For more than a year, I’ve been using Roam Research, a powerful thought processor designed to help users identify, explore, and link related ideas together. As a Roam “believer,” I’ve paid $500 up front for five years of service. And I’ve published multiple articles and a video series designed to encourage people to adopt Roam.
When my one year anniversary with Roam came on June 17th, I expected to publish a retrospective of what I’d learned over the course of the past year … but I didn’t expect that what I would learn, in the end, is that an app called Obsidian.md is the better tool for my purposes.
As many members of the Roam Research community have done this year, I’ve made the switch to Obsidian. Here’s why:
Lessons from my Journal
Since high school, I’ve kept a journal, or a chronicle of the events of my life, in one format or another. Since writing a book on lucid dreaming, I’ve also kept a detailed journal of my dreams.
At first, Roam Research struck me as revolutionary tool for journaling. (A good friend, Tracy Winchell, the mother of Roaman Journaling, discussed this with me at length on her YouTube channel.) After shifting my personal journal and dream journal entries to Roam, I discovered intriguing patterns in my thoughts and dreams I hadn’t noticed before. I was delighted.
But even as I rejoiced in Roam’s magic, two concerns nagged me.
First: because Roam saves all my journal entries in the cloud, my most personal musings are being stored on someone else’s computers. If Roam Research were to experience a massive data loss, my carefully-curated garden of notes would simply vanish.
(It is possible to create local Roam graphs, with content stored in your browser’s cache, but I couldn’t bring myself to trust my journal entries to Chome’s finicky caching.)
Of course, if I followed good back-up practices — if I exported my Roam databases to my hard drive on a regular schedule, for example — then I’d still have something. But if Roam’s reliability rests upon my ability to remember to export my notes to a local hard drive on a regular basis … why not use a tool that stores those notes there in the first place?
By contrast, if Obsidian ever ceases to be a software product, my notes are right here, safe and sound, preserved as simple text files on my own computer. Better yet, because every single note is a Markdown text file, editing and manipulating my notes with other common tools is quick and easy.
If you need to future-proof your personal knowledge management system and you care about the integrity of your data, Obsidian may be a better solution than Roam.
Security and Privacy
Second: I feel a cloud service, especially one containing personal information, should have robust data security in place to protect user content from prying eyes. (The Mac-based journaling app, Day One, for example, offers end-to-end encryption of journal entries.) But Roam doesn’t offer end-to-end encryption (though one can encrypt individual blocks), and anyone guessing your single password would have complete access to everything in your graph.
Even if Roam never suffers the misfortune of a data breach, the lack of real security remains a concern. Having my notes on How to Take Smart Notes exposed to the world would be one thing. But having certain journal entries or dream logs made public could be embarrassing or even painful for me and others.
As concerns about privacy increased, I found myself hesitating to write frankly about the events of my day, my feelings about them, and the details of my dreams. With time, caution led to hesitation, and hesitation led to detachment. When I saw my journaling habit floundering, I started journaling in Obsidian.
Obsidian stores my journals and my dreams on my own computer. When Obsidian syncs entries between my MacBook Pro, my Mac Mini, my iPhone, and my iPad, those entries are end-to-end encrypted — a privacy model that requires me to “trust no one.” And the same automated back-up procedures that keep all my data safe are now also automatically and securely backing up my Obsidian journal.
Ultimately, I found myself asking, “If I’m already working in Obsidian every day for journaling … why use another tool for making notes?” So: for me, journaling proved to be the “gateway drug” that prompted my switch to Obsidian.
If you care at all about the integrity and security of your personal knowledge management system, Obsidian may be a better solution than Roam.
I confess that, during my year with Roam, I maintained a flirtation with Obsidian. More than once, I abandoned Roam and went all in on Obsidian, shifting all my notes from one platform to the other. And then, when I encountered various hurdles (usually encountered when trying to make Roam more like Obsidian, or Obsidian more like Roam), I’d dutifully pull everything from one tool back into the other.
I also confess this: most of the time, my return to Roam was less motivated by Roam’s functionality or benefits … and more due to the guilt I felt over having paid $500 for a tool I wasn’t using.
This vacillation happened five times between June 2020 and June 2021. With each transition, energy that could have been spent on creating new work got funneled into moving from one tool to the other. My uncertainties eventually became a drag on my productivity.
For my sanity and productivity’s sake, I needed to choose one tool or the other for my personal knowledge management system. But how to choose?
