Obsidian vs. Roam For Running Book Clubs

Obsidian vs. Roam For Running Book Clubs

This is a version of a note I wrote in our shared Obsidian vault as part of Dan Allosso’s Obsidian Book Club on the Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow. I’m removing comments from others just because I don’t have their permission to share them.

Early Observations (2021-12-17)

Obsidian has more challenges getting started with multiplayer

I’m starting with the friction points because this is what you tend to notice at the start of the club, but there are plenty of advantages discussed in the next section!

Lack of user specific customization

There is a lack of individual customization of vaults, requiring “shell” vault for your own customization to not influence other people (see [[How to retain personal Obsidian settings]]). In Roam you can choose which settings apply to everyone or only certain people, for example a standard CSS that can be modified by individuals (though javascript always has to be opted into for security reasons). This is very easy for new users because the organizers choose the defaults and the user can leave it alone (unless they want to use custom functionality).

Also, the other issue is that given everyone is sharing the same .obsidian folder, anyone can change the settings for everyone, which makes it difficult to have strong defaults for new users, which would be nice.

Lack of clear landing page

There is no “landing page” or shared sidebar, compared with the shared sidebar in Roam and the daily notes page as a landing page. Perhaps this could be implemented using the starred pane.

Difficulty using the same page at the same time

It can be fun in Roam to all write together on the same page. This works well and sort of like a Google doc so long as you don’t have too many users at the same time (like over 100). This seems harder in Obsidian with the Dropbox merge conflicts (though I haven’t tried it).

Lack of user sandbox

It’s a little harder to isolate people’s personal notes from one another because in Obsidian it makes sense to work with a folder of [[Atomic Notes]] not a single personal page like in Roam. This means we could have a dozen “Chapter 1” notes which is kind of annoying. I recommend using a prefix or suffix in personal notes as Dan and I have done e.g. [[MKD Journal]].

Hard to see what’s been updated recently

This is something that Roam has issues with as well (easily seeing what has changed since you last visited), but you can handle this easily in Roam by linking to the Daily Notes Page, which is the first thing that shows up when a user signs in to the graph. With all the comments distributed throughout the vault, this is likely an issue. It might be nice to converge on a smaller set of places for conversation, or listing in e.g. the [[Community Dialogue]] or on our personal journal that we made a comment elsewhere. Kind of a pain, though. We could also do the dataview idea that was suggested by [[Miguel Marcos Martinez]], people need to make sure it is installed / enabled to use it though.

There isn’t a consistent URL you can link to like you can in Roam.

Obsidian May Encourage More Contribution to Shared Knowledge

Obsidian is faster and easier for browsing and organization

Especially with the addition of folders, Obsidian is much easier to browse and navigate because it’s clear what its there. It is also much easier to avoid overwhelm by realizing the root folder is getting out of control and creating homes for notes organically.

Obsidian encourages writing in prose

As Obsidian is not an outliner unlike Roam, it encourages you to write in prose. This helps make your future notes much more organized, but has the trade off that it can be harder to organize complex concepts or notes with a lot of content (though folding and the outline view in the side panel helps a lot).

Possibly because Obsidian encourages you to write in prose, it seems much more feasible to me for multiple people to easily contribute to a shared knowledge base. In Roam Book Club we often turn on a feature called immutable blocks, which prevents users from editing blocks created by other users. This was necessary because people would unintentionally delete the work of others, and Roam only has hourly backups. Dropbox seems better suited to handling potential lost information, so long as the merge conflicts are not so bad.

Obsidian has a better graph view

The graph view allows one to easily see which pages have not been created, for example, which you could then consider populating.

This is really nice because you can find potential pages to create in the [[ menu or using the Graph view, but they do not clutter up the file explorer. In Roam Book Club, we have to ban people from creating their own pages because it becomes too much of a mess, especially because pages are case sensitive (unlike in Obsidian).

File Portability

One other advantage of Obsidian is that these markdown files will be very easy to export and save later. This means they can easily be backed up to personal vaults or moved to future vaults. You can do this in Roam but it requires exporting, and if you don’t use name spaces it’s a pain in the butt to get all the files you want. (I guess this is the same constraint as using folders, though).

Overall Thoughts

I think Obsidian has a lot of promise especially if the goal is to attempt to create a [[Distributed Cognition | shared knowledge base]]. Care should be taken to help onboard new users, especially given that the best experience in Obsidian is more dependent on plugins and customization compared with Roam.

I’ve been impressed with how much people have been able to organically contribute to the vault structure so far, and also contribute to notes in the Glossary etc., without many hiccups that I can tell. One consideration is that this book is very different from the books we’ve read in Roam Book Club so far (see [[Roam Book Club#Previous Books]]]), so it’s possible we’d get that sort of engagement reading this book too, but I think it’s easier to jump in in Obsidian. People are sometimes afraid of “messing things up” in Roam.

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