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The state of backlinks

‘Connected thought’ apps like Roam Research and Obsidian are shooting up like mushrooms. And for good reason. While they’re not really doing anything new, they’re taking the decades old idea of hypertext to a whole new level. The magic word here is ‘bi-directional linking’.

If you don’t know what the fuss is all about, I definitely recommend checking one of these apps out. The point of backlinks seems pretty simple: whereas earlier hypertext implementations like Wikipedia will only let you link one way, backlinks will also show you the sources that link to the current page. Especially Roam came up with a great implementation of it. The ‘blocks of information’ that link to the current page will be shown right underneath the content, basically turning the backlinks into content itself.

Backlinks in Roam are displayed as part of the page

Like I said, the idea seems simple, but the result is revolutionary. Because pieces of information can be linked from and shown anywhere, it doesn’t really matter where you save it anymore. That’s the promise of Roam: You don’t need to organize information into structures and hierarchies and databases, all you need to do is reference the right pieces of information and everything you need will show up in the right place. It’s no wonder Roam has accumulated a cult-like following. Backlinks are magic.

Now I love connecting my evergreen notes1 to books, podcasts, stories, songs and poems I come across. Based on the above, intertextual research and Roam seem to be a perfect match right? But this is where my disappointment comes in. I used to do something like this in Dynalist for a while and it’s just perfect. I want to see quotes about friendship from Harry Potter or a list of movies I’ve watched that star Keanu Reeves? Or what if I want to see all references of ‘friendship’ ordered by the kind of media and their watched-status? I click a few tags or fold a few trees and my entire ‘second brain’ is narrowed down to exactly the records I’m looking for.

‘Backlinks’ in Dynalist

But for all their magic, neither Roam nor Obsidian offer any way to make sense of backlinks. Yes, Roam lets you set ‘properties’ of a page and ‘query’ information from them, but that still requires you to manually add these queries to each page (which kind of breaks the automagic, doesn’t it?). The current state of their backlinks is nothing but one flat list, each reference just dumped there for you to make sense of yourself. Roam doesn’t even honour the order of appearance of references. Obsidian will let you sort pages into folders, but it still presents backlinks as if there were no such thing at all. Imagine how much more useful such a flat list became if could be sorted and folded by folder or property.

Now both Roam and Obsidian are still young. I’m really excited about the current resurgence of hypertext and I can’t wait to see where all this is going. But for now, backlinks are still just backlinks. And I believe they can be so much more.

  1. A term coined by Andy Matuschak for notes that represent your current body of knowledge