Users are taking the internet back
Your five-minute guide to the best of Protocol (and the internet) from the week that was, from the user-first future of technology to the fight over a bitcoin mine to the messy war between Facebook and TikTok.
Making the internet your own
I have used just about every productivity tool that exists. And in trying to figure out why none of them ever felt quite right to me, I’ve talked to countless experts about productivity, all of whom told me roughly the same thing: that the problem with productivity tools is that they tell you how to work. They have structures and systems, specific ideas about design and non-fungible opinions about How People Get Stuff Done. That’s why so many productivity geeks end up using pen and paper: There’s nothing digital that’s nearly as adaptable to the way we work.
One reason Obsidian has recently captured the imagination of so many people in the tech world is that it comes awfully close to turning that model on its head. Obsidian is, on its own, a bare bones (and pretty unattractive) app for taking notes. It has two big selling points: Your Obsidian notebook is just a folder of plain text files, which you can store or save anywhere and are always in your control, and you can link notes together with the Wikipedia-style [[ command that has become popular in lots of productivity tools. In the app as you download it, that’s about all there is.
Most of the best stuff about Obsidian wasn’t made by Obsidian. It was made by an increasingly large and dedicated group of developers who build themes and plug-ins that can change just about everything about the app. Many of those developers started building things just to solve their own issues with the app: like Stephan Ango, a co-founder at Lumi who has become a mini-celebrity in the Obsidian world thanks to his Minimal theme, which turns the app into something much simpler and more native-feeling.
Ango started using Obsidian a few years ago, and loved everything about how it worked, “but the one thing is that the UI is so ugly for me.” He wanted a Mac app that felt like a Mac app, not whatever weird, Space Age-y thing Obsidian was. So he redesigned the app for himself. Eventually, he published it on GitHub, and now tens of thousands of people use Obsidian the Minimal way.
Other developers have built plug-ins that let you create functional tables from text documents, or dynamically pull data from thousands of different notes into a single one. You can manage tasks in Obsidian, create mind maps, organize your notes any way you can imagine, sync data with other apps and much more, all through third-party plug-ins. Because they’re all open source, and they all run natively in your app, there’s no risk of them going away. And on the off chance something catastrophic happens and Obsidian breaks entirely? You’ve still got a folder of plain text files, which are as versatile a digital object as you’re ever going to find.
Ango told me that durability is why he fell in love with Obsidian in the first place. “I’m making all my decisions based on the Lindy effect,” he said. “Plain text has been around for 50 years, it’ll probably be around another 50.” The apps might change, the syntax might break a little, but “I want my notes to still be readable 50 years from now.” He’s not betting on a VC-backed app existing that long, or praying that AWS doesn’t break. His thousands of notes belong to him, and he can use them however he sees fit.
I say all this not to tell you to use Obsidian. (Though you should, it’s great.) Obsidian’s growth is part of a bigger trend, a thing we’re starting to see all over the internet: a push to change how we control our data and how we give it away. One of the core pillars of Web3 is that information is permanent and immutable: A developer can stop updating their app, but they can’t pull the rug out from under users. Tim Berners-Lee, the godfather of the internet himself, is working on a new standard through which you create and control a database with all your personal information, and you can dole out and revoke access as you like.
Matt Mullenweg told me last year he believes that “as more and more of our lives start to be run and dictated by the technology we use, it's a human right to be able to see how that technology works and modify it." Of course, he would say that: He’s a huge open-source advocate. But the shift he’s describing is not dissimilar from what the EU’s Digital Markets Act is promising by forcing messaging apps to interoperate, or what Twitter is doing with Bluesky, or what all the companies working on metaverse avatars want to create, or the rulings that are forcing Apple to open up the App Store a bit. They’re all asking the same question: What if the internet wasn’t a set of competing, siloed platforms, each with its own rules and systems and walls? What if it were more fluid, more open, and put users in control of their experience?
That’s a hard thing to pull off in a notes app, where design matters and most users don’t want to spend hours installing plug-ins and tweaking settings. (Right now, Obsidian is still mostly optimized for the tinkerers, not the “I just need to write this down” crowd.) It’s orders of magnitude harder in social spaces or communication tools, where people need to have some shared understanding and context in order for the system to work. And it will require a set of business models and standards that mostly don’t exist. But the more I talk to people, the more I realize this is what they’re talking about. The technology and apps change, but the push to give technology back to users is everywhere. And it’s going to change everything.
You tell us
We asked you to tell us how you get things done, and you responded! We got a lot of chaotic systems, a lot of frustrated notes app users and a bunch of pen-and-paper diehards. Here are a few of our favorite responses:
“iPhone Calendar.” – Bruno Kristensen
“My most used productivity tools:
- OneNote – I use this for everything from dissertation research to my own cookbook, to lists for books, things to do, etc…
- Apple Notes – I use this every day for to-do lists at work and home – easy sync from Mac to iPhone.
- Google Keep – I use this to grocery shop because I can check stuff off my list and it disappears. All my other lists shifted to Notes because I like that format better, but they don’t have a checklist that removes items as you go.
- Remarkable – I like this simple tablet for note-taking in meetings and journaling. No email or internet, so limits distractions. Don’t need any paper, can download and write on PDFs, and can email my notes later. For some reason, writing over typing is still my preferred way to take down info in conversations or processing my thinking. Also has templates for all sorts of things. I use it to create tablature for guitar.
