The Case against Metadata Tagging in Roam

by | May 1, 2020

Roam and Note Taking PTSD

First of all I’ve been ruined (in the best way) by Roam and am now fully a part of the #roamcult. If you know what that means, keep reading. If not, go check out Roam Research.

Roam has changed how I store information and more importantly how I use that information later.

Most note taking systems are focused on storing information. The concept of linking between notes is usually a secondary thought or a forced workaround. In apps like Evernote or Workflowy, you have to tag a note with keywords in order to create a the idea of a link to another note. For example, if I made notes regarding Software Architecture and wanted to group them together, I tagged the notes with “Software Architecture”. This is a workaround, but not a great solution.

Roam attacked this problem head on. If you want to create a connection to a topic, you create a link directly to that topic by surrounding the word in brackets like [[Software Architecture]]. It links to that page if it exists and creates a brand new page if it doesn’t.

The Roam community is in its early days. And because it’s the early days many people are still using solutions that they were forced to use in less elegant applications. Specifically the idea of tagging notes with a “Tags” as metadata and then listing a bunch of linked references after it. (If you’re true #roamcult, you’re using the hashtag version like #[[Software Architecture]].)

This does create a link, but it’s a weak link and is a remnant of the Note Taking PTSD we all have from using less elegant note taking systems.

And yes, PTSD because I think all of us long time note takers have had this moment:

In less elegant note taking scenarios, we did what we had to do in order to survive and tried to remember things as best as those solutions allowed.

We’re not there anymore but we’re still acting like it.

The problem with Metadata Tagging

What I’m referring to as metadata tags are when you create a metadata section in your notes and add links that refer to the entire note. Like this:

There’s a problem with this approach. Metadata tags don’t show us why we linked two notes. If you only connect notes via a metadata tag, then you didn’t capture WHY you think that connection exists.

When connecting via metadata tags only, you rely on future-you to make the same connection but out of context of how present-you made it. Future-you might not remember the intricacies of WHY present-you thought that link was a good idea. They might be forced to try and think through the ideas again.

If we’re striving to take good notes and have new ideas, having to work to remember old ideas we didn’t write down is missing the point. It’s the same confusion that happens when someone writes down something sloppy and can’t read their own handwriting later.

Metadata tagging is a quick way to identify you had an idea but not actually capture that idea with any detail.

Contextual Tagging

When I started using Roam, I did this too. I took notes, created a metadata item, and nested “Tags” under it. Then I proceeded to gleefully list out all the topics I thought a note was tied to.

But later when I saw those notes as linked references, I could see they weren’t as useful as tags that appeared in context of written out thoughts.

Where I had only linked notes using metadata tags, I had to try to remember (or guess) why the two notes were connected. If the linked note had a descriptive title it was easier to see but linked notes that were meeting notes or other one word topics were harder.

The links which were more immediately useful were ones that existed in context of some sort of sentence or description. I could see a descriptive summary of why that link existed.

These references showed me a more complete thought and helped me understand why I linked the note in the first place. I could read a sentence, nod my head, and think, “Yup, that makes sense why I linked it!”

How to change Metadata tags to Contextual tags

I stopped using metadata tags and changed all of my existing ones to contextual tags.

Finding the tags was easy. I had used the phrase “Tags”, so I just searched for that phrase and had a list of where it had been used.

Then I went back and read through the notes to identify why why I thought those tags existed.

Identifying Existing Context

If the tag was clearly stated in the notes, I linked to that instead. For example, if I found “Software Architecture” in context, I changed it to “[[Software Architecture]]”

Adding Context

If the tag didn’t exist in context I looked to see where it made sense to add it. Sometimes this was a done by adding a note indicating that tag. Sometimes I added a summary of the notes and included it there.

Missing Context

I realized some tags didn’t make sense anymore.

Some of the things I had added as tags weren’t really prominent in the notes I was reviewing. I’m not sure if this is because I got tag happy and was just adding things (best case scenario) or if the reason I originally added the tag was now lost forever because the mental connection didn’t resurface (worst case scenario). Either way, I removed tags that weren’t obvious.

Now as I take notes, all of my linking is done as contextual tagging.

Metadata isn’t bad

Generic clumps of links like “Tags” isn’t as helpful as thoughtful linking between notes. But metadata itself isn’t bad.

I still use “Author”, “Source”, “Date”, and other metadata items. The difference is that they are specific and I don’t have to think what the connection means. If I see “Author” and a link after it, I know that is the person that wrote it. It’s straightforward.

It’s the ambiguous tagging that I advise against. The Note Taking PTSD habits from other and older systems like Twitter and Evernote which aren’t needed anymore.

Quick Final Thoughts

The Roam community is still new and we’re figuring out best practices as we go.

This is not meant as a criticism towards anyone who suggested using metadata tags. It’s just an encouragement for us to move past old habits as a community.