April 3, 2022
Photo: Diana Polekhina/Unsplash
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.
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.
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:
“I use Todoist to track tasks. I would be absolutely lost without it. For project-y things (including blog writing and meal planning), I use Taiga and Trello.” — Ben Cotton
“iPhone Calendar.” – Bruno Kristensen
“My most used productivity tools:
— 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
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The crypto reckoning in the Finger Lakes, by Brian Kahn
Messaging apps may soon be forced to work together. It won’t be easy, by Sarah Roach
How social media became a 'debate-themed video game' and why the internet is destroying democracy, by Hirsh Chitkara
Think you know how NFT taxes work? Try getting a write-off, by Lindsey Choo
Sexual harassment training is outdated. VR might be a fix, by Nat Rubio-Licht
Jack Dongarra’s supercomputing work just won a Turing. Now he’s looking to Big Cloud, by Kate Kaye
Facebook paid GOP firm to malign TikTok — The Washington Post
Rumble, the right’s go-to video site, has much bigger ambitions — The New York Times
I finally reached computing Nirvana. What was it all for? — Wired
Online shopping in the middle of the ocean — Rest of World
He chased Silicon Valley dreams amid the cannabis boom. But did his ambition lead to his murder? — Inc.
How did a hacker steal over $600 million from a crypto gaming blockchain? — Ars Technica
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.
Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to our tips line, email@example.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.