- Wallet iPhone app – ease of Apple Pay, smart card for bus/metro and vaccination record for COVID – like because of ease of use and helps to keep the real wallet minimalist.”
— Bryan Todd
“I have a psychotic old-school system where I maintain a master to-do list in a notebook and then I make mini to-do lists for each day (sometimes multiple a day, depending on volume) on Post-Its. I recognize that this system warrants chaos — my desk is a graveyard of discarded Post-Its and my handwriting is basically illegible, but somehow it works for me. I've tried to use Google Docs to organize myself, but there's just something about physically crossing off a task on paper that gives me the productivity high I need to get my work done.” — Allie Murphy
“I've tried things like Asana and a few other to-do list apps, but ultimately all the functions to make these ~~more customizable~~ take away from the bottom line goal: to get something crossed off my list. I've found the basic Notes app paired with standard Google Calendar reminders and an old-school (but color-coded) handwritten to-do list make sure I stay on track, productive, and that no tasks fall off my radar.” — Gina Gacad“Sunsama has been amazing for me. It’s focused on your individual tasks and I like the planning ritual you go through at the start and end of your work day. The interface is clean and syncs with a bunch of other tools. I have used a plethora of other planning tools. Sunsama is the first one I’ve used consistently for over nine months now.” — Chris McConnell
A MESSAGE FROM DUCKDUCKGO
DuckDuckGo has an all-in-one privacy solution aimed at simplifying online privacy protection. DuckDuckGo’s app can be used as an everyday browser with private search, tracker blocking, encryption, and now email protection built-in. It’s the free, easy button for online privacy.
The best of Protocol
The crypto reckoning in the Finger Lakes, by Brian Kahn
- The Greenidge power plant is now mostly a bitcoin mine, and the company behind it has big expansion plans. Those plans — and what they’d mean for the climate, the economy and the community desperately fighting to keep them from happening — could be a bellwether for the future of crypto mining in the U.S.
- The EU’s Digital Markets Act wants to force messaging apps to interoperate, so you could use Instagram to message a friend on Snapchat and then respond with iMessage. It seems like a good idea! It’s going to be really hard to pull off without compromising some of the best things about messaging apps.
- Justin E. H. Smith’s new book, “The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning,” does not mince words about what the digital world has wrought. But Smith also argues that the best way to fix the internet is with the internet. And we have to start now.
Think you know how NFT taxes work? Try getting a write-off, by Lindsey Choo
- Happy Tax Season! And best of luck to everyone with an OpenSea account. There’s not much yet in the way of specific NFT tax law, but most experts are starting to agree on how it works. But if you gave your fancy JPG to Ukraine or some other charity this year, and you want a write-off on the big-ticket item? Nobody knows.
Sexual harassment training is outdated. VR might be a fix, by Nat Rubio-Licht
- VR can be immersive to the point of convincing your brain it’s real life. That creates lots of opportunities, but also raises ethical questions practically everywhere you turn. The companies working on sexual harassment training in VR — and expanding into other kinds of corporate skilling and training — have a lot to figure out.
- Jack Dongarra helped build a computer the size of two tennis courts with a thoroughly preposterous amount of computing power. Those supercomputers are hugely important to research and science around the world. And yet he’s also looking to cloud computing to help power the future.
The best of everything else
Facebook paid GOP firm to malign TikTok — The Washington Post
- When a competitor appears to be stealing approximately every single ounce of your cool, what do you do? When you’re Meta, you try tearing TikTok down to size by turning it into a story about China, content moderation and more. And you hope nobody notices it’s you behind it.
- If that’s the shot, here’s the chaser: Instead of stopping content it identified as problematic, Facebook was elevating that content for months.
Rumble, the right’s go-to video site, has much bigger ambitions — The New York Times
- Most of the “free speech!” social apps aren’t working. But Rumble looks like an exception: A video site set up in direct opposition to YouTube — and Big Tech in general — is growing fast and starting to think bigger.
- Anyone who’s ever spent too many hours optimizing, tweaking and perfecting their computing setup will resonate with this story about what happens when everything finally feels right. And you learn what you were actually building for.
- In a similar vein, here’s a good piece on how infinite storage and forever-long camera rolls are changing our brains.
Online shopping in the middle of the ocean — Rest of World
- This startup story is way more fun than “dude graduates from Stanford, moves north, joins YC.” Ecommerce may be eating the world, but it’s not yet everywhere, and the folks filling in the gaps are opening new opportunities to new people.
- The story of Tushar Atre is horrible and complicated, and to be honest only tangentially a tech story. It’s mostly about drive, and capitalism, and the relentlessness that tech prizes — and all the ways that can go wrong. It’s also just a hell of a true crime story.
- The Axie Infinity hack is going to be a Moment in the history of crypto, the kind of thing that either inspired companies and developers to do better or made clear just how broken the system was. (As with so much in crypto, which way it’ll go is anyone’s guess.) This is a good look at how the tech failed and what has to happen next.
A MESSAGE FROM DUCKDUCKGO
Tracking is a comprehensive problem — over 80% of websites, apps and emails contain third-party trackers. Because of that, people need a multi-pronged privacy solution. DuckDuckGo’s all-in-one privacy app can be used as an everyday browser with multiple features built-in, including private search, tracker blocking, encryption, and email protection.
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