Analog and Digital Junk Drawers and the Beauty of Roam Research

Analog and Digital Junk Drawers and the Beauty of Roam Research

Today I was straightening up the kitchen, and noticed that a bunch of random stuff was accumulating on top of a bench by the window. I was trying to figure out where to put the various items when it occurred to me - we never designated a junk drawer after moving in a few months. No wonder.

Junk drawers are as American as it gets, NPR had a great piece on The Great American junk drawer years back:

The Great American Junk Drawer can be an accidental time capsule, a haphazard scrap heap, a curious box of memories and meaninglessness. It can also serve as a Rorschachian reflection of your life.
You know what we're talking about: The drawer of detritus. The has-been bin. That roll-out repository where you toss your odds and ends. Sometimes very odd odds and ends. Sometimes whatnot never to be seen again.
Various places on the Internet, such as The Junk Drawer Project and House Beautiful, showcase people's messes and miscellanies. We found a few images of junk drawers on Flickr. And if you don't have enough junk of your own, you can purchase a Junk Drawer Starter Kit on Ebay.
You can tell a lot about a person or a family from the household junk drawer. "I snoop through people's drawers, pantries, closets and garages as part of my research," says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University, "and I can say without hesitation that the junk drawer is the most revealing place I can look."

While there are psychos people who don't like them, it can be a very useful component of your overall home design, that allows everything else to stay organized except the stuff you have no idea where to put. The junk drawer is a great analog example of "Don't make me think" design.

This got me thinking of digital junk drawers.

Digital junk drawers manifest in a number of ways. Some applications reduce the stress by making both everything and nothing junk. Snapchat (and story format at large) is a good example. You share something, it disappears. You don't really need a junk drawer feature on Snapchat, because there is no junk to worry about. Oddly enough it kind of makes Snapchat one big junk drawer. Twitter started out very similar. You share a tweet to the world never to be seen again. Search sucked, nobody could find you or know who you were, retweets were very primitive and feeds were not algorithmic. You could always find an old tweet it if you knew what to look for, but it was very hard for anyone else to ever see it. Ironically, everything Twitter has done since has been to become less of a junk drawer. It's almost the opposite now - a fridge with a see-through door in the kitchen of a household that only eats takeout and drinks soda.

Another major digital junk drawer shows up through a some combination of filters to produce a stress free experience of infinite storage. Cloud storage + search +  some other filters is usually the formula. Gmail can keep all your mail for you to search later, but also just give you what you need to see in your inbox. Dropbox can store all your files for you and you can search for them anywhere.

Roam Research might be the best digital junk drawer

Yesterday, I  finally dug into Roam Research - the note taking tool generating tons of buzz. When I heard they raised a seed round at $200M, my first reaction was "That number is way too high to be too high."  There had to be something powerful there. I was right. It's definitely the best new software I've used in a while. I love it mostly because it is an amazing digital junk drawer.

The beauty of Roam is summed up quite well in this post by Nat Eliason, where he basically all but calls Roam a great digital junk drawer.  I've quoted some relevant highlights below (emphasis mine).

On hierarchy:

This also highlights a big difference between Roam and other note taking tools: tags are both everything and nothing. Every page is a tag, and every tag is a page. Whether you do a [[Page Link]] or a #Hashtag Link is purely a stylistic choice. I use [[Page Links]] when it’s inline, and #Hashtag Links when they’re out of context, but you can use them however you want.
By structuring information in this way, Roam makes it super easy to move laterally across your information, while retaining vertical references. The book Emergency by Neil Strauss can live in my Book Notes page, my Prepping page, and my Neil Strauss page, without having to be moved.
This removes all the decision making about where to put things that you frequently run into with Evernote, Notion, etc. When everything can be everywhere, you don’t have to worry about the filing structure. You just keep adding links.

This is key, and similar to Snapchat is some ways. Nothing really matters. There is real organization to worry about, and in doing so it just becomes one big organized junk drawer.

On pages and links:

In most note taking apps, you need a reason to make a page. In Roam you don’t. You can make new pages constantly, and since you don’t need to file or do anything with them there’s nothing stopping you from making pages as placeholders to tie information together.
For example, I have a page on “Modern Religion.” ...
...It takes two seconds to type #Modern Religion and add new data to it, and doesn’t require updating the actual page at all. And if I do want to go in and start coordinating my thoughts on it, I’ll already have a great and widely referenced place to do so.
The best part about this is you don’t have to go create this page, it just gets created the first time you reference it with a Page or Hashtag link. And if you never use it again, it doesn’t matter. It’s not cluttering anything up, it’s just floating in space.

Similar to tags - it embraces junk, which in itself reduces clutter.

On Bi-Directional Links:

Let’s say I’m looking at my page on the book “Waking Up” by Sam Harris:
One of the tags I have linked for it is “Mindfulness.” If I click through to the Mindfulness page, I can see every other page that has referenced Mindfulness:
Then I could click through into any of those and check out those book notes, which would be great if I wanted to do a post about mindfulness.
But it gets better: Roam also shows me all the UNlinked references to Mindfulness. Everytime the word “mindfulness” shows up on any other page, but isn’t linked to this page:

This is a bit less obvious of Roam Research's junk drawer properties than the previous two passages, but is even more amazing. Bi-directional links go a step further and actually turn it into a smart, dynamic junk drawer as they essentially tell you what you have in your junk drawer and how it can be useful. This isn't really done anywhere on the web I know of is super powerful - especially if you think of the internet as a big junk drawer anyways.

The whole post by Nat is worth a read and the product is definitely worth trying out. There's a little bit of a learning curve which can feel intimidating but if you approach it like an amazing digital junk drawer, you can easily get past that.