Are automatic backlinks useful?

When I started using Roam, I found the way it handled backlinks to be a revelation. Other software does backlinks, but Roam’s implementation made it feel new. Suddenly, backlinks felt necessary.

I started writing everything in Roam’s Daily Notes, and I’d link things by putting brackets around each word or phrase that I thought I might want to review later. I made lots of links. After a while, I noticed that many (most?) of these linked words and phrases would end up as empty Roam pages containing nothing but backlink references.

In effect, what I was doing was creating saved searches.

I noticed something similar in my TiddlyWiki at rudimentarylathe.wiki. The automatic backlink references at the bottom of each note were in most cases links from one of the daily notes, and this ended up as a collection of backlinks like “2021.04.10 – Daily Note”. Not very helpful. Would I be better off just searching for the topic in question? I think so, so I recently changed the note footer on the wiki to do just that. It now shows a list of “tiddlers” with the most mentions of the current tiddler and also those with titles containing the same word. You know, like saved searches.

I’m starting to question the value of automatic backlinks in my notes. I still want them, but I’m not sure I need them the way I thought I did. They no longer feel necessary, but are they useful?

I started thinking about this again after re-reading Sascha Fast’s post, Backlinking Is Not Very Useful — Often Even Harmful. I had an adverse reaction to the article when I first read it. I thought it was mostly sour grapes because Roam was eating The Archive‘s lunch. I read it as, “The Archive doesn’t have automatic backlinks, so they must be bad and you don’t need them!” There was this right in the first paragraph:

Automatic backlinks are not only automatic when there is software that is showing them for you. If you create a backlink apparatus by habit it is still automatic. The automatization software would then be in your head

That felt like some rationalization gymnastics right there. I looked up “automatic” and it said, “done or occurring spontaneously, without conscious thought or intention”. A habit of manually creating links still involves conscious thought and intention.

And then the article went on to try and cast automatic backlinks as “linking notes” vs manual linking as “connecting knowledge”. I thought that was a bit of a semantic crutch.

Here’s another stretch…

Just think a moment about how difficult it really is to use the internet and its web in a productive way. The single most productivity-destroying problem with using the internet is the temptations link provide. The same is true for your Zettelkasten if your link structure is not well-groomed.

To compare the distraction of links on the internet at large to those within my own writing in a curated Zettelkasten doesn’t seem at all relevant.

I was looking for problems with the article going in, and I felt that I found them straight away, so I skimmed the rest with a jaded eye and a bad attitude.

I may have overreacted.

Now that I’ve spent a year building my notes using tools that make backlinks easy and automatic, I’m coming around to Sascha’s point of view. I have hundreds of empty “pages” containing nothing but backlinks. There’s no context, no color. No knowledge. It’s just “linking notes”. Here’s Sascha’s closing comment:

Backlinks are a perfect example on how features of software not only can be useless but actively harming you work by redirecting your attention towards to the superficial belief that you need to place links, instead of trying to connect knowledge.

I still feel that “harmful” is an exaggeration, but I better understand his point now that I’ve had some time with it.

The answer to the title of this post is, of course, “It depends”.

Many people use the term “zettelkasten” for any old pile of notes. But for a true zettelkasten, one containing notes specifically intended to help garner and build one’s knowledge over time, automatic backlinks aren’t as useful. Explicitly linking between ideas and notes and providing context for the links is much better.

For other collections of notes, though, automatic backlinks can be very helpful, even though they aren’t functionally much different from saved searches. For example, I keep notes about people I know. Having backlinks created automatically whenever I link to “Mom”, for example, is a nice way to see all of the times I’ve mentioned her, right there next to my notes about her. This, for me, is very useful. Hi mom!

5 Comments

  1. @jack I enjoyed your post and the follow-up comments. Automatic backlinking can be useful for filling in gaps, but if it’s used as a replacement for thoughtful note curation and the linking of ideas, it can be unhelpful.

    The issue I’m currently wrestling with is atomic notes vs. evergreen notes. Luhmann insisted on atomic notes because you can link lots of individual ideas together. Of course, we see how helpful that was for him. But folks like Nick Milo and Andy Mutaschak suggest taking those atomic notes and maturing them into fully formed thoughts and then deleting the atomic notes. While the evergreen notes idea makes perfect sense because you have to wrestle with your notes rather than just accumulating note after note, it also seems less flexible in the long run.

  2. @gpittman That’s a tough call! I wonder if the constraint of using physical cards influence Luhmann’s feelings on this. I like Derek Siver’s thoughts on “topic journals” which are more in the “evergreen” category, but I feel like it always depends on the goal of one’s notes. sive.rs/dj

  3. @jack That’s a great link. Thank you. I think I’ve decided that ultimately the answer isn’t either/or but both/and. Keep the atomic notes and the longform writing that results from them. Luhmann kept his atomic notes even after he wrote his many volumes. We just have to be careful not to take those atomic notes out of context and make them mean something the original source didn’t mean. That’s what Milo cautions against. It’s a fair statement, but to delete every atomic note once you’ve matured an idea in longform seems rather, well, nuclear.

  4. @jack I am still avidly using Roam, but I do think some people get carried away in makign it do too much. I think the key point to keep in mind is that search is still available in Roam, so one doesn’t have to create a link for something to be found. I use tags for the blank page of collection of back links, one way I use it is to create an overview page of all my notes about books and titled articles that I have read. I don’t automatically created wiki links to every noun in a sentence I write, I only link to items that I intend to flesh out further. Like everything, it’s about balance.

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