With a little digging, I came across a data point that made up my mind for me. During the weeks when I primarily used Roam Research, I created a lot of notes, most of which were developed in Roam and went no further. (Lots of thinking, with limited output.) But during the weeks I used Obsidian, I created a lot of notes, and a very high percentage of these went on to become social media posts, blog posts, articles, and scripts. (Lots of thinking, with lots of output.)
I was productive when using Roam, but I’m more productive when writing and working in Obsidian. I don’t completely understand why, but I have objective proof that this is the case. (Your mileage, of course, may vary!)
Through Roam, and especially through the Roam Book Club, I’ve met some of the smartest, friendliest, and most amazing people I’ve ever encountered on the Internet. Roam’s users, including the magicians who create powerful plug-ins for Roam, are remarkably earnest, helpful, and supportive.
The Obsidian community is equally smart, friendly, amazing, earnest, helpful, and supportive. This includes the developers, who have an admirable dedication to transparency with regard to Obsidian’s current and future direction. I pretty much know exactly where Obsidian is headed … and I feel like Obsidian’s creators want me to know where the app is headed.
And while this last bit is uncomfortable to say, I feel bound to say it: to me, Roam feels much more a cult of identity than Obsidian turns out to be. While there are wonderful people developing and working with both Roam and Obsidian, the Obsidian community has a heathier “vibe,” and feels more like home.
When I think about the utility offered by Roam and Obsidian, I think in terms of apps and the platform’s suitability for the kind of long-form writing I like to do.
While using Roam in browsers, I’ve frequently run into issues — especially on mobile platforms — with unexpected quirks due to the way Roam interacts with mobile browsers. More than once, I’ve longed for native applications for the Mac and for iOS. And while an app has appeared for the Mac, it’s an Electron app, and therefore feels less like a native app than a slow browser session disguised as an app.
For a long time, the lack of an iOS client was a big barrier to my adoption of Obsidian, too. But this year, a full-featured and rock-solid iOS app was released, and when paired with Obsidian’s sync service, it’s sheer magic. The mobile app has remarkable feature parity with the desktop app, and syncing — — right down to the themes I use and the settings I’ve made — is lightning fast.
Suitability for Long-Form Writing
It may sound odd that someone who once considered writing a novel in Roam is now uncertain about the app’s suitability for long-form writing.
But it’s true: the longer I used Roam, the more often I found myself struggling with creating long-form writing in an outliner app. Especially given my Roam workflow, which involved creating detailed, cascading, heavily-indented documents laced with copious links, my exported output required massive clean up before being ready to publish.
By contrast, the text I create in Obsidian — even when my process involves harvesting content from many disparate notes in order to create a single document — exports cleanly. In this way, Obsidian is very much like another app I’ve used and loved: Ulysses, a word processor for writers that breaks longer texts as small “scraps” that can be worked on in isolation before knitting them together.
I’m about to launch a novel-writing project in Obsidian, and expect that, in the process, I’ll learn a lot more about the benefits and limitations of creating a complex, long form document there. Based on my current experience, though, I have high confidence that Obsidian will prove to be an excellent environment for building and producing novel-length fiction.
Some Final Thoughts
I love Roam Research, and will always credit Roam for introducing me to the power and magic of backlinked notes.
I also love the Roam community — particularly the friends and contacts I’ve made through the Roam Book Club. To be perhaps more honest than I should be: one reason I’ve hesitated to talk about my move to Obsidian has been rooted in my concern that many people I’ve come to care deeply about might feel disappointed or abandoned once they know about the switch.
And — to be sure — Roam remains, to my knowledge, the most promising multi-player platform for large-scale, collaborative, real-time writing, with capabilities Google Docs and similar apps can only dream of. While I do regret pre-paying for five years of Roam (I should have stayed on the monthly plan!), I do look forward to seeing first-hand how the platform evolves … and to participating in future Roam Book Clubs, which offer a collaborative reading and writing experience that can’t be experienced elsewhere.
In the meantime, I’m over the moon about Obsidian’s potential. I’m excited that I’ve found a powerful tool I can share with new users that won’t cost them a penny to adopt and explore (unless they, like me, come to love it so much they want to invest in its development and future).
Given Obsidian’s ever-growing library of plug-ins, its rapid development cycle, the promising public roadmap, and the lively community, the future seems for Obsidian seems exceptionally bright … and I look forward to being a part of it, and to doing great work there.