Roaming through contexts with Roam: How I use it

This is the last, 5th instalment on Roam. Here I’ll share how I use it. This part will be easier to write than some of the previous ones. What won’t be easy is to keep it short.

Here are the links to the previous post in the series: Part 1: what is it, Part 2: Distinction, Part 3:Self-reference, and Part 4: Organization.

Migrating from Evernote to Roam felt like going backwards and forward at the same time. Before Everone, I used to use Zim. In Zim creating a new note from within a note and backlinks were standard features from the first release1Evernote is lacking them to this date, 17 years after its launch. That’s why it felt like going backwards. And it felt also like a big leap forward because Roam changed the game not only on note-taking but on personal knowledge management in general.

The main difference is that conceptually Roam treats the data as a graph. I’m not referring to the graph visualizing how pages are linked by references. This view shows only a small part of the graph, hiding the main element, the block. Blocks in Roam are basically paragraphs and other content chunks with unique identifiers. Blocks are not something RoamResearch came up with. Many content management tools, for example, WordPress, refer to the content components as blocks. But Roam pushed that idea a few steps further by allowing blocks to quickly be nested, referred to, embedded, created from a piece of text in a block, appear in the sidebar, being searched and queried. Block capabilities can be extended and it has been, beyond what I thought was possible. Yet, for me, the most important thing is that blocks, along with the special kind of block called “page”, are the nodes of my graph.



To get the most of my graph, I follow certain conventions and practices. As I explained in detail in Part 2, creating a page reference is making a distinction. It is followed by further distinctions. For example, I may create a reference to a named entity such as Paris, Athens, and Alice. In the context of a block, I know if I mean Paris the city, or Paris the street, or Paris the square, or Paris the cafe. I also know if I mean Athens the city or Athens Research, the open-source tool, inspired by Roam. I know that Alice is a person, and I know that I meant Paris the city, and Athens the tool but I want to let my graph know that as well. To query my graph, just like when querying Wikidata or DBpedia, it becomes very important to know the type of a thing. That’s one of the reasons to have a knowledge model, an ontology. Continue reading

Roaming through contexts with Roam: Organization

There are such kinds of tools which, when you interact with them, an organization emerges that modulates the interaction. That organization takes on a life of its own. The design and affordances of some tools for thought enable the emergence, persistence and adaptability of such an organization.

This is the fourth out of five posts of the series on Roam. The first part was about what is Roam likeThe second was about the powerful concept of distinction, and the fourth built on that to explain self-reference in Roam and why it is important. The current one is on organization. The series started in April 2020 with the intention to be published within a couple of months. That wasn’t to be as my workload tripled1pun not intended but is welcome once I realized it: it wasn’t just the volume that was three times more than before but also it was mostly work with triples  by that time. And although the productivity boost coming from Roam made it possible, cutting things was unavoidable and writing blog posts was one of the first things to go. Not go forever though, just wait patiently in the backlog.

Three things happened in the meantime. One, I gathered more experience working with Roam and more observations on how that structural coupling works. Second, my book on what makes organizations work was published in November last year. This means the current essay will be shorter than intended and the curious readers are invited to dive into more supporting arguments and details there. And third, the ecosystem changed. Now, apart from Roam, there are personal knowledge graph tools like Logseq, Athens, Obsidian, Kanopi, Codex, Foam, and Dendron, among others. They all have, in both similar and different ways, systemic properties that enable the interaction with the tool to be like with a living being.


Roam is a tool for organizing. You can use it to organize your day, project, research, knowledge, life. But there is also another organization, emerging from the interaction it2That doesn’t apply only to Roam, but also to some other PKG tools as those mentioned above.. This organization behaves as if it cares about its viability. It belongs to a class self-sustained systems, where the most typical organizations such as companies, government agencies, and NGOs belong to. Not surprisingly families, clubs, music bands, teams are also self-sustained systems of this kind. But it may seem strange to you if I put habits3Egbert, M., & Cañamero, L. (2014). Habit-based Regulation of Essential Variables. Artificial Life Conference Proceedings 14. MIT Press. and emotions4Colombetti, G. (2014). The feeling body: Affective science meets the enactive mind. The MIT Press. in the same class. There are good reasons to do so. Some say hurricanes are something like that too. A friend of mine also sees some dishes as self-sustained systems.

Self-sustained organizations emerge also in simple situations when we are trying to pass each other in a narrow corridor, but that lasts only seconds. Or during meetings. We tend to see meetings only as events. But they are social species, having a mind of their own, emerging from the complex dynamic of intentions, preferences, agendas, personalities, emotions, egos, and tribes, acting within the constraints of norms, rituals, and rules. This interplay between enabling conditing and constraints is always present in self-sustained organizations.

Do you need to interact with a software application for personal knowledge management to enable a self-sustained organization to emerge? No. Luhmann saw his Zettelkasten – not a software, just indexed cards in boxes – as his thinking partner:

As a result of extensive work with this technique, a kind of secondary memory will arise, an alter ego with who we can constantly communicate. It proves to be similar to our own memory in that it does not have a thoroughly constructed order of its entirety, not hierarchy, and most certainly no linear structure like a book. Just because of this, it gets its own life, independent of its author.


Does it happen only when you interact with tools for thought like Roam? Certainly not. It will be a matter of future research to find out when this happens, how, and when interacting with what sort of applications. A type of application that most likely belong to this class are videogames.

[G]ameplay is argued as being the achievement of dyadic and reciprocal coupling between a player and the game. In this reciprocity, gameplay arises as autonomous organization that is both self-sustaining and precarious. Coordination and exploration are offered as constitutive principles of videogame gameplay.

The viability of all these autonomous organizations, habits, emotions, teams, companies, and the one emerging when we interact with interconnected notes, depends on three essential balances. Continue reading