” would be truly useful since they’d better preserve the knowledge aspect of a